This year, Cipollini promises to be model racer

Mario Cipollini at the 2004 Tour teams presentation  Credit: Robert Laberge/Getty Images
That tall fellow with the mane of hair, telltale lines around his eyes and No. 191 on the back of his jersey is Mario Cipollini, formerly the biggest showboat east of the Mississippi River.

No longer. As part of the price of entry to this Tour de France, Cipo is believed to have promised to clean up his act.

Gone is the imperial toga he wore in the 1999 Tour after his fourth successive daily victory in sprint finishes. Left hanging in his garage in Italy is the yellow bicycle he sported in the 1997 Tour when he took the jersey of the same color for four days. Packed away in a dresser are the golden shorts that accessorized the bicycle.

These violations of the Tour's dress code and ponderous solemnity, coupled with his habit of bailing out of the race whenever it neared the mountains, finally cost him dearly.

Not since 2000 has Cipollini's team been invited to the Tour, not even last year while he wore the rainbow jersey of the world's road race champion.

Now the Tour's organizers have decided to welcome back the wayward Cipo, at age 37 and in probably his last year of competition.

The invitation to his Domina Vacanze team fulfilled the wish Cipollini voiced in January.

"I would like to participate in the Tour one last time," he said, "and I hope that its organizers will offer me that chance as an homage to my career."

Jean-Marie Leblanc, who runs the Tour, acknowledged that factor when the list of teams was announced.

"He promised to be competitive," Leblanc said, meaning he will try to finish the three-week race, not just hang around for the first 10 days of sprints.

"Plus," Leblanc acknowledged, possibly suppressing a shudder, "he's a man who brought a lot of flamboyance to the Tour in his time of splendor."

Implicit in the use of "brought" rather than "brings" was Cipo's rumored pledge to avoid hijinks.

Additionally, his time of splendor seems to be over. Mario the Magnificent, a.k.a. the Lion King, Super Mario and the Italian Stallion, has had a dreadful season with only two victories, neither of them in his beloved Giro d'Italia, where he holds the record with 42 stage triumphs.

He was barely competitive, crashing so heavily in the race's sixth stage that he needed 14 stitches in his right leg and left elbow and had to withdraw. This was the first year since 1989 that he did not win a stage.

In fact, he has barely won since the Giro last year and, at his team's hotel outside Liege, looked heavily stressed because of his lack of performance. Or perhaps it was because he was, for once, not the center of attention.

Despite the many Cipollini posters adorning the hotel's entrance, the focus for the Italian press was Danilo Di Luca, the Saeco rider who was defying the Tour's organizers and insisting on his right to compete while under investigation in a drugging case in Italy.

Late Thursday, his team officials backed away from the confrontation and his name was withdrawn from the entries. Di Luca looked carefree Friday: he is 28 years old and will probably be riding for years to come.

Not so Cipollini. Age has caught up with him and the king of the sprinters now finds himself merely a courtier to Alessandro Petacchi, the new man on the throne.

In a handful of races this season, Cipollini has yet to beat Petacchi, seven years his junior and the winner of nine stages in the Giro last month. After their first duel this year ended with Petacchi the victor, Cipollini admitted the obvious. "Not only is he a great adversary but now I also have to fight against age."

During the Giro, he said: "I don't need to be in a race to understand that I've grown older. I realize that every time some fan asks me to sign a photograph from my past."

Nevertheless, there's life in the old boy. For the prologue of the Giro, Cipollini appeared in a skinsuit with a stylized lion motif instead of his team's uniform. He was fined by the race's organizers for improper dress, just as he was in previous years when he showed up in outfits sporting full zebra stripes or the human skeleton, bone for bone.

After his promises to behave, don't expect him to start in the Tour de France prologue on Saturday in a rig like that. Look instead for something tasteful in skinsuits, perhaps one adorned with crowns and hints of ermine. A scepter, to be left with the judge on the starting ramp, would set off the ensemble ravishingly.

[Editor's note: Cipollini started the Tour prologue dressed in a blue full-body skinsuit covered with a robotic circuitry motif. After Tour organizers made him cut the legs of the suit down to bike-short length, he finished a respectable 35th, 23 seconds back.]

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