An anonymous e-mail sent Tuesday afternoon quietly marked the end of an era in modern cycling.
At 38, and definitely a pedal stroke or two past his prime, Mario Cipollini – the Lion King, Ruler of the Sprints and the Master of Kitsch – said it was time to hang up the cleats.
“Announcing my withdrawal less than two weeks before the Giro d’Italia is a painful but honest decision. The public will understand,” said Cipollini in a statement released by his team, Liquigas. “Maybe, an ‘old man’ like me, who has given a lot to cycling and has also received a lot, has to recognize when is the right moment to stop.”
With those few words, cycling lost its most incandescent star. Though lately faded, Cipollini’s light still shined bright on the international stage.
His palmares reflected an ambitious, extroverted Tuscan who loved to win in dramatic flare and follow it up with off-the-bike hijinks: 189 wins, one world title, a record 42 stage victories in the Giro, 12 in the Tour and three in Vuelta.
Racing, after all, is entertainment and there was no better entertainer in the past decade than the blonde-haired, tall man with the baritone voice from Lucca.
His retirement announcement came rather discreetly for a man who once dressed up like Julius Caesar and was pulled around a Tour de France start village in a chariot next to a stripper named Cleopatra.
The team donned special team jerseys with Veni, vidi, vici emblazoned across the front. After the perfunctory fine from the UCI and the publicity assured, the Lion King quickly disappeared into his den of sin before the first real climb.
Cipollini never liked a road that went vertical, especially at the Tour de France, where he had career-long a love-hate relationship with the grande boucle. After his 1999 stunt, Cipollini wasn’t invited back until 2004. By then, his best years were behind him and he abandoned in the first week without winning a stage.
Despite winning 12 stages and wearing the yellow jersey six days, Cipo never finished one of the eight Tours he started.
Like a cycling god among mere mortals, he regularly clashed with cycling’s conventional wisdom.
The Vuelta a España swore never to invite him or his team back after the disastrous 2003 edition when the reluctant world champion showed up out-of-form, rode the opening team time trial and just as fast slipped onto a waiting flight and returned to Italy.
Vuelta officials were rabid; they wanted the rainbow jersey in their race and had invited his Domina Vacanze team with the caveat that Cipollini had to race. He did, for one day, and the team – now morphed into Naturino-Sapore di Mare – should never expect another invitation to Spain.
Cipollini paid more respect to the Giro d’Italia and the ever-loyal tifosi. Cipollini would suffer through the mountains to arrive in Milan to fight for the laurels of the final sprint. He won three points jerseys to show for the effort.
Ever the charmer, he would show up at press conferences and work the room better than any politician. The press loved him and so did his fans. And so did, if you believed the stories, many of the podium girls along the way. He was a Lothario on two wheels.
While many of today’s up and coming stars prefer to let their legs do the talking – or perhaps have nothing interesting to say – Cipollini loved to hold court in front of adoring Italian journalists who would lap up his one-liners. Once after winning a Giro stage, Cipollini offered if he hadn’t been a professional bike racer, he’d fancy himself a porn star.
Cipollini was a showman through and through, and played to the crowds and especially the cameras. Cipo could hold center court like no other rider of his generation.
Only Cipollini could wear a pink scarf, an orange shirt, a blue suede dinner jacket and Euro-trash pointed boots – and pull it off!
I’ve never seen a racer – or even a man for that matter – have a complete change of clothes for each meal of the day, but that’s just what Cipollini brought for a weekend trip to Sharm El-Sheik, Egypt, for the team presentation in 2003.
Cipollini and team owner Ernesto Preatori (think Donald Trump with Italian class) flew 200 guests, team members, VIPs, journalists and hanger’s-on down to the posh resort he owned along the Red Sea for a weekend of off-the-record debauchery.
Cipollini showed up with luggage fit for the world champion that he was. In the morning, his breakfast outfit included a complete, matching all-white sweat suit, then the team would ride across the deserts of the Sinai Peninsula. For lunch, there was another matching all-blue sweat suit.
Then the Lion King would retire to the pool (in a tanga, no less) with a bevy of beauties on his arm, before returning for dinner replete in another Italian fashion disaster, only to change clothes yet again for the nighttime bacchanal at the disco.
He was more than a showman, of course, and backed up his histrionics with impressive victories. At the peak of his powers – in the mid to late 1990s – Cipollini had no peer in the final 200 meters of a sprint.
His zenith came in 2002, when he finally won Milan-San Remo, took a third Gent-Wevelgem as well as six stages in the Giro and three in the Vuelta, all before winning the rainbow jersey.
From that high, things started slowly to unravel. He won just four races in 2003 wearing the world champion’s jersey and only two in 2004 as his once-formidable set-up train was derailed by Fassa Bortolo and Alessandro Petacchi.
This spring, after signing with Liquigas-Bianchi, Cipollini seemed to be back on track, winning stages at the Tour of Qatar and the Giro di Lucca, where he beat arch-rival Petacchi head-to-head.
After finishing with the main group at Milan-San Remo in March, the aging lion admitted the end was near. Cipollini promised to return to the Giro, but perhaps he feared a humiliation against Petacchi and a new batch of sprinters, and that pushed him toward retirement.
Both on and off the bike, the Lion King roared like no other.
Cycling will be all the poorer without him.