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Last Updated: Monday, 19 May, 2003, 15:10 GMT 16:10 UK
The rebellious professional
By Chris Russell

Italy's Mario Cipollini
Cipollini is one of cycling's most enigmatic stars
Few will be surprised by Mario Cipollini's 24 hours of triumph and disaster.

On Sunday, he equalled the record for stage wins at cycling's second biggest stage race, then on Monday morning he was told he was not welcome at its main event.

Just hours later he was first across the line in stage 9 of the Giro d'Italia to seal the record as the race's most successful stage winner.

It is a shame that the flamboyant Italian's peculiar brand of showmanship and timing will not be seen at this year's Tour de France.

Organisers had previously indicated they would have him there for the first time in 1999.

But he has instead been denied a chance to display the world champion's jersey on the greatest stage.

Cipollini has spent more than a decade entertaining, infuriating and occasionally embarrassing the sport that has made him a superstar in Italy.

And when "Super Mario" crossed the line first in Sunday's eighth stage of the Giro, Italy heaved a sigh of relief at his record-equalling 41st stage victory in the race.

The race organisers were also happy, having set up the event perfectly for the Dominza Vacanze rider to beat Alfredo Binda's haul of wins.

Unlike their counterparts at the Tour, they could see the value that Cipollini would bring.

The last few Giros have seen doping scandals and the 2003 race desperately needed a good news story to keep it up alongside football and Ferrari in the top tier of Italian sport.

Cipollini was also keen to start with a bang and take the record as soon as possible, before leaving the race to train for what he expected to be his first Tour in four years.

So the Giro route was planned with one thing in mind: get him out of his world champion's rainbow jersey and into the pink of race leadership, via the record.

The organisers ditched the traditional prologue time trial in favour of a series of sprint finishes, only for Alessandro Petacchi, who looks like Cipollini's natural Italian successor, to spoil the party.

Not for the first time, Cipollini publicly considered retirement on Friday, stunned by Petacchi's third stage win in a week.

But such melodrama is nothing new. Last year he "quit" the sport after being refused entry to the Tour de France, actually heading off to a world championship training camp.

And just last month, the 36-year-old displayed his rebellious streak by throwing a water bottle at a journalist after one of the Belgian one-day classics.

Italy's Mario Cipollini
Cipollini has enjoyed isolated success in the Tour de France but has never completed the race
Cipollini is a rare beast in world sport. The ultimate showman is also the consummate professional.

This dedicated family man, when asked once what he would do if he was not a cyclist, replied that he could have been the number one performer in Italy's pornographic film industry.

But his team's ridiculous zebra-striped kit is one thing. The thousands of winter kilometres of training are quite another.

Last year he won the season's first big race, Milan-San Remo, as well as its climax, and took six Giro stages and three in the Tour of Spain, yet people still complain that he has never finished the Tour de France.

Now he might never get a chance.

However, Monday's second consecutive Giro stage win - celebrated without the enthusiasm such a major record might bring - was the best possible answer for the Tour.




GIRO D'ITALIA 2003

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