Today’s stage finishes in Cagliari on the south coast of Sardinia. The last rider to cross the line there first in a stage of the Giro d’Italia was Alessandro Petacchi in 2007. But as he was found to have high levels of salbutamol in his system later on in the race his results were annulled*. So the last rider to cross the line first in Cagliari and still be the official winner is Mario Cipollini.
It was 1991 and the victory was the 24 year old’s 4th Giro stage win, it was evident that he was hungry and able to win plenty more. Confident as the youngster was though he might not have thought at some point he would be gunning for Alfredo Binda’s record number of stage wins at the Giro. The benchmark of 41 had stood firm since 1933. Learco Guerra came closest to it with 31 stages by the end of the 30’s and Eddy Merckx had “only” managed 24 through the 60’s and 70’s.
But Cipollini had arrived in a different time than Binda, Guerra and Merckx. The era of epic performances in black and white was over, the colour television age had arrived and ‘Super Mario’ knew how to benefit from this time both on and off the bike. Cippo forged himself a flamboyant image and is as well known for the tiger print and muscle skin suits he wore during time trials than he is for his wins. As the years pass he is getting known for wearing less and less as he wastes no opportunity to show off his impressive physique. One of his many nicknames is the “Italian Stallion” and according to his Wikipedia page he is rumoured to be a womaniser. All of this made him incredibly marketable and very rich but he also needed to be winning to keep his legend alive.
Thankfully, on the bike he was also benefiting from what the new era in cycling brought. This was a time for well drilled teams able to cope under intense pressure. Specialist sprinters such as Cipollini had never had it so good. Cipollini is credited as having the first sprint train and he had a whole team dedicated to him during flat stages and saving their powder in the mountains. With more live coverage, more cameras and more information of what was going on in the race there were fewer successful breakaways. The teams working for the sprinters could let the escapees hang for a while before reeling them in at the end in well practiced moves. This new way of racing benefited the incredibly fast Cipollini but 41 stages would still be a tough ask to beat.
By the end of the 91 tour his tally was up to 6 and 4 wins the next year (where he also won his first points jersey) took him into double figures. He didn’t ride the next two Giri and after winning two stages in 1995 he had 12 stages to his name but had already reached the age of 28. Up to this point he had also been riding in the Tour de France, and to great success. He had been winning stages there too and had even worn the yellow jersey for a few days but he was coming to realise that it was the Giro that he loved the most. He only really turned up for the first few sprint stages before abandoning the Tour and the furthest he got in the race was stage 11 in 1993. The organisers eventually had enough and stopped inviting him and his team. But this meant he could concentrate on getting to the magical 42.
The next four years saw him win 17 more stages, at least 4 per edition, and he was up to 29 stages though he was now 32 years old and should have been in the twilight of his career. The 2000 Giro put a dent in his chances. He won the 3rd stage in Scalea but was then disqualified by the race jury for not holding his line. He did win the next stage but abandoned on stage 13. He was up to 30 and 3rd equal with the original legend of Italian cycling Costante Girardengo but hadn’t even reached a third of Binda’s total. 4 wins in 2001 would have been enough for most 34 year olds to retire on the top but Cipollini was determined to get the record even hauling his big frame through the mountains to win the final stage in Milan, something he would have turned his nose up at in the Tour de France.
So at the start of 2002 Cipollini had 34 Giro d’Italia stage wins. He was about to turn 35 but was about to have his best season yet. He won his first monument classic at Milan-San Remo then added his third Gent-Wevelgem to his palmares to show he was in fine form before the start of the Giro. He won six stages and his third points jersey in dominant fashion. He was now one stage behind Binda in the all time list and after winning the world championships in Limburg at the end of the season he knew he would be going for the record in the rainbow stripes.
2003 saw the emergence on the big time, at the age of 29, of another Italian sprinter, the aforementioned Alessandro Petacchi. “Ale Jet” had won stages at the Vuelta before but never at the Giro, he would eventually bag 22 by his late 30’s. Petacchi won the opening stage, easily out-sprinting Cipollini, and was in the Maglia Rosa. Things didn’t look great for Cippo when got dropped in the 3rd and 4th stages in the medium mountains with his sprint train now working for Danielle Bennati. Petacchi meanwhile was holding onto the pink jersey and again out-sprinted Cipollini on stages 5 and 6. Finally on stage 8 ‘The Lion Kings’ sprint train in their zebra print lycra had got their act together and parachuted Cipollini perfectly into the final few meters of the finish at Arezzo and the big man managed to edge out his new foe Petacchi to equal the record. The very next day the Domina Vacanze-Elitron team followed the same formula, Robbie McEwen came close to throwing a spanner in the works but Cippo wasn’t to be denied. He was now the all time stage winner at the Giro.
Two days later he suffered a bad crash in a dangerously wet finish and abandoned. He never won another stage again.
*Petacchi, who suffered from asthma, had a TUE for salbutamol but a urine test after stage 11 showed levels of the drug that were above what was a therapeutically accepted level. Petacchi argued that he had an additional puff of his inhaler by mistake and the case ended up in the CAS who ruled against him.
In fairness to Petacchi it is worth pointing out that Cipollini has been linked by the Gazzetta dello Sport to Dr Eufemiano Fuentes and a doping sample of his from the 1998 Tour was found to have EPO in it when retested in 2004.