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Heroes of the Giro: The Stage Winners

Getting back to a more conventional definition of heroes

Frank Fife, Getty

Most of our heroes are people who overcame odds or reached the highest heights of the Giro d'Italia, capturing the maglia rosa. But every day of the Giro, for three weeks, is a battle for temporary glory, for headlines and photos across Italy and maybe the world. The stage wars. And while the list of people to win stages is indeed long, a few names stand out.

1. Mario Cipollini

The Lion King, so named because he also won a lot of stages of the Tour de France and the stuffed lion that comes with that success, also stands now as the all-time champion in the category of Giro d'Italia stage victories, with 42. Which 42? Well, you can either pull up his wikipedia page, or read them on the skinsuit he wore at his last Giro appearance, the prologue of the 2004 race.

Cipollini 2005 stage skinsuit Franck Fife, Getty

Cipo's flamboyance is legend, but so too are his accomplishments. He began winning Giro stages in 1989 as part of the Del Tongo team, in his first pro season at age 22. He won stages of the Giro every year until 2003, except for 1993-94, when he didn't take the start. [Think maybe he was hurt in '94? And in '93 he focused on the spring classics, winning E3, Gent-Wevelgem and the Scheldeprijs.]

In his most dominant Giro d'Italia, he won six stages -- in 2002, at age 35. His five stage wins in 1997 included a wire-to-wire dominance of the points competition. He set the record in 2003 with two more stage victories, while wearing the world champion's arc-en-ciel. He didn't exactly compete in the golden era of sprint champions, but he did have a nice rivalry with Robbie McEwen for a while. And he made things fun, dressing like various animals, and Julius Caesar.

Mario Cipollini 42

Lars Ronbog, Getty

When he set the record for stage victories, breaking that of Alfredo Binda, he practically apologized to the Campionissimo, saying he was just happy to polish Binda's shoes. One day after breaking the record, Cipollini crashed out of the Giro and never fully recovered to top racing form again.

2. Alessandro Petacchi

Petacchi was the immediate successor to Cipollini, and his career can scarcely be discussed without reference to the Lion King. Petacchi won his first Giro stage in 2003, with World Champion Cipollini on hand and stuck on 40 wins, needing one to tie and two to pass Binda for the record. But Petacchi beat Cipo in the opening stage, and by stage 6, Petacchi had three wins (and Robbie McEwen two), and it looked like the Lion King might fall short in his pursuit. The torch had been passed to another large-body, pure power, long range Italian sprinter who was allergic to the high mountains. Sure, Petacchi lent the torch back to Cipo for him to set the record, but when the dust settled Cipo had gone home injured and Petacchi had taken the first six Giro wins of his career. At age 29.

Petacchi rampage Frank Fife

If Cipo's star burned longest, you could argue that Petacchi's burned brightest, at least among modern Giro stage hunters. A year later Petacchi won an unbelievable 9 stages of the 2004 Giro, one that would be remembered for its lack of high mountains (Damiano Cunego says hello), for there were still enough sprints for McEwen and Freddie Rodriguez to bag one each. By 2005 the Giro had fallen back in love with the tricky finish stage, limiting Petacchi's chances and leaving him with but four wins. It would be til 2009 before he'd win another Giro stage, and those would be his last two (22 total). But it was in 2006, where he didn't win a single stage, that he impressed me the most.

That year the Giro started in Belgium, in miserable weather, and Petacchi went down in a crash on stage 3 from Perwez to Namur. Given his star quality from the previous three years, all eyes were on him as he battled to finish the stage alone or with a teammate over the last 50km, which he did. Afterward doctors confirmed that he did so with a broken kneecap. Say what you will about cyclists who win sprints but bail out on the high mountains. Just don't assume they aren't tough guys.

3. Alfredo Binda

The second of three legit "campionissimi," Binda is a champion well beyond the likes of the other two guys listed here. His five overall Giro victories are a record matched only by Fausto Coppi and Eddy Merckx. But let's put that aside and just talk stages.

Two days ago I talked about the dominant fashion by which Costante Girardengo won his Giri, with eight stages in a 10-day race. Awesome, to be sure. Binda did him better. By 1927 Binda had won an overall ('25) and seven stages, including six the previous year when he came in second to Giovanni Brunero. Leaving nothing to chance, Binda started off the '27 race by winning the opening stage and seizing the maglia rosa. Then stages two and three. Then stages five through ten. And three more, to finish off an unbreakable record of twelve stage victories in his wire-to-wire overall title, in a 15-stage race. He won a modest six stages in his next Giro, and even lent the maglia rosa to Domenico Piemontesi for the first three days, before taking it back for good. In 1929 Gaetano Belloni grabbed the lead on day 1 and held it for three stages, until Binda had unleashed another record-setting eight consecutive stage victory fury on him and the peloton, for his third successive Giro title.

In 1930 Binda failed to win the Giro for the first time in four years... because the race paid him a substantial amount of money to skip the race and give someone else a chance for glory. That too is a record that will never be equaled (and it casts further shade on Cipollini's statistical glory as well). So when you want to talk greatest ever Giro stage winner, there can be no doubt: it's this guy.

Alfredo Binda