It appears the news that Italian super sprinter Mario Cipollini has signed with Rock Racing were a bit premature. That doesn't mean that Cipo is heading back to the land of fine wine and pasta for good. It just means that the negotiations aren't over. Where's Donald Trump when you need him? Personally, I hope Mario signs and has a presence in the US. I am sure The Donald would allow him to be a judge at his Miss America pageant.
In light of being in limbo over Super Mario's future, I thought I would recount my most favorite story about the flamboyant Italian. In 2002, I was covering the spring classic in Northern France and Belgium for Cycle Sport Magazine. It was a blast. If you have never been to the classics, you should go and don't forget to bring your bike and some warm and waterproof clothing.
Anyway, the Tour of Flanders ranks just behind Paris-Roubaix in prestige and some consider it even more difficult. This is the event to win if you are Belgian. The great Belgian cyclist Peter Van Petegem once told me that after he won the Tour of Flanders he never had to worry about getting a speeding ticket (and boy did he love to drive his Volvo 760 fast). When he would get pulled over the cops would recognize him and just let him go. Unfortunately, Belgium is implementing a lot of photo radar and Van Petegem mused that his lead-footed days were soon to be over.
Hey, but this is about Mario and here's the story. The Tour of Flanders is around 165-miles long and has about 20 named short climbs most of which are cobbled and reach grades of up to 23%. In 2002, Cipollini, who is nota noted climber and seems to disappear on all but the flattest of courses, was leading the UCI World Cup, the precursor to the current Pro Tour. As such he felt a need to defend his leader's jersey and rode exceptionally strongly to win the field sprint and finish 9th overall.
As Cipo crossed the line, a female TV reporter approached him and asked, "Do you want a massage?" Now you have to remember that Mario had just ridden 165 of the hardest miles there are in pro cycling, something that would have left lesser men near collapse. But not Cipo. He looked straight at the reporter and asked, "Are we talking a therapeutic massage or a sexual massage?" The reporter answered, "a therapeutic massage." Mario responded, "a therapeutic massage? No, not a therapeutic massage."
This is the time of year when the professional cycling teams hold their pre-season training camps and one of the first teams out of the blocks is the BMC Professional Cycling Team. This is former Team Phonak owner Andy Rhis' squad and with the addition this year of John Lelangue, who directed Floyd Landis to victory in the 2006 Tour de France, and who will share the team director responsibilities with current DS Gavin Chilcott they are looking to take it up a notch in 2008.
Founded in 2006 as a US regional team, they upgraded to a full-blown US pro squad in 2007 and with the addition of riders such as Scott Moninger, Scott Nydam, Jackson Stewart, Jonathan Garcia and ex-Phonak rider Alexander Moos they were ready to play with the best teams in America and beyond. Moninger nearly pulled off a huge win at Redlands and Nydam finished a respectable sixth place in the Tour of Georgia while battling a number of European Pro Tour teams. The capper came with a win in the team time trial at the Giro del Friuli Venezia Giuli in Italy becoming the first all-American team to do so. Colorado-native Jonathan Garcia held the leader's jersey for a few stages as well.
For 2008, the team has upgraded to a UCI Professional Continental team, the same classification as Jonathan Vaughters' Slipstream/Chipotle squad. The move paved the way for the team to compete in some of Europe's best professional races. I caught up with John Lelangue on a cold, misty day in Palo Alto after the team had returned from riding stage 3 of the Amgen Tour of California up and over the daunting Mount Hamilton and the brutal Sierra Road climbs. Lelangue was excited with the races on the US calendar, noting that the Amgen Tour of California, Tour of Georgia, Tour of Missouri and the Tour of Utah were all on their program. But, he was most excited about taking the team to Europe and testing the waters there. Already on the program are the Criterium International, Three Day of DePanne, Tour of Picardie and GP Pino Cerami. The squad is eyeing several more wildcard invitations to two high-profile stage races in Switzerland and a bumpy, one-day race in northern France.
It must be remembered that Andy Rhis shut down the Phonak team at the end of 2006 because of sponsorship difficulties. The BMC team has slowly evolved into a potential replacement, but to be sure, even if the European campaign is a raging success, team management will still be taking things slowly. This year they are knocking on the door. Next year they will be looking to break it down. Keep an eye on these boys in 2008!
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