What's Cool In Road Cycling

TOP RIDE With Mario Cipollini

Almost one year ago to the day, PEZ fan Kelly from Canada was on holiday in Italy when he had the ultimate experience – a run in ride with cycling hero Super Mario. Here’s his tale.

Words and pics by Kelly Servinski

A dream for many cycling fans is to meet their favorite rider or a famous champion. Better yet, wouldn’t it be even cooler to run into one of them on a ride on their home turf and jump on their wheel for a few hours. These types of things can be arranged through fantasy cycling camps but there is something even more powerful and thrilling when events come together that you don’t plan on. It’s perhaps the hope of these random events happening that keep us turning the pedals in search of what might be over that next hill. The bicycle gives us many things but maybe the most special gift is that each time we throw a leg over it we are immediately on an adventure…

From what I remember there are a few pros who live around these parts

Spring in Italy is special time. The weather is nice, roads are quiet and there is some great racing action to catch. Why not plan a riding trip to get in some km’s and catch some new races? With that in mind my wife Erin and I set off for a 3 week trip to dig deeper into our favorite cycling destination. We both had been riding in Italy a few times already and this trip had already started off with a bang. First off we had a week of glorious riding around Siena and caught the Montepaschi Strade Bianche race. Wicked. Next up we had the opportunity to meet the GreenEDGE Cycling Team prior to the first stage of the Tirreno Adriatico thanks to a hookup through my job. Fanstastic experience. The team ended up winning the TTT the next day which turned out to be their first big win in Europe. Wow, we’re on a bit of a roll here.

Next up on our hitlist was our first visit to Lucca. It was to be a short 2 day stop on our way to the base for the end of our trip in Nice, France where we were to catch the last stage of Paris Nice and then finish things off with catching “La Primavera” – Milano San Remo. The idea was to hit a couple of rides, check it out and then continue on our way.

We didn’t have anything planned for Lucca but had always heard it was an awesome place for cycling. Just wing it and see what happens.

Get the local knowledge

The first thing I like to do when I get to a new destination as a cyclist on vacation is get my accomodation sorted out, dump my gear and then hit the streets in search of good coffee, some food and perhaps most importantly find the local bike shop. Always cool to check out the shops in Italy to see all the different bikes and gear you can’t find back at home. Also finding a good shop is key for getting the local knowledge on all the great rides to hit, and of course the good cafes too.

We stopped in at the local bike shop called ChronoBikes and the owner Paladino Meschi gave me a map and suggested a ride out to the sea in Viareggio, then looping back north of Lucca to hit some hills before descending back down to town. What a great guy, he made us feel welcome and began to open up. “Where are you from? he said in pretty solid english. So I proudly came back with “Sono Canadese”. Well, Paladino’s eyes almost burst out of his sockets and he screams out “HOCKEY!” and then proceeds to tell us how he loves the game and shows us his prized hockey stick sitting in front of the wall addorned with vintage pictures of Coppi & Bartali.

Coppi, Bartali & Hockey?

The ultimate ice-breaker, not only do we connect on the love of bikes but hockey too? This dude is all right! Paladino sends us on our way and tells us to come back after my ride when he closes the shop so we can go for an aperitivo. We head back to our hotel and I get geared up and with map in hand I set out on the route he described. Erin heads off to take pictures around this lovely walled city and life is grand…and about to get even better.

I ride out of Lucca a very happy camper following the map, eager to explore new territory. The route is easy to follow and the traffic is non-existent. The weather is mild and the sun is shining. My mind begins to wander, thinking about how great the trip has been so far and how lucky I am to be able to have these experiences. I stop to take a photo of a beautiful castle in the distance and catch my breath – it’s March and the fitness isn’t quite there but the beauty of the moment makes up for that. No more pictures, just enjoy the ride.

Nice pad, maybe it belongs to a racer?

I summit a nice switchback climb and get my first glimpse of the ocean and what appears to be a ripping descent down to the coast. Down I go and once at the bottom I get back in autopilot mode – nice steady cadence, checking out the scenery and letting the mind wander a bit. Then “IT” happened.

Have you ever just had that feeling when you’re riding that you have someone coming up behind you? I take a quick look over my left shoulder and see a group of riders coming up on me. No problem. Hold your line, say “Ciao” and let them go. As they pass I wave and then get my eyes back on the road. Then, near the back of the group I get a glimpse of this one guy – super tall, no helmet, sunglasses, wavy hair on a Cipollini bike rocking the rainbow stripes on his jersey and on his bibs. Is that Cipollini? Couldn’t be? Immediately it’s decision time. Do I try to jump on with these guys and find out for sure or do I just continue on my ride and be happy with my brief glimpse at what appeared to be a cycling god.

That question was answered in a heartbeat – I’m jumpin’ on this train and taking the ride!

Cipo and fellow Italian sprinter Francesco Chicchi.

So I latch onto the group and plant myself at the back alongside one of the guys. He looks over and sees right through me – maybe he’s thinking “here we go, another crazed cycling fan who’s going to try and hang with us, take photos and want to talk our ears off.” Sensing this, I kept my cool and settled in at the back. The guys at the front would glance back here and there and see that they had a new member. Then as the group re-shuffled I found myself right behind Cipollini!

