After dabbling with Festina in 2000, Specialized leapt headlong into the continental pro-racing scene with Acqua e Sapone two years later. It really doesn’t get much more Euro than an Italian team wearing zebra-striped kit headed up by publicity-shy, shrinking violet Mario Cipollini.
Their first year together coincided with an Indian summer for the 35-year-old sprinter, winning Milan-Sanremo, Ghent-Wevelgem, six Giro d’Italia stages, plus the World Championships, mainly on an S-Works E5. They quickly discovered that nothing sells like success.
Ned Overend, Frank Schleck and Sam Hill also have rooms named after them at Specialized’s Morgan Hill HQ, but the association with Cipollini was the start of a long line of link-ups with charismatic, champion professional road racers.
“I think it was a moment for us where things really started to ignite. Certainly in countries like Italy, that put us on the map – you couldn’t have done any other way,” Kevin Franks remembers. Back then, Franks was worldwide PR manager. “Working with him was just crazy, but a lot of fun,” he says.
When Italian holiday company Domina Vacanze took over the team in 2003, no expense was spared for the launch, as press, sponsors and riders were flown first to Italy, then onto the Egyptian resort of Sharm El Sheikh. “Cipollini was on the plane with the trolley cart, pouring drinks for all the journalists. It was larger than life, but that was Mario, it was his show,” Franks says. “He was so exciting both on and off the bike.”
After several Cipollini outfit changes and the event itself, they headed home via a small Egyptian airport. Franks was behind the team leader in the queue and put his belongings on a tray for the security conveyor belt. Subsequently, he discovered that his Tag Heuer watch was missing.
Franks began to panic and remonstrate with the officials. “This kid with a machine gun comes up to me and tells me to back off, to stand down. Then I look over and I just see Cipollini cracking up in the corner, rolling on the floor, being like, ‘Here it is!’ He’s got the watch. You dick: almost got me killed in Egypt…”
The Italian rapscallion didn’t simply bring Specialized greater publicity, he improved their products too. “Our bikes just weren’t up to the task,” creative director Robert Egger says. Cipollini was breaking them? “Yeah, he was making spaghetti out of them. We learned a lot from designing bikes for him, how to make a super-stiff chassis. He was super important on our road to making bikes for the pro peloton.” Mike Sinyard reckons that they made 18 bicycles before he deemed one to be okay.
Between Cipollini’s 2002 victory in Sanremo and Ghent-Wevelgem, the founder himself had the marketing brainwave of putting the recognisable company logo, reminiscent of a child’s scribble of tornado, on the palms of his mitts, so that it would be visible in his ongoing victory salutes. Sinyard saw the bigger picture beyond Cipollini too.
“In that era, road racing and the Tour began to really lift the sport in the US. That was when Mike began to recognise that was going to be a big, big moment for our brand and we needed to be there,” Franks says.
“He set a lot of goals for us. I remember one meeting [in the early Noughties] where he said ‘one day, this brand will win a Tour de France.’ And at the time, we were like ‘no fucking way that can ever happen.’ But sure enough, you flash forward and it became a reality.”
This article is an extract from a feature first published in Rouleur 17.5, titled Red Planet