Mario Cipollini's stage victory in the Giro d'Italia yesterday was the first and perhaps most important step back from the brink of a crisis which has seen one of the more flamboyant world champions come close to retirement.
"The Lion King" has long ruled the jungle-like world of sprinting, but his first Giro stage win this year, eight days in, was far too long in coming for his and the public's liking. The start of what could be a mini-comeback for the 36-year-old came when he raised his arms at the end of a hard-fought sprint in Arezzo – a city famous, appropriately, for its antiques.
His 41st Giro win – wrested from two riders who have given him headaches in the last week, sprinters Robbie McEwen of Australia and the Italian Alessandro Pettacchi – means Cipollini has equalled with Alfredo Binda's record.
"I never thought I would do it" an unusually humble Cipollini said. "When I said I was only good enough to be Binda's waiter, that's what I meant. He won the Giro five times as well as winning 41 stages."
Cipollini made a point of thanking his team as well, which drew a few knowing smiles from journalists, given the highly public nature of the internal war between Cipollini and some of his previously most loyal domestiques, a conflict which has not helped a sprinter reliant on his squad manouvring him into the best launching position for a charge for the finishing line.
Sparked by wage delays and fuelled in the Giro by his cohorts' unusually clumsy control of the final kilometres, the bust-up goes back to Milan-San Remo, his first major win of 2002, when his team failed to pull back a break quickly enough. Cipollini and his lead-out man Giovanni Lombardi now refuse to talk to each other and come to the start at different times.
Only Lombardi's pragmat-ism has ensured that the team continues to be more than a collection of riders in the same colour kit. But the wins are rarely guaranteed even then. Three times second in bunch sprints, Cipollini had hinted that age may be beginning to creep in.
"Other generations are coming through, strong, young riders" he said. "Perhaps the end of my career is in sight."
Nor, until yesterday, did Cipollini have any recent wins to console himself with. The last time he stood on a victory podium was in March – all a far cry from 2002, when Cipollini won 14 races, his team 27, with his World Championships victory the icing on an extremely large cake. For Cipollini to fall off the pace so quickly as he has done this year almost defies explanation.
Giro objectives apart, Cipo's Domina Vacanze team are gambling that they will receive one of the four remaining Tour de France wild cards, due to be announced today. The recent poor results and Cipo's near-collapse before yesterday had cast doubt on their berth for July.
Before yesterday's win, a team spokesperson, Gilberto Petrucci, said, "We don't need a victory to convince the Tour de France organisers. Why not? Because Mario is the World Champion. This March Mario received a personal call from [Tour de France organiser] Jean-Marie Leblanc telling him we had our wildcard. Monday's declaration will simply ratify that."
Confident words, although Petrucci admitted that a stage "would be much more important for the team's internal politics than for the outside world." The Tour de France apart, when Cipollini finally broke the 'curse of the rainbow jersey' - the belief that the world champion always has bad luck - at Arezzo, he was doing the Giro no small favour as well.
Beleagured to the point of near-disintegration in the last two years because of persistent drug scandals, a win by Cipollini – one of the few big Italian names never tarred with the doping brush – will divert the public's attention away from a more murky underbelly. Not to mention the fact that both the race leader, Stefano Garzelli, Gilberto Simoni, currently second, were thrown out of last year's Giro for illegal drug use.
This year, for now, all has gone well in that quarter. The Italian narcotics squad's one visit, to check out the obscure Formaggi Pinzolo team on Friday, revealed nothing untoward.
But if no news is good news, there is little the likes of Simonis and Garzellis, famous for the wrong reasons despite both being Giro winners, can do to contribute to the recovery of the race's credibility. Many believe it is the success of charismatic figures like Cipollini which matters in terms of the Giro's – and by extension the sport's – long-term survival. Yesterday a corner may have been turned in that process.
Alasdair Fotheringham writes for 'Cycling Weekly'Reuse content