Mario Cipollini (born in Lucca, March 22, 1967) is a retired Italian professional road cyclist most noted for his sprinting ability and his colourful personality.
His career highlights include winning the Elite Men's Road Race of the 2002 Road World Championships, the classic Milan-San Remo the same year, and a total of 42 stages in the Giro d'Italia. Cipollini's 42nd Giro stage win in 2003 broke the previous record held by Alfredo Binda that had stood since 1933. He also won 12 stages in the Tour de France and three stages in the Vuelta a España. In the 1999 Tour de France he led the peloton on the fastest stage in the history of the Tour, averaging more than 50 km/h over 195 km. In the same edition of the Tour, he won 4 stages and set the record for the greatest number of consecutive stage wins.
At the peak of his career his top speed was unrivaled, and he is often credited with being the first rider with a sprint train built around his sprinting ability. The sight of the Saeco/Cannondale red train taking control at the front of the peloton in the final kilometer was familiar in many of the grand tours. The train kept the speed so high as to make breakaways in the final kilometers difficult, and to push the tempo so high that Cipollini was the only sprinter able to keep up the final speed. This concept changed the way teams approach mass sprints tactically, and bred a new generation of sprinters such as fellow Italian Alessandro Petacchi.
Cipollini made it no secret that he did not like climbing stages, and earned the ire of the directors of the Tour de France by his habit of quietly slipping into the team car and returning to Italy after the flat stages so as not to be seen struggling in the mountains. He was left out of the Tour de France in 1999-2003. He later drew the ire of the organizers of the Vuelta a España after quitting the race immediately following the prologue time trial. His team had been invited to participate only with the condition that Cipollini participate in the race. He defended himself by stating that he was recovering from injury and should not have been forced to do the race in the first place.
The beginning of 2002 saw Cipollini win the classic race Milan-San Remo with his new Acqua-Sapone team, and later the Gent-Wevelgem race. However, another falling out with the organizers of the Tour de France made him announce his retirement. Italian national coach Franco Ballerini convinced him to return to competition, and built the Italian national team around Cipollini for the 2002 UCI World Cycling Championship. Flawless tactics and execution saw Cipollini earn the rainbow jersey as the world champion in a sprint finish in Zolder, Belgium.
In the 2003 Giro d'Italia Cipollini focused on trying to beat Alfredo Binda's record of 41 Giro stage wins while donning the world champion's jersey. His attempt was almost derailed by the emergence of fellow Italian sprinter Alessandro Petacchi of the Fassa Bortolo team. After many failed attempts, he finally equaled and broke the record, although he had to abandon in the next stage due to injuries sustained in a crash. He later said that the crash had effectively ended his career. His team Domina Vacanze was again left out of the Tour de France that year, prompting a comment from Cipollini that the organizers disrespected the rainbow jersey. The 2004 Giro saw Cipollini drop out without any stage wins due to another crash.
Cipollini's powerful performances on the bike sometimes risked being eclipsed by his flamboyant manner and lifestyle off of it. His height, good looks and mane of hair earned him the nickname Lion King, and he also proudly adopted other names, including Super Mario and Mario the Magnificent. Famous for trading his team uniform for outrageous skinsuits, especially in the Prologue individual time trial stages of the Giro d'Italia, he also appeared one year at the start of the Tour de France wearing a toga and riding in a chariot pulled by his teammates. His personal wardrobe consisted of hundreds of suits, neckties and pairs of shoes, many of which he confessed had never been worn. In 2002 he was arrested for motorpacing in an Italian autostrada. Upon receiving the fine, he commented that it was the only place where he could safely get up to his top speed for training. Although he was often criticized for his antics, he responded that he helped generate a lot of coverage for his sponsors because of them, and that it was all part of his showmanship.
Regarding fellow cyclists, however, Cipollini could be quite humble. After breaking Alfredo Binda's record for Giro stage wins he remarked that he would have been happy "just to polish [Binda's] shoes." Reacting to the 2004 death of the star-crossed Italian climber Marco Pantani, Cipollini said, "I am devastated. It's a tragedy of enormous proportions for everyone involved in cycling. I'm lost for words."
After having vowed to retire several times in his career, usually in a public fit of pique, Cipollini finally made good on his promise on April 26, 2005, one week before the start of the 2005 Giro. His swan song was to participate in a ceremonial prologue of the Giro wearing a fluorescent pink skinsuit listing his 42 stage wins.