The sins of Mario Cipollini

Mario Cipollini is one of cycling's most beloved and enduring characters. But in the wake of serious allegations of violence against female family members, the colourful Italian's darker side can no longer be ignored.

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There are few riders as iconic or enduring as Mario Cipollini, who over a long and storied career won the hearts and minds of the spectating public with almost 200 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.

The colourful Italian is second only to Eddy Merckx in Grand Tour stage wins, and continues to have a larger-than-life presence that sees him a genuine celebrity in his homeland and treated as equal parts legend and punchline abroad. Cipollini – immaculately attired, gleaming, ripped – remains a popular sight at races and on the promotional circuit, where he is beloved for his flashy machismo.

But along with his charisma, there’s a viciousness to the Lion King.

It’s only in the past few months – following dual allegations of violence against female family members – that cycling fans are being forced to confront a darker side to Mario Cipollini.

The allegations

On March 20, Mario Cipollini will appear in a Lucca court. He’ll face a preliminary hearing to answer to allegations of violence and stalking relating to a series of incidents in December 2016 and January 2017. The complainant is his former wife, Sabrina Landucci, who was married to Cipollini from 1993 to 2006.

The former couple have two daughters together, a fact that Landucci says motivated her desire to speak publicly against Cipollini. “I reluctantly wrote to protect not only myself but my two daughters; I had no alternative as a mother and as a woman … Do not ask me more, please. I would have preferred that my complaint remained confidential,” she told Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera in 2017.

According to Corriere Della Sera’s report, Cipollini allegedly “performed a series of acts damaging the physical and mental integrity” of Landucci, through “punches, slaps, kicks … injuries and death threats”. Landucci’s partner, Silvio Giusti, was also threatened.

In one incident, Cipollini allegedly assaulted Landucci at her workplace “in front of colleagues and clients”. According to Landucci, “he grabbed my neck and then banged my head against the wall … I had to go to the emergency room.”

Landucci also alleges that he told her: “I’ll kill you. You’ll hear the sound of the bones when they break.”

Under Italian law, Cipollini could face multiple charges, including between two and six years imprisonment for mistreatment within the family, and six months to four years for communicating threats.

Serious as Landucci’s allegations are, they’re cast in an even more shocking light given that they do not exist in isolation; the former world champion has form in this regard.

In December, Tiziana Cipollini – Mario’s sister – reported him to authorities for a physical altercation in April 2017 in which he allegedly beat and threatened her.

In July 2019, four months after he’ll face a judge over the alleged assault on his ex-wife, Cipollini will return to that Lucca court in relation to this second incident. The complaint alleges that he struck and hit Tiziana until she fell to the ground, whilst threatening her and family members.

The cult of Cipollini

In his retirement, the cult of Mario Cipollini has remained curiously durable. As a rider, he was synonymous with a particularly Italian brand of flamboyance that saw him making headlines and courting controversy throughout his career. Smoking in the peloton? Taking phone calls at the back of the bunch? Countless outlandish costumes? All moments Cipollini is remembered fondly for.

After ending his racing career, he started a high-end bike brand, Cipollini, which leans heavily on its founder as a marketing tool – whether in character as a James Bond, or completely nude. His penchant for flashing his rippling physique, along with trysts with models and a stint on Dancing with the Stars, has ensured he’s never far from the headlines.

But some of Cipollini’s marketing efforts have proven somewhat tone-deaf, including aspects relating to his brand’s sponsorship of a women’s WorldTour team, Ale-Cipollini. See, for instance, his presence at a team training camp in 2012. Charitably, it’s clumsy marketing. Uncharitably, he looks an awful lot like he’s mansplaining how to pedal to a team of accomplished female professional cyclists.

Prior to the recent allegations of violence against women, enlightened attitudes around sex and gender had never been Cipollini’s strong suit. In a 2018 Rouleur interview, Cipollini bragged about his sexual conquests: “If I only had 198 women, the same numbers as my victories, I’d have to be considered a loser” (no kudos to the grubby line of questioning from the interviewer that garnished this response). Twenty-five years earlier, Cipollini used a sexual analogy for winning, because of course he did: “an orgasm only lasts for a few seconds, a victory lasts forever”.

