Written for In the Bunch

When Mario Cipollini won the Worlds on a flat course in Belgium in 2002, I was more than a little confused.

Was the flamboyant Italian really the best rider in the world, or merely the fastest sprinter?

The wearer of the rainbow jersey should, in my mind, embody the best of what the sport has to offer. He should be able to hold his own against anyone, on any terrain and in all conditions.

He should always be a factor, always be feared. When he wins, it is with panache. When he loses, it is too.

Mario the Magnificent (one of his many self-proclaimed nicknames) retired a few months before the Worlds that year after one of his fall-outs with the organisers of the Tour de France, but was coaxed back by national coach Franco Ballerini who spotted loopholes that could lead to gold.

Pointing at the unchallenging course in Zolder, he promised to build a team around Super Mario, who, known for his keen fashion sense, accepted quicker than one could say “Armani”.

So, exactly as planned, the Italian TGV delivered The Lion King, first class, to the finishing straight at the head of the field and he became champion of the world without breaking much of a sweat.

The tactics were simply “all for one” and Mooie Mario was basically a spectator until asked to finish off the job, which, granted, he could do better than anyone else of his generation.

Execution of the plan was beautiful to watch, but, for me, it felt a bit like a guest arriving late at a party and stealing the show when the rest are under the influence and unable to fend for themselves.

The question is whether he would’ve been equally impressive had he been knocking back cold and short ones with his mates for hours? In cycling terms: Can he go mano-a-mano with his rivals and be the last one standing?

Cipo had won more than fifty Grand Tour stages in his controversial career, but he was equally famous for abandoning as soon as these races tilted upwards. He simply had no interest in competing on playing fields that were not literally and figuratively level.

When Tour organisers failed to invite Cipo during his reign as world champion, basically because they felt he was only good for the first week, I thought accusations of disrespecting the rainbow jersey were extremely rich coming from him.

Ten years on, while watching the British team’s tactics fail to unfold at the Olympics road race, I found myself asking the same questions.

Should Mark Cavendish (who incidentally became world champion with a carbon copy game plan last year) take gold in a sprint finish designed by his team, would he be a worthy champion or just a phenomenal sprinter backed by a sacrificial team?

As it turned out, that question, mercifully, did not need answering. Alexandre Vinokourov, on a course that barely suited his strengths, took the race by the scruff of its neck and throttled the life out of the competition in the front lines.

Always a factor and always feared, Vino’s victory had panache written all over it.

Coetzee is a cycling fanatic whose PR company specialises in sports communications. Visit www.inthebunch.co.za or follow @In_the_Bunch.

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Coetzee Gouws
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