The Emporer versus the Usurper

By Andrew Hood

Scote one for the young guy

Scote one for the young guy

Photo: Getty Images

This story appears in the current issue of VeloNews

MARIO CIPOLLINI AND ALESSANDRO PETACCHI are a study in contrasts.

Cipollini is the flamboyant showman who brings kitschy glam to cycling,while Petacchi is the hardworking pupil, anxious to fulfill his potential.Super Mario is cycling’s extroverted showman, the man who showed up atthe start of a stage in the 1999 Tour de France dressed in a toga and waspulled around by his similarly clad teammates in a rigged-up chariot. “Veni,vidi, vici [I came, I saw, I conquered],” Cipollini boasted after scoringfour stage wins, then promptly abandoning the race.

Petacchi, meanwhile, is the reluctant star. Quiet and wary of the spotlight,he’s more apt to calmly sip a cappuccino before a stage than to dress histeammates up like Romans heading for a weekend bacchanalia.

This season Cipollini and Petacchi are on different trajectories intheir respective careers. At 30, Petacchi is at the height of his powersand is coming off a breakthrough 29-win season, including a historicalstreak of four or more stage victories in each of the grand tours.

At 37, Cipollini is desperately fighting to rediscover his mojo. Followinghis own magical 2002 season — when he won Milan-San Remo, inched withinone victory of Alfredo Binda’s Giro record of 41 stage wins and cappedit with the world championship in Belgium — Super Mario wasn’t so superlast season.

Now these contrasts in style and attitude are going head-to-head ina battle of the sprinters at the 87th Giro d’Italia.

THE KING WANTS HIS CROWN BACK
Cipollini does not dislike Petacchi, but he hates sharing the spotlightwith anyone. And lately, the mild-mannered Petacchi has been grabbing alot of attention, all at Cipollini’s expense. “The media have given Petacchithe title of the world’s fastest sprinter after just one season,” Cipollinigrumbled in February. “It took me 15 years to earn that respect.”

The “fastest sprinter in the world” is an unofficial crown Cipollinihas worn since the mid-1990s, but the veteran Tuscan abruptly lost hislaurels to the upstart Petacchi last season. While Petacchi won stagesat the Giro (six wins and six days in the race leader’s jersey), the Tour(four stages) and the Vuelta (five stages), Cipollini muddled through withjust four victories.

What was supposed to be Cipollini’s season of glory in the world champion’srainbow jersey turned out to be the worst of his lengthy career. He crashedout of the Giro after breaking Binda’s record and never really made itback. His brief return to action in September’s Vuelta a España,where he crashed and then abandoned after the first stage, so angered raceorganizers that they vowed never to invite Cipollini back.

Despite long training sessions in South Africa and Tuscany during thewinter, Cipollini has stumbled out of the gate in 2004. He scored a victoryat the Mediterranean Tour, but has yet to beat Petacchi (the two facedoff at the Giro della Lucca in February and Tirreno-Adriatico in March).The flu floored Cipollini’s chances at Milan-San Remo, and he retreatedto his beloved Tuscan hills to rebound for the Giro.
All these struggles are bad for Cipollini’s pride, but good for theracing fan.When Cipollini and his ego are down, you can always count ona dramatic comeback.

“I’m looking forward to a challenge with Petacchi,” Cipollini said.“Last year was a tough year for me, and I really want to show what kindof rider I am.”

Coming into the Giro, Cipollini will be backed by Domina Vacanze, ateam largely built around his prowess in the sprint and perhaps the bestset-up team in the business. GC man Michele Scarponi is skipping the Giroto focus on the Tour, so Cipollini’s team will be working entirely forhim.

“I see a great battle between the train of Fassa Bortolo and my train,”Cipollini said. “It’s a challenge that absolutely inspires me, and it’sa challenge that I absolutely want to win.”

Although Cipollini broke Binda’s mark last year, he was overshadowedby Petacchi, who won six stages and wore the maglia rosa for thefirst week of the Giro. That’s the kind of quality podium time Cipolliniis accustomed to, and he vows to get back.

“I love the adrenaline of racing. Last season was not how I had hoped,”Cipollini said. “I am motivated to make a strong season and show everyonewho the world’s best sprinter is.”

Even more motivating for Cipollini is his return to the Tour. He hasn’tbeen back since his toga stunt in 1999, and he almost retired last year,crushed that he wasn’t allowed to start the Tour while wearing the rainbowjersey. But Tour de France director Jean-Marie Leblanc — perhaps realizinghe needs the charismatic sprinter to lighten up the opening week of racingbefore the first mountains — has allowed Cipollini another shot at thesport’s biggest race.

USURPER TO THE CROWN
No one ever said the crown prince had to be more glamorous than theking. Petacchi shies away from comparisons to Cipollini and insists he’snot out to dethrone anyone; he shrugs off his amazing 2003 run and simplysays it was a matter of hitting his stride.

“It’s a normal thing that we’re compared, we’re two Italian riders.We are at the highest levels of the sprint, but we’re different kinds ofriders,” Petacchi said. “I can make it over the climbs better than Mario.You can see that at the Giro. I won stages after the mountains.”

Petacchi realizes it’s inevitable that the zealous Italian press isgoing to play up the duel.While there is a host of other top sprintersin the mix, having two top Italians spar in the Giro is simply good forbusiness. “It’s normal that the press builds up this rivalry between us,”Petacchi said. “It’s good for cycling. During the race, Mario is a rival,but off the bike there are no problems.”

Reserved and unassuming, Petacchi sometimes needs to be nudged intothe fray. Indeed, he is so proper in the rough-and-tumble world of bunchsprints that he’s earned the nickname “The Gentleman.” And despite winningsix stages in the Giro, Petacchi wasn’t so keen on the Tour until FassaBortolo boss Giancarlo Ferretti convinced him that he was on the form ofhis career. The legendary sport director had
to reanimate his protégé yet again for the Vuelta.

“No one could ever have imagined that I would have had a season likeI did,” Petacchi said. “That season changed for me when I won the firststage of the Giro and won the maglia rosa. That changed everythingfor me. It gave me extra motivation and drive.”

In Petacchi’s case, quiet years of hard work away from the headlinespaid off handsomely. Petacchi won just one race in his first four yearsas a pro, but took nine victories in 2000, including a Vuelta stage.

Petacchi didn’t win his first Giro stage until last year, a long droughtfor an Italian sprinter. If there’s a chink in Petacchi’s sprinting armorit’s been his inability to win a long one-day classic. His critics arequick to point out that Petacchi weakens in anything longer than 200km.Last year at Paris-Tours and again this spring in Milan-San Remo, Petacchiwilted in the final drive to the line when he seemed to have victory inhis hands. Oscar Freire (Rabobank) took the victory at Milan-San Remo inMarch while Petacchi settled for fourth, his legs al dente.

“I lost in a similar manner at Paris-Tours,” Petacchi admits. “I hada great team to help me and I disappointed them, which is the thing thatbothers me the most. I simply didn’t have the legs for the sprint and perhapsI went a little too soon.”

The San Remo meltdown has been Petacchi’s lone disappointment this season.He’s clearly in command of the sprints, taking six victories going intomid-April. Those results only bolster Petacchi’s growing confidence. “BeforeI was the one looking for the wheel of the stronger rider, but now theyare looking to be on my wheel,” he said. “It puts me in the superior positionbecause they have to come around me, not me around someone else.”

The battle lines are drawn. It’s Domina Vacanze’s zebra train againstFassa Bortolo’s silver and blue. Cipollini vs. Petacchi, the emperor vs.the usurper.