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Classic jerseys: No.5 Mapei

6 Dec 2018

This article was first published in Issue 78 of Cyclist magazine

On 14th April 1996 the eyes of the cycling world were fixed on Roubaix for the finish of the 94th edition of the Queen of the Classics.

With 80km to go, a trio of riders left the peloton behind and struck out for victory. Their names were Andrea Tafi, Gianluca Bortolami and Johan Museeuw.

It was a daring move, but the three men laying everything on the line with 11 sectors of cobbles and nearly a third of the race still to go had more in common than just their boldness.

They all wore the brightly coloured jersey of the Mapei team.

The trio worked together, and when Museeuw punctured the other two waited, obeying team orders.

They powered over the cobbles and entered the famous Roubaix Velodrome together. The cycling world held its breath, waiting for the dramatic finale.

Which of the Mapei three would prevail? TV commentators talked excitedly of sprint tactics.

But there was no ramping up of speed, no game of cat and mouse. There was no stubborn sitting on the wheel.

With around 200m to go, all three riders suddenly raised their hands in the air. Realisation dawned. There would be no sprint.

‘This is a complete lap of honour,’ shouted David Duffield on Eurosport. ‘I’ve never seen anything like this in this race or in a Classic of this stature before.’

Seconds later Museeuw rolled over the line in first place, punching the air, with Bortolami and Tafi following in that order.

It later emerged that the result of the ‘sprint’ had been decided with 15km still to race, when the head of Mapei, Giorgio Squinzi, had talked to team director Patrick Lefevre and instructed that Museeuw should cross the line first.

There was outrage in some quarters, with Italian journalist Gianni Ranieri writing that the finale did not honour Museeuw’s class, likening the finish to a comedy, or a farce ‘staged on the track of the old velodrome’.

It was to be the first of three Paris-Roubaix titles for Museeuw and the first of three 1-2-3 finishes for Mapei in the race.

Constructing a cycling dynasty

Mapei’s dominance of Paris-Roubaix in 1996 came just three years after the Italian company had entered cycling.

Founded by Rodolofo Squinzi in 1937 to supply paints and masonry repair products to the construction industry, by the 1990s Mapei was a multinational organisation, having passed into the hands of Rodolofo’s son, Dr Giorgio Squinzi.

Squinzi was, and remains, a huge cycling fan (‘Cycling is my great passion,’ he has said in company literature, ‘a metaphor of life and my motto: never stop pedalling,’) and so when he was approached in 1993 to come to the aid of the cash-strapped Eldor-Viner team before the start of the Giro d’Italia, it didn’t take long for him to agree.

Under the Mapei-Viner name the team recorded just a single win – for Stefano Della Santa at the Trofeo Melinda – but for the 1994 season Mapei merged with the Spanish team Clas and started their long association with Colnago and the iconic C40 bike.

Now the victories came thick and fast. Tony Rominger won Paris-Nice and the Vuelta in the space of two months, while Spaniard Abraham Olano won the national championships.

One year later Rominger would win the Giro and Olano the rainbow jersey.

Mapei’s identity changed again in 1995 when sports director Patrick Lefevre joined from GB-MG Maglificio, bringing fellow Belgians Museeuw, Wilfried Peeters, Ludwig Willems and Carlo Bomans with him.

This was the start of the team’s love affair with the Classics, and over the course of the next eight years Mapei riders would win multiple editions of Paris-Roubaix, the Tour of Flanders, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Tour of Lombardy, as well as World Championships.

Mapei’s budget dwarfed all others. In his book Domestique, Charly Wegelius, who rode for the team for three years, writes that ‘Mapei had been generous to its riders, sometimes overly so… rumours circulated that our riders would ring up the team travel agent to get them to buy entirely new plane tickets because they wanted to arrive home 20 minutes earlier.’

By 2002 there were 42 riders on Mapei’s roster. One of those riders was the Spaniard, Óscar Freire. Mapei had an eye for young talent – they signed Paolo Bettini, Cadel Evans and Fabian Cancellara early in their careers – and when Freire took a surprise win at the World Championships in 1999, a relative unknown at the time, Squinzi acted quickly to secure his signature.

‘I arrived there with good riders like Museeuw, like [Michele] Bartoli, like Bettini,’ Freire said when reflecting on his career in 2017.

‘Really big names. At the first race they said, “Now we have to work for Oscar.” So it was a lot of pressure at 23 [years old].’

The one Monument that had eluded Mapei was Milan-San Remo. ‘From the beginning of the year they were always speaking about Milan-San Remo,’ Freire said.

‘They were an Italian team that had won a lot of races, the most important Classics, but never Milan-San Remo. The parcours was perfect for me and I thought that in this team, with Mapei, I have to win Milan-San Remo.’

But while Freire would go on to win Milan-San Remo three times, it never happened for him in Mapei colours.

In 2002 Stefano Garzelli tested positive while wearing the pink jersey at the Giro.

Although other former Mapei riders would later be linked with doping – in 2015 Museeuw spoke about his career to the Belgian newspaper De Zondag, saying that in his time ‘maybe two per cent took no EPO’ – Squinzi, who had been a vocal advocate of clean cycling and had reportedly clashed with the UCI over the issue, was outraged and announced he was pulling his sponsorship at the end of the season. Their last win was at the Giro di Piemonte, courtesy of Luca Paolini.

In 10 years the Mapei team recorded more than 650 victories but Milan-San Remo, the race they had for so long targeted, remained elusive.

To rub salt into the wound, six of the next eight editions of the race would be won by former Mapei riders.