Award-winning sports Journalist and author
Award-winning sports Journalist and author

SPRINTERS AND SEX

It was an Italian sprinter, most probably Mario Cipollini, who drew the inevitable paralell between bunch sprints and sex. The point was that the gradual build-up in intensity in the final 50 kilometres of a major race that was ‘destined for the sprinters’ corresponds to foreplay before the adrenalin rush of the finale, with the moment of crossing the line first equalling orgasm. And, clearly, the moment when the sprinter stands proudly on the podium with a sponsor’s damsel on either arm is the two-wheeled equivalent of the cigarette savoured languorously on rumpled pillows.

It’s easy to dismiss Cipollini as just another macho man looking to make a headline or two by pumping vigorously away at the stuff that draws the press and fans, what with the shoe ads featuring topless lovelies feeding him grapes and the memorable “Cleopatra” episode in the 1999 Tour, when his sponsors brought a stripper to the race, not to mention the frankly bizarre flirtation with the possibility of racing a stallion. This little tale, as far as I can tell, was less about the chance of earning a few quid than the opportunity to draw obvious parallels between the two sex gods, the four-legged and the two-wheeled.

There is a serious point among the innuendo, however. Cipollini pretty much epitomised one of cycling’s juiciest old saws. Tradition holds that sprinters are macho and wild, just as climbers are wacky with a hint of insanity and time triallists are dull obsessives, while GC-men are somewhere in between, sometimes with a hint of all three.

You couldn’t get much more macho than Cipo’, the man with the villa in Tuscany containing floor-length chandeliers of Venetian glass and walk-in wardrobes full of shoes and fur coats, the man with the private zoo and a host of fast cars. The man who was stopped for speeding on the superstrada near his Tuscan home – on his bike, while being paced by his soigneur’s motorbike.

Equally macho was Cipo’s great rival Djamolidin Abduzhaparov, even if he was not quite as wild (rearing pigeons was his thing, and there were no stories of strippers and no nipple-y ads). Abdu’s macho-ness showed itself in a different and more blood-curdling way. He never came up with more than a single sentence and was inhumanly tough, bouncing down the tarmac of the Champs Elysees at the end of the 1991 Tour in a way that inevitably led to his being dubbed the Terminator. He didn’t say “I’ll be back” in a guttural Austrian accent but he might as well have done.

Cipo’ and Abdu’ also epitomised another side of sprinting: the almost insane courage, the boxer mentality, the need to remove your brain at the 10 kilometres to go sign, put in the back pocket of your jersey and then replace it sometime after the finish. They were nuts, but sprinters always have been. That’s part of the magic. Climbers are nuts too, but they do the death-defying stuff once they’ve got over the top of the pass. (Cast your mind back to the sequence in “The High Life” where the cameraman tries to follow Robert Millar down a mountain pass and gives up after he dives deftly between two oncoming cars.)

For those who believe that the macho-wild thing died out when Cipo’ entered a second career in which he performed in the Italian equivalent of come dancing, and Abdu’ went into hiding to tend his pigeons, I would quote one name and one episode. First the episode: the opening stage of the Tour Down Under this year. Close observation of the helicopter shots in the video of the final kilometres showed two of the competitors engaging in a head-butting contest. It was Giro helmets at dawn, at 40mph, and with the prize at stake not a stage in the Tour de France but a circuit race in Australia.

As for the name: Mark Cavendish. Enough said. For those who would argue that Cav’ isn’t Cipo’ I would concur, but the point is that all sprinters are variations on a theme. Cipo’ wasn’t Rik Van Linden or Tom Steels, but they were macho and wild in their own ways – think of Steels and the bottle-throwing episode in the 1997 Tour. Same with Cavendish, who has his gentle, metrosexual side just as Cipo does and did, but clearly ceases to be a normal human being between the 10k board and the chequered flag. And I don’t mean that in any derogatory way: what the madmen of the finish straight do is remarkable, in the way that going up Everest without oxygen or earning a living deep-sea trawling is remarkable. You can admire it but you accept that it is not the way most of the world lives. Fortunately.

It’s unfair to suggest that courage bordering on the insane is solely the province of the bunch sprinter. It’s just that sprinters such as Cavendish and Cipollini are far more visible, receive far more coverage than the Chris Hoys of this world. It’s always been clear that track sprinters are remarkable as well, but it never was really brought home to me until the Revolution meeting this year, where Hoy met his fellow Briton Jason Kenny in the final. It was a training race for both of them, but you would never have believed it, given the way the Scot and the Lancastrian bounced off each other for a lap. Then the Knight of the Realm and Sports Personality of the Year gave Kenny a look that could have said “come outside if you think you’re hard enough” and put in a brainblowing, bikebending burst of sheer speed. Cipo, Abdu and Cav’ would have understood and would have taken their casquettes off.

This column first appeared in Rouleur magazine in May 2010. More information from www.rouleur.cc