February 24, 2008 (Santa Clarita, CA) – Italy’s Mario Cipollini has always created waves wherever he moves, whether it was competing in a pink skin suit during the Tour de France, or driving away in a new display car with the motor company hostess, disappearing for an hour with her as the public gawked in his rear view mirror. Nothing new in the Super Mario Camp, his huge contagious smile dangling like the expensive watch outside the car window.
Throughout his illustrious career, Cipollini from Florence, has revealed the gamut of Jeckyl and Hyde personalities – eccentric, an egotistical diva who’ll open the door for an elderly person first, a whiner joking at the absurdity of a detail on his custom cycling shoes, a loner who needs the public, and a gentleman lady-killer. Yet everyone agrees that Cipollini is true to his nature, and that nature (he’s a Gemini), often leaves many with their mouths open in awe and sometimes scratching their heads. At times his huge personality seems to dwarf his many achievements. At the time trial on Friday, Cipollini swerved straight over to the Specialized Angel, a pretty Spanish model in pure white, fully-plumed, in the first 100 yards winging her a big kiss putting the crowd in hysterics. It was vintage MarioS the “Lion King” was here to entertain as much as race.
The gamble to bring him back as an expensive and sexy super athlete/co-manager/model seems to be paying off each day at the Amgen Tour. Despite international cycling stars like Quick Step’s Tom Boonen (Bel) Quick Step and Paolo Bettini (Ita), the buzz is all about the rock star attitude in Mario’s corner: “The rebirth of a legend” makes for great press for Rock Racing, the all-black, uber-chic fashion company which fits Mario’s larger-than-life personality – he even dwarfs Michael Ball’s Rolls Royce parked in front of the Rock Race bus.
Why has the self-proclaimed Lion King roared back on to the scene after three years off the bike and what does a former world champion and Giro d’Italia record holder (for most stage wins) prove next at age 40?
It’s known that Cipollini owes a large sum of back taxes and this is the quickest way to repay the government so he can continue his lush lifestyle in Monaco. But is that why he chose the LA-based Rock Racing team, the “bad boy” team headed by Michael Ball, the “bling king” of biking? Ball enjoys showing up to the race everyday in a new pure black – including smoked windows – Rolls Royce with his sexy podium-girl entourage slinking around the stage in his company $300/pair jeans.
We caught up with Cipollini to find out about his plans to stay in California while he continues to race with the smallest team (five riders) at the Amgen Tour of California.
Mario, you’ve surprised the cycling world coming back, not in your prime, but still showing the competitiveness that brought you first to many finish lines at many big races. Why have you decided to choose this race and why Rock Racing?
Well, this race is like a mini Tour, and that is good for me to test myself in front of high level competition with so many other world champions to see how much I have left to give. And yes, it looks like I still have much and I’m very pleased to be back on the podium (Stage 2 in Sacramento). This Tour is not too long but it is very hard for me and the weather has been not so good, but I’m still here fighting and having a great time meeting people and finding my rhythm.
Is Rock Racing the team that wanted you most?
They are a very professional team with so much talent and good organization that takes care of us. And I have found friends here that make me want to look for a good realtor and live in LA (laughing) – but I don’t know, I have to think about it.
And Michael Ball (Rock Racing owner), what is it about his philosophy that made you sign with him rather than another team?
Well, I’ve always wanted to be the Director Sportif of a professional cycling team, and we have discussed how I can best help this team which can win many races and give them a new chance to show their abilities. Michael is a good guy, he comes from a different life than most in the cycling world. He’s not always easy to understand but I’m difficult too (laughing)! I will help this team out in many ways and we are still deciding how it will go. We are a not a traditional team, and I like that, and Michael is not traditional, I respect thatSwe both push ourselves to be better.
And pushing the rules, is that better for cycling?
Yes, sometimes you must fight to push the rules so that everyone can talk about why the rules need to change. It is a sport that I love and I want it to grow so that it will be stronger here and in Europe – and around the world. It is necessary to look at the rules closer, they must change to help our sport when it is suffering like it is these days.
You’ve got Fast Freddy Rodriguez , the sprinter who you beat twice in 2002 taking away his fire and if it weren’t for you, he’d be a world famous cyclist of another caliber – now that you are on the same team. How does it feel to work with your former competition and as you don’t have a long “train’ headed by Lombardi anymore – what are the dynamics of your team?
Freddy is cool, we speak in Italian mostly, we have a good relationship. I am here to compete, but I am also enjoying the dream – this little dream that when I wake up and look around at the race, I can’t stop smiling. It’s so fun to be back racing and feeling the emotions of the peloton – it’s my big family. It brings back so many good things to me, and I am strong enoughS it surprises me that I can do well so early in the year. I hope Freddy and I will have a chance to work together and find a stage to lead out, we’ll see.
What is your year going to be like? Will you be competing only in the US or will you return to Europe as well?
I will return home in Europe, yes, but it is not clear yet where we will be competing. But yes, the Tour of Georgia for the second time, and other important races for sure.
I hope so, it depends on the bureaucratic problems they need to work out, but I hope so. I want to be there again and feel the sensations of my roads.
You are a veteran of many epic cycling battles, what advice can you give a young rider entering into cycling?
He has to want to live a special life, to live within the mind. Everything is important, the food he eats, the way he thinks, the things he does every day, every day. He must want to sacrifice for this. Having my experience, I know it’s all the little things that make a good cyclist and a consistent winner – I don’t take anything for granted, doing the homework on and off the bike is so important. You must have special antennae to monitor the feelings of your teammates and the others.
Did you come back for the money or did you miss the limelight and possibility of returning while you still could do some damage?
Yes, the money is important, but it is a passion and love for this that makes me return after three years, but I have been active in cycling all along. You can’t just do it for the money, you have to love cycling. I missed it too much, and hope to show that although I am 40 now, I still have the mind of a 20-year-old, be careful!
Super Mario, the Lion King, do you still want to attempt to demolish the field?
So ok, I’m not the Lion King with a big roar, but I can still purr really well and enjoy this wonderful feeling being back. I’m waking up every day with a big smile, and what do I need? I am in California, the girls, the weather, the food, sono contento, non c’e male questa vita (I’m happy, this life isn’t bad)!