There aren’t many professional cyclists that grab the headlines in the way that Mario Cipollini did, and still continues to do more than a decade after retiring (for the first time).
Last month, the 48-year-old Italian, known as ‘The Lion King’ caused a stir by posting a photo of himself sat atop one of his high-end frames, naked, flexing and with just a helmet and a pair of shoes on, his modesty preserved by his still-huge thighs.
While most businessmen — and Cipollini is a businessman — would issue an apology, saying they were foolish for not wearing a helmet, ‘Super Mario’ used the occasion to show off his body and grab some media time for his ever-popular bike brand.
The flamboyant Italian isn’t new to the publicity game; in many regards he’s a pioneer when it comes to the publicity we now see in the peloton and in the cycling industry generally. He’s one of a select few riders that has gone on to keep a high profile in the sport after retirement, and one of even fewer riders that has gone on to start up and run a successful cycling business under their own name.
So with Cipollini’s latest effort fresh in our minds we thought it an opportune moment to look back at a few of Cipo’s ‘greatest hits’. We’re not talking about his successes on the bike, as numerous as they were — 189 professional victories including a world championship, Milan-San Remo, 12 Tour de France stage wins, and a record 42 stages at the Giro d’Italia. We’re talking about the times he’s helped elevate the sport, throw it into the spotlight, caused controversy or even prompted the UCI to change the rules of the sport.
That Caesar kit
July 12 may not be a memorable date for many people, but for the Saeco team at the 1999 Tour de France it was an opportunity to celebrate Julius Caesar’s birthday and the perfect excuse to dress Cipo up as a Roman emperor. Wearing a flowing toga and a golden-leaf crown certainly is one way to sign on for a race.
Cipollini and his team lined up at the start of the Sestriere stage (won by Lance Armstrong) in a limited edition kit, the gold and white outfit differing from the usual red and white ensemble that could normally be seen lined out on the front of the peloton.
Saeco’s efforts caught plenty of people’s attention that day and the team was eventually fined by the UCI for not wearing their approved kit.
Those coloured shorts
Nowadays, the sight of a rider wearing shorts to match their Grand Tour leader’s jersey is a pretty standard affair. Cipollini, though, was a pioneer in this regard. Cannondale, the clothing manufacture for the Saeco team, was the first brand to kit out a rider in a head-to-toe colour-coordinated kit.
Sure, they may just have been different coloured shorts but wow did they generate publicity. The fact that Cannondale also matched the bike to the jersey didn’t go unnoticed either.
Those phone calls
Hanging at the back of a peloton chatting to mates isn’t anything new. It’s always been done, be it in the pro ranks, the amateur ranks or on a Sunday club ride. You hide out of the way of any action, keeping out of the wind and whiling away the hours talking rubbish to fellow riders and friends.
The difference with Cipo was the fact he was known to do some of this chatting via mobile phone, talking to friends and family back home, mid-race.
It can’t be a coincidence that the UCI decided to ban phones from the peloton around this time …
With his perfectly tailored suits, his slick haircut and his reputation for being something of a ladies’ man, Cipollini was (and still is) as famous for his off-bike persona as he was for his exploits on the bike. The Seaco team’s Italian component sponsor, Cinelli, played up to this image by adorning Mario’s bike with the Alter stem, it’s defining feature being a wide oval shape that allowed for a variety of stickers to be applied to the top; stickers often made from ’90s Playboy centrefolds.
These images obviously gave Cipollini something to look at while cruising in the bunch, waiting for the day’s sprint finish. While other riders may have used their stem in a more constructive way — by sticking the day’s route profile to it, for example — Cipo was known for not needing to know the profile of any hilly stages, often pulling the pin when the road headed upward for any length of time. Indeed he never completed a full Tour de France.
Those Northwave adverts
Though Cipollini can now be seen wearing DMT shoes in many publicity shots, Italian shoe manufacturer Northwave was a long-time sponsor of the Lion King’s. Whether you agree with their methods or not, Northwave knew how to use Cipollini and his flamboyant personality to attract attention.
On the back of cycling magazines during the late ’90s and early ’00s Mario could often be seen dressed as anything from a musketeer to a Batman-like superhero called Bikeman, almost always with a scantily-clad woman by his side or in his arms.
As a young junior I still remember seeing one of the adverts in its most “liberal euro” form on the back of the first issue of Procycling magazine in the late ’90s. Issue #2 had certain areas of the female model’s body blacked out after what I guess were multiple complaints from people who’d spotted the first edition in their local newsagent.
Those skin suits
Even though Cipollini wasn’t a time trial specialist, that never stopped him from taking the limelight at prologues. His team and sponsors must have loved coming up with ideas that would stand out from the usual team kits.
His first outing in a non-team-issue skinsuit was the now-legendary ‘skinless’ skin suit, printed to look like an atomically correct representation of his muscles. Other skinsuits saw him looking like a tiger and a blue Tron-style computer circuit board, and in his final race he had a skinsuit with all his wins printed on it.
That original Cipollini Bike video
Just watch it; it’s amazing. The production value, the serious tone, all of it just to sell a frame and launch a brand. It’s Italian indulgence at its best.
The more recent videos from the brand haven’t disappointed either. We’ve seen him as everything from a James Bond-like spy being chased by bad guys, to a futuristic Minority Report-like agent. The man really should take up acting. Or maybe not.
That smoking photo
It’s one photo that crops up on pretty much any image search you do for “Cipollini”: a shot of the man puffing away on a cigarette, mid-race. It’s in his early days while at the Mercatone Uno–Scanavino team, an early showing of what the public could expect from the Italian.
The one you may have missed (unless you’re Italian)
“What should I do after I’ve retired?” This question rumbles through the mind of many professionals once the pro contracts start to dry up and the body doesn’t respond to the gruelling demands of racing as well as it once did. Once out of the limelight it’s not hard to understand why a rider like Cipo would jump at an offer to raise his public profile again … even if it’s by appearing on a dancing show.
Cyclists are used to one sort of leg movement — that of spinning them in a circle. When Cipollini appeared on the Italian version of Dancing with the Stars he needed to learn to move his legs in rather different ways. The results are pretty, errr, special.
There we have it, just a few of Mario Cipollini’s ‘greatest publicity hits’. Love him or loathe him, there’s no denying that Cipo gave us some light-hearted entertainment throughout his racing days and beyond. And with his ever-growing bike brand I’m sure we’ve not seen the last of his shenanigans.
What are your strongest memories of this true character of the sport? Will there be another like him? Is Peter Sagan the second-coming or can you see someone else taking the showman’s crown from the Lion King?