It was him, the legend of so many epic victories, crazy outfits and more recently his own bike brand and supposedly a comeback at the upcoming Giro? I had to get proof of this so all my buddies would believe me and luckily enough I had a secret weapon on my handlebar – a Contour video camera. Video and photos at the touch of a button and now I had video proof that I really did ride with Cipo! Feeling like James Bond I turned it on, pressed record and started to capture the action. The pace was solid but something I was able to handle. After a while it was clear these guys were out for a long ride to enjoy the beautiful Italian spring weather and having some fun. We rolled along on some spectacular roads and as we approached Viareggio I heard one of the guys say “cafe”, there was no need for any translation – it was espresso time.

Cipo and the boys living the life.

The ride comes to a stop and I finally come face to face with the group. I must say I felt a bit awkward and the first thing to come out of my mouth was “Ciao, is it ok if I ride with you guys?” Super Mario calmly walks up and says “No problem, 200 Euro”. I laugh and know he’s kidding, I think. I come back with “Sure, do you accept credito?” He smiles and says “Just kidding”. We head inside for some caffeine.

Best cappucino ever?

I want to show the guys I’m a good sport so I tell the barista that I’m from Canada and am joining these guys on the ride. I say I want to buy a round of espressos for the group and ask him to tell Mario. He says a few words to Cipo in Italian – who knows what he really said, maybe could be “hey, this turkey says he will buy the drinks, I think you should go for it”. I see Cipo’s face light up and he looks down the bar at me and says ” Ah, Canadese! Bene!”. I got the answer for that one – “Prego Mario”. Sweet, I’m in.

Super Mario aka Cipo aka one cool dude.

You don’t see many of these back home. Check out that drop!

We finish the javas, I pay and then we jump on the bikes and proceed to roll north up the coast for a few hours. We pass many other riders going the other way who recognize Cipo and shout out stuff in Italian. We pass a few attractive ladies out for a seaside stroll and the boys make sure they let them know they are noticed. Classic.

Some new riders join the group and then the guys start doing some sprints with each other and it’s Cipo and some dude in an Omega Pharma-Quickstep kit who looks a whole lot like Francesco Chicchi battling it out with each other. As we regroup I get a better look at them and it is Chicchi after all. Crazy! Then, out of the corner of my eye there’s a smaller guy on a Cipollini bike who looks a helluva lot like Riccardo Ricco. I move up closer, yup it’s Ricco. It all starts to click as I remember reading that Cipo was helping Ricco get his life back on track and just have fun on the bike again. Small world. The ride rolls on down the palm tree lined main drag along the coast that seemed to go on forever…

Riccardo Ricco joins in. The boys back home are gonna freak out when they see this!

I hear some chatter at the front and the group appears to be beginning to break up now. Cipo drops back to me and says that he and a few others are heading back to Lucca. I say that’s where I came from and it would be great to tag along. Great, now I can roll back with these guys and enjoy the ride without any worries. Super kind of him to ask not just leave me to fend for myself. Those espresso’s must have treated him pretty good back at the cafe.

As we approach Lucca it’s only 4 of us left now. Mario, two younger guys decked out in their team kits and yours truly. Mario has been texting during the ride and it appears like he’s going to send another one but this time pulls out his head phones and slaps them on to play some tunes. Whatever he was playing must have been heavy cause he immediately went to the front and put down the hammer.

What’s going on here? Mario’s up to something…

The two other younger riders sucked his wheel unable to come around. I was immediately gapped by a bike length or two. “Hang on” I said to myself. If there ever was a time to not get dropped it’s this one”. I got in the drops and got back on and it hurt like hell. Cipo’s interval or whatever you want to call it lasted what seemed like an eternity. I think the madness went on for about 4-5 mins tops but that was plenty for me.

Then, all of a sudden he sits up, the pace slows and the pain is over. I remember saying to myself…”Aahhh thank god”, I just survived a beating at the hands of a legend. Pretty humbling to not even be able to pull through and just having to be happy with hanging on for dear life! The guy is 45 and still can hammer. Who know’s if he was going full gas or not – and who cares, I made it! The most satisfying part came next when Cipo looks back with what seemed like a fair bit of shock and surprise to see me still there – he gives me a smile and simply says “Bene!”. That one word was the icing on the cake for the whole day. Soon after I see the sign for my hotel and veer off giving them a solid goodbye.

Cipo responds with an “Arrividerci, Ciao Canadese!” and heads off into his world. I ride back towards my hotel with what must have been the biggest grin in town. I arrive and burst into our room to find my wife chilling out. “Guess who I rode with today…”

Later we head to the ChronoBikes and I am so excited to tell Paladino the story and before I can say which famous racer I rode with he beats me to the punch – “Cipollini! He lives here in Lucca and comes in the shop.”

Routine stuff for Paladino but a dream day for me to ride with the Italian legend. I go on my rant about how awesome the ride was as we help Paladino close down the shop and then head across the street to a small cafe for a nice aperitivo together. We spend the rest of the evening talking over good drinks and food. We promise to return and stay longer, then say goodbye and head our separate ways. This day proved that La Dolce Vita is alive and well for cyclists in Lucca, just stop into the local bike shop and start your own adventure. Who knows, maybe you can roll with Cipo too?

Thanks to Kelly for sharing his tale. If you’ve got a great ‘Ride With A Pro’ story to tell, send it in to [email protected] and you too could share your magic moment with PEZ fans around the world.

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