Andrea Tafi: The Gladiator
Tales from the arena from Mapei’s Roubaix, Flanders and Lombardy champion Andrea Tafi.
For a knowledgeable cycling fan visiting this hotel, it would be easy to guess the owner. Each stone-wall apartment we pass is named after a big race win: Rochester Classic, Paris-Bruxelles, Giro Delle Fiandre.
Andrea Tafi, known as The Gladiator, has put down his sword and shield to run an eponymous boutique borghetto among the Tuscan olive groves and cypress trees.
For a long time, such a haul of victories seemed impossible. He was not a Bernal or Evenepoel-type whose irrepressible talent lifted him straight to the top of the hierarchy. Andrea Tafi was cut from a different cloth, a domestique and late bloomer who nearly dropped out of the sport in his mid-twenties.
The Giro del Lazio might not be big enough for an apartment, but his triumph there in 1991 was arguably the most important of his career. “I’d had appendicitis and wasn’t sure of a team for the next season,” Tafi says. “In September, something inside me – anger, strength, pride – helped me win there against all the big champions.”
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A couple of years as a domestique at Carrera for Chiappucci and company followed before signing for Mapei in the winter of 1993. “It wasn’t the Mapei that everyone would come to know … It was a big family, not a big squad. Giorgio Squinzi got on with all of us like he was our father. The slogan of Mapei was vincere insieme – win together.” And they certainly did a lot of that. It was the move that transformed his career: at Mapei, he went from a worker to a winner.
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Tears at Roubaix
On that journey, there were moments of great joy and frustration, such as the famous 1996 Paris-Roubaix, where team-mates Johan Museeuw, Tafi and Gianluca Bortolami rode away, minutes ahead. In this unprecedented scenario, there was an obvious discussion to be had. “We got talking: ‘you’re winning, I’m winning, no, I want to win.’ Our lead started going down. In the end, Patrick Lefevere said stop, it’s Museeuw who wins.”
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After finishing third, Tafi had tears in his eyes. Museeuw thanked him and said he wouldn’t forget it. “It was the right choice in the end,” Tafi says. “Paris-Roubaix; I can say I’m happy because I’ve won it. But if I never had, it could have been one of the biggest regrets eating away inside me.”
That result was an encapsulation of Mapei’s dominance and the new kind of cycling they espoused. “We moved on from Saronnismo, Moserismo, where the captain had everyone at his disposal,” Tafi says.
“This was an epochal change of strategy. At Mapei, we said who is the captain? The one who is most in form. If there’s four of you and one of you find yourself in front – you’re the captain, and the rest help.”
Museeuw returned the favour that autumn, helping Tafi to win Paris-Brussels. A month later, he took the 1996 Giro di Lombardia – his first Monument at the age of 30 – powered by the poison pens of journalists after a disappointing World Championships.
Raging against injustice
The Tuscan often rode well when his back was up. In 2000, incensed by non-selection for the World Championships, he led a Mapei 1-3-4 at Paris-Tours: “It was an angry victory. The team manager [Antonio Fusi] said I wasn’t part of his plans, not in condition or able to be an important figure in this race.”
“If you see the TV images, I said to the camera ‘this is for you,’ and I dedicated it to him. That was a huge satisfaction.”
He displayed grit and toughness in abundance and was obsessed with the spring Classics. This passion was reciprocal; time was when multi-national fans would wear ‘Io Tifo Tafi’ (I Support Tafi) T-shirts to races. Tafi took his long-awaited Paris-Roubaix win with a solo move in 1999; runner-up and team-mate Wilfried Peeters contends that he flicked him, but that’s another story.
A beautiful Flanders farewell
His last win in the Mapei jersey is the one he deems his most beautiful: the 2002 Tour of Flanders. At the age of 36, he drew on all his wisdom and tactical experience. Sitting in the leading group, he observed that rival and friend Museeuw would chase down his team-mate Daniele Nardello when he accelerated, while Van Petegem would track his own moves. So he accelerated at the moment the Lotto man came back from doing a turn.
“I looked at my computer, it was slightly downhill. I was doing 60km/h. To catch me, they’d have to do 70: not easy in the finale of a race like that.”
“Getting to the last kilometre was a liberation for me. Approaching the finish, I felt the race director’s car behind me. From the window, a voice said: ‘Tafone, you’ve won, the others are nowhere.’ Who was it? A certain Eddy Merckx. I’ll always remember that.”
From his stories and philosophy of racing, it’s clear that feeling and mood played a big part in Tafi’s triumphs. Though Mapei built a groundbreaking centre in Varese, utilising sport science to maximise performance, Tafi was never a big fan of watts. “Cycling has to be something lived, that gives you emotion, that you feel inside you,” he says.
Tafi’s career ended in 2005 but he still puts in tens of thousands of kilometres every year. He is an incorrigible competitor whose improbable dream of a racing return at Paris-Roubaix last year was only ended by a broken collarbone.
He has always stayed close with Mapei director Giorgio Squinzi. The Mapei boss’s death in October was a source of great sadness.
“My dream would be that one day, I hope there can be a second Mapei,” he says. “A second opportunity to re-live together these big successes, these huge moments we enjoyed.”