To Italians, cycling is life. Even the most obscure city-centre criterium garners great interest, with a smattering of gnarled old faces peering over their Limoncello at the new young bucks racing their gleaming carbon machines.
When one of their own breaks into the WorldTour, they grow into superstars. When that person already thinks of himself as a cross between James Hunt and James Bond, a legend is born. Meet il Re Leone, The Lion King, the great Mario Cipollini.
There were few riders like Cipo. There have been few since. There were none before. He was the sprinter of the nineties and early noughties. Even when he wasn’t winning – or even in the race – he was making the headlines.
The Cipo legend is one of mid-race, wine-soaked parties, glorious victories, fights with race directors and ludicrous race suits; he was as celebrated for his showmanship as his sprinting. Never one to shy away from a good time and a bit of self-publicity, but seemingly pathologically averse to French mountains, he is the man who smoked cigarettes while riding, who was papped having sex with a glamour model on a public beach, who would – allegedly – send photographs of himself from the beach to Tour rivals suffering on climbs, having accomplished his race mission with stage wins in the opening week.
But of course there is more to Mario than the myth. A phenomenally powerful sprinter, his career highlights include the road race in the 2002 World Championships, Milan-Sanremo, a frankly ludicrous 42 Giro, 12 Tour and three Vuelta stage victories, plus a good smattering of one-day races.