This is also a man that rode with a picture of Pamela Anderson on his Cinelli Alter stem, is on record as saying, “If I wasn’t a rider, I’d be a porn star”, and bragged about showing up at the Tour’s Grand Départ “with my own Cleopatra, who was a stripper” alongside his Julius Caesar.

A sporting legacy

As a professional cyclist of the 1990s and 2000s, there are all the usual question marks and plenty of asterisks hanging over Cipollini’s results. But there are also concerns over his sporting conduct, with violence and shady ethics punctuating his career.

In 2000, Cipollini was thrown out of the Vuelta a Espana and suspended by his team Saeco, following a brawl with fellow rider Francisco Javier Cerezo which led to Cerezo needing three stitches after being struck in the face.

Three years later, Cipollini was disqualified from the 2003 Ghent-Wevelgem after throwing a water bottle at a race official on a motorbike as he overtook Cipollini at full speed. As the unnamed race official pointed out (with not a little understatement) afterwards, “… a water bottle thrown at that speed is very dangerous.”

As a cyclist, his hot temper was never far beneath the surface. In a wide-ranging feature for Procycling in October 2014, Daniel Friebe chronicles a number of times that Cipollini’s role as patron of the peloton overstepped the mark and turned into bullying.

There are echoes of Lance Armstrong’s treatment of Filippo Simeoni in Cipollini’s reaction to an attack by Miguel Martinez. “Martinez … recalls launching an attack in a race in 2002 and feeling Cipollini’s giant paw on his helmet moments later, then his skull being rotated like a joystick,” Friebe writes. “‘If you ever do that again, I’ll see to it that you never start another race,’ Cipollini apparently threatened.”

Cipollini had a clear vision for the way he wanted cycling to look and feel. In 2012, he reflected on cycling’s stars in an interview. “When you used to look at Hinault, you saw a good-looking bloke. Indurain, fuck, he was handsome. Strong men. Merckx, bloody hell, he was like an actor …” Cipollini said. And of the top riders of the day, Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck, he had the following to offer: “Contador and Schleck congratulating each other by giving each other a little tap on the top of the Tourmalet … You’d think they were a pair of gays.”

And then, of course, there’s the doping allegations.

In a February 2013 report in La Gazzetta dello Sport, Cipollini was linked to the disgraced doctor, Eufemiano Fuentes. Among the allegations: that over four years, Cipollini had paid Fuentes over €130,000 for human growth hormone, EPO, testosterone and blood transfusions, including two blood bags in the lead up to his 2002 World Championships win, and 25 blood bags throughout 2003, a period when his career was beginning to wane following the pinnacle of the year before.

Cipollini and his legal team declined to comment to La Gazetta‘s accusations, other than the threat of unspecified “consequences”, but in the end didn’t need to lift a finger: despite the compelling evidence piled up against Cipollini, his popularity with the tifosi carried him through the scandal almost untouched.

Two months later, the French senate released a list of riders who’d tested positive for traces of EPO in retroactive results from the 1998 Tour de France. On that list: Cipollini.

Neither report did much damage to Cipollini’s image, either at home or abroad. The popular Italian continued to commentate on Italian television, had a gran fondo instituted in his honour, and made presumably well-paid public appearances in the US and further afield.

As recently as this year, Cipollini – breathlessly described by event organisers as ‘Mario the Magnificent’ – was slated to attend the Tour Down Under to appear at a $250-per-head Legend’s Night dinner. It was only at a time suspiciously coinciding with Tiziana Cipollini’s allegations that Cipollini’s visit was cancelled due to unelaborated-upon ‘personal reasons’.

Mario Cipollini at the 2018 Giro d’Italia.

The situation really boils down to this: one of cycling’s most successful and prominent public figures, who helms a prestigious bike brand, sponsors a women’s WorldTour team, and continues to be adored by a certain breed of cycling fans, has a long history of dubious behaviour and pending court cases in relation to serious allegations of violence against women.

It’s an uncomfortable truth, possessing none of Mario Cipollini’s trademark flair or flamboyance. But maybe cycling shouldn’t be masturbating over the memory of a misogynist any more.

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