California Forum

Pro bicycling is in need of a showman, or two

Mario Cipollini, shown winning a race in Italy in 2002, was bicycle racing’s last great showman. Cycling could use more athletes with his panache to draw in a public that is skeptical about the sport in the wake of the Lance Armstrong doping scandal.
Mario Cipollini, shown winning a race in Italy in 2002, was bicycle racing’s last great showman. Cycling could use more athletes with his panache to draw in a public that is skeptical about the sport in the wake of the Lance Armstrong doping scandal. The Associated Press

When he wasn’t busy winning three Tour of Spain stages, 12 Tour de France stages, 42 Tour of Italy stages or any of his 191 career victories, Mario Cipollini had another great skill.

The flamboyant Italian sprinter was extraordinarily savvy when promoting Mario Cipollini. He was professional bicycle racing’s last great showman.

As the Tour of California unfolds Sunday in Sacramento with the beginning of its 10th edition, Cipollini again comes to mind.

Seven years ago, then age 41 and temporarily racing again after a three-year retirement, Cipollini finished third in the Tour of California’s second stage from Santa Rosa to Sacramento.

In the post-race press conference, the Belgian Tom Boonen and Heinrich Haussler of Germany, the stage winner and runner-up, were enthusiastic. But they also wore expressions of reverence.

Perennially tanned, perfectly coiffed and possessor of painfully white teeth, Cipollini was in the house. The cyclist nicknamed The Lion King held court.

Sunday, Tour of California riders – young pros to veteran riders with years of wins in far-flung countries – will zip around downtown in a blur for a few hours before leaving town Monday.

Cycling enthusiasts may know many of the riders’ names or at least have a few favorites. But for the public, the curious watching a sport mired in turmoil and not exactly enamoring itself to the masses, there’s an overriding collective question:

Who are these guys?

With all due respect to riders’ endurance skills and the sport’s high-speed and strategic wonderment, cycling is boring. It needs a personality or two with some pizzazz, or a little bravado.

Cipollini was a brand. He once arrived at the starting line of a race in an anatomically correct skinsuit. He once persuaded his team to dress in togas at a race to honor the legend of Julius Caesar on the Roman leader’s birthday.

Cipollini was a world champion who hated climbing. He’d win a handful of Tour de France stages and then withdraw when the race progressed into the Alps or the Pyrenees. He was fined and barred from the race at one point, but he didn’t care.

Cipollini once told a female reporter that if he hadn’t been a cyclist, he would have done well in the adult film industry.

Cycling may not need personalities of such extremes, but it needs something.

In the United States, the sport is a marketing and public relations disaster. Pro cyclists in all disciplines are licensed via USA Cycling, the sport’s governing body. It collects fees, sanctions races, selects Olympians and other international competition teams, makes rules and promotes itself.

But once a rider is hired by a trade team – a squad with a company as a title sponsor – USA Cycling is rarely involved.

Some trade teams handle their athletes well, with results, race rosters and injury updates distributed via email. But I haven’t seen a public relations representative from USA Cycling in a race pressroom since the late 1980s.

Just what is cycling doing to embrace a public skeptical of a sport still immersed in drug issues and the gurgling residue of the mess named Lance Armstrong?

Where are cycling’s outreach programs to schools? How are the health benefits of cycling, the athleticism of the sport, the beauty of its simplicity being touted? Why should the public believe?

A few past and present Tour of California competitors could have been the chosen ones to at least give cycling some liveliness on its journey toward wishful redemption.

Peter Sagan, the still-young Slovakian, has won 11 Tour of California stages, the most of any rider. He can tell a joke in a few languages. And since he’s the best bike handler in the sport, he’s done some impressive wheelies with the cameras rolling.

But in the exuberance of youth, Sagan two years ago at the Tour of Flanders pinched the rear end of a young woman distributing awards on the finish podium. Sagan solemnly apologized via a YouTube video the next day, and his zest for spontaneity has since disappeared.

Jens Voigt, a rider for Germany, was known for his impressive solo rides and gregarious personality. He gave cycling his share of flair and built a sizable U.S fan base while competing at the Tour of California since it began in 2006.

Voigt, who retired last season, is working for the event as an “ambassador” this year. He may prove to still be its most popular athlete.

American Chris Horner, the 2011 Tour of California winner and at age 43 a month younger than Voigt, is still a fan favorite. He has omnipresent enthusiasm, a penchant for junk food and still looks like cycling’s version of Charlie Brown. He’s arguably had more injuries and bad luck than anyone in the sport, and he keeps riding.

The Tour of California couldn’t have done any better for itself than to have Horner in the race. But he’s now the elder statesman of the Airgas-Safeway team of young riders, and the squad wasn’t invited.

Bradley Wiggins, the Brit who won the Tour of California last year, had character. He could nearly simultaneously be moody and cheerful, and he fancied fashion. But he’s now focusing on track cycling.

A few years ago, Tejay van Garderen was a brash young rider raised in Montana and fluent in Dutch. He lashed out a few times in competition, crying when he failed and showing exuberance in triumph. He won the Tour of California and the USA Pro Challenge in Colorado in 2013, and he has twice finished fifth in the Tour de France.

Van Garderen, generally considered the best American cyclist, won’t be competing in the Tour of California for the second straight year. He’s opting for training and European events leading into the Tour de France in July.

Despite his early career outspokenness, van Garderen isn’t comfortable in a high-profile role. He’s said repeatedly his responsibility to the public is to train hard, win bike races and let that speak for itself.

But for cycling to rebound, that’s not good enough.

Despite his sad legacy, Armstrong did some things right. Several years ago, when he competed in the Tour of Italy for the first time, Armstrong’s entourage brought a camera into the team motor home before each stage.

With teammate Levi Leipheimer, Armstrong joked around for a few minutes with riders from other teams. The YouTube videos showed the cyclists laughing. They talked about families and friends, the oddities of travel and sometimes even mentioned the race.

The videos refreshingly showed the cyclists at their best, not as robotic bicycle racers. They were easier to like as entertainers who also possessed strong legs and efficient lungs.

And that’s exactly what cycling needs again, a few showmen.

James Raia is a Sacramento writer who has reported on cycling since 1980. He will be covering the Tour of California for the 10th time.