Before They Were Mates: Cipollini nips Lombardi in a 1995 Tour stage. - Mike Powell Getty
2002 – Mario Cipollini began his miracle year by winning Milano-Sanremo for the first and only time.
Milano-Sanremo is the sprinter’s classic, an Italian classic. Mario Cipollini was the best sprinter of his generation, an Italian sprinter. It should have been a beautiful relationship, but up until this point, it had not worked out that way.
Cipollini had come close, but had never managed to win the only monument classic he would ever be capable of winning. He finished second in 1994, winning the bunch sprint behind solo winner Giorgio Furlan. And he has also finished second to Erik Zabel in the bunch gallop in 2001.
He said after he was beaten in 2001, "I dream of this race, but again, I am second".
But 2002 saw Cipollini move teams to Aqua e Sapone where he spent his one and only (and massively successful) season in the famous zebra striped kit. At the age of 35 it was finally time for The Lion King to take the throne.
Early in the year Cipollini took two victories, one at the Tour de Mediterranean and one on the final stage of Tirreno-Adriatico just three days before Milano-Sanremo. These tune-up races were important for two reasons. The first was that Cipollini was forming a superb understanding with his lead-out man Giovanni Lombardi, himself a successful and Grand Tour stage winning sprinter, who had defected from Zabel’s Deutsche Telekom team.
The second important factor was a psychological one. Zabel had won four of the last five editions of Milano-Sanremo and was the favourite once again. But Cipollini’s victory in Tirreno-Adriatico just days before La Primavera saw him beat Zabel into second place and gain an important mental advantage.
Although Cipollini was quick to play down any significance in the press after his stage win: "It's a sign that the legs are there, even if this win doesn't mean much in the perspective of San Remo."
But three days later, Lombardi provided a perfect lead out for Cipollini who roared home to take the biggest win of his career and finally etch his name alongside the greats of Italian cycling.
The race was animated by a crash with 30km to go, behind which Zabel was caught up as he lost contact with the leading group. Suddenly the race was wide open as an array of teams knew the chances of bringing their sprinter home to victory had just increased considerably.
Despite an inevitable attack on the Poggio by Paolo Bettini, the race came back together for a sprint along the Via Roma where Cipollini showed everyone who was boss.
He said after the victory: "I feel like I'm in another world. I have made a lot of sacrifices to reach this point. This is the best moment of my career. Milano-Sanremo, I have thought about it always."
"I came close to victory last year and this gave me the strength to persevere. Before the race, I did not want to talk about it. The team change was very important in that it gave me a new level of motivation with people who had confidence in me. I started training in December. I went to South Africa and the Canaries with this aim."
"If I have an objective now, it is the World Championship in October. The parcours is good for me."
Cipollini’s year continued by winning Ghent-Wevelgem, six stages of the Giro and the points classification as well as three stages of the Vuelta before culminating in his stated goal of taking the rainbow jersey at the Zolder race track, all at the ripe old age of 35.
Hear IrishPeloton -- a/k/a Cillian Kelly -- along with host John Galloway at This Week in Cycling History. Poggio photo by Fotoreporter Sirotti.