Mapei: Modern Cycling's Greatest Team, part two

A building industry behemoth that sells industrial adhesives, grouts and sealants. How unromantic, how un-Italian. And yet, its team forged in chaos became the greatest in modern cycling with a beloved, iconic jersey. They dominated the one-day Classics, won Grand Tours and bossed the bunch sprints. How did they do it, what made them special and how did they transform cycling? This is the complete inside story of Mapei told by its greatest champions.

Read part one
Read part three

Part two, 1996-99: Vincere insieme 

The cast:

Andrea Tafi
Mapei years: 1994-2002

Tafi was the longest-serving member of the team, alongside Daniele Nardello. Last spring, “the Gladiator” was forced to shelve his plans for a comeback at Paris-Roubaix. The 53-year-old runs the luxury hotel, Il Borghetto Andrea Tafi, in his home town of Lamporecchio.

Patrick Lefevere
Over four decades, gravel-voiced Lefevere has become one of cycling’s most successful team managers. He oversaw hundreds of victories at Mapei before leaving for Domo.

Dottore Giorgio Squinzi
The boss of Mapei, the company founded by his father Rodolfo in 1937. He loved cycling and wanted to use the team to promote his brand, one of the world’s leading producers of sealants, flooring adhesives and construction products. His title ‘Dottore’ is due to his industrial chemistry degree from the University of Milan. He died in 2019.

Wilfried Peeters
Peeters was Museeuw’s right-hand man, a valuable Classics domestique with back-to-back Roubaix podium finishes in 1998 and 1999. He is a long-serving directeur sportif at Deceuninck-Quick Step.

Paolo Bettini
The little Tuscan won the World Championships (2006, 2007), Liège-Bastogne-Liège (2000, 2002), the Giro di Lombardia (2005, 2006), Milan-Sanremo (2003) and the 2004 Olympic road race.

Johan Museeuw
The “Lion of Flanders” was the cobbled Classics rider of a generation. He won the Tour of Flanders (1993, 1995 and 1996), Paris-Roubaix (1996, 2000 and 2002) and the 1996 World Championships.

Michele Bartoli
A champion puncheur who rode with a hummingbird’s grace. He won the Giro di Lombardia (2002, 2003), Liège-Bastogne-Liège (1997, 1998) and his favourite race, the Tour of Flanders (1996). When he posed for photographs with his trophies, they were retrieved from his basement and covered in dust. “I don’t like to show off. They’re things that I keep for myself,” he explained.

Tom Steels
Modest and self-effacing, no rider won more races in a Mapei jersey than this Belgian sprinter. Among his 46 victories were ten Tour de France stages, a Vuelta brace, Ghent-Wevelgem and Het Volk. “Tour sprints are a big fight but Stefano Zanini guided me well,” he says. “It was like being behind a tractor. You could still eat a sandwich one kilometre before the finish and then it was up to me to have the legs.”

Paolo Fornaciari
A livewire in the engine room who spent 16 years as a gregario for the likes of Cipollini, Tafi and Simoni. The rangy Italian now runs award-winning ice cream parlour L’Ultimo Chilometro.

Johan MuseeuwLefevere: Squinzi always said to me his dream was to give his daughter a Tour [toy] lion. It never happened. 

Paolo Bettini: That’s why Squinzi wanted Marco Pantani. Because he wanted the Tour de France, and he knew Pantani could win it.

Squinzi: We contacted Pantani at the end of the ’98 Tour, but didn’t reach an agreement. We realised that he wasn’t in line with our philosophy.

Peeters: At the 1996 Tour, we were lying second and third overall with Olano and Rominger. In the end, there were a lot of attacks and they were dropped. It was the last mountain stage, we lost everything in one day. And you know second and third is a lot of prize money shared, eh? And now we were ninth and tenth. That’s cycling.

Squinzi: Those were the years of EPO. Evidently, there was no hope [for us] of winning Grand Tours … I believe it was in ’99, after I said you can’t finish in the top five of the Tour de France without recourse to doping, Hein Verbruggen attacked me and threatened to disqualify our team if I continued to make such declarations. Unfortunately, time has shown that I was right … I stopped riders from using certain coaches like Ferrari. And in fact at the end of ’96, some big riders left our team, like Rominger, Olano and Bortolami.
Wilfried Peeters
Lefevere: And then he decided to create the Mapei Centre. Riders who didn’t take to this – no contract [slaps table]. Dr Van Mol, Patrick Lefevere and Alvaro Crespi controlled the training and then he took Aldo Sassi from Enervit [as its trainer].

Museeuw: That changed a lot for me. I didn’t have to train so many hours as before, when I’d done long-distance, five or six hours. We were the new generation of Polar watches and big computers. It was very difficult to work with them to download our programme, we weren’t used to it. That was a little transformation in cycling.

Roubaix '96: Treasure or treason?
The centenary Paris-Roubaix of 1996 is Mapei’s most memorable and talked-about win. Their 1-2-3 saw bickering, bawling and brickbats

Lefevere: If you have one leader, you don’t sleep well. If he gets sick, breaks his leg or his wife wants a divorce, you have a problem. If you have many leaders, okay, they will compete [with each other], but if you’re honest with them, they are not stupid … They understand if I say, if you listen to me you will win, but you have to be playing the game.

My tactic worked better than expected and we were in front with three guys. Dottore Squinzi called me: “Patrick, it’s my 28th wedding anniverary today. The slogan of the company is winning together. Vincere insieme. You would do me a great favour if these three come to the Roubaix velodrome. Because this is the dream, where my company stems from.”

I said we’d do it. Then the tough time came. Johan Museeuw punctured and my big friends at the UCI didn’t allow me to go and help. Mavic gave him a wheel. The other two guys, Bortolami and Tafi, were pulling. I went to them and said “where are you going?” They didn’t answer but they wanted to say “to Roubaix”. I told them to wait.
Andrea Tafi
Tafi: At a certain point, we got talking. “You’re winning, I’m winning, no, I want to win.” So what happened? Our lead started going down. And when Lefevere saw this confusion, he said stop: get to the finish together and who wins, wins.

Lefevere: Then the discussions started again. I told the leaders that Johan wins because he’s our champion, the best rider. He won Flanders already that year. If I told them to fight for the win, everybody would go “that’s not nice, why did they let three guys of the same team fight?” It’s not because I’m Flemish, it’s because the leader of the team was Museeuw.

And Tafi starts yelling … So I said Tafi, you shut up. You both will get a bonus, Bortolami will be second, you will be third. Tafi, you listen: I will teach you how to win. If you don’t listen, you can look for another team tomorrow.

Squinzi: Lefevere took the decision. This didn’t correspond to my expressed desire, which was to have them all together in Roubaix fighting it out in the sprint.

Tafi: In that moment, I was disappointed. More than disappointed. You’re in the biggest one-day race in the world, the race my idol Moser had won, the race I always dreamed about. [A contemporary report describes Tafi’s post-race “trembling bottom lip and eyes brimming with tears”.]

Museeuw: People thought there was commotion over victory. No, I was the leader. The problem was second or third. I won that day and I was the strongest. I could have dropped them everywhere, every sector, but we decided to stay together.

But okay, we decided that. Not Squinzi, not other sponsors, not Lefevere. We decided to go 80km from the finish and we didn’t know we’d stay with three guys in front. 

Tafi: The Italian press called it treason because a foreigner won. Because we should have decided it in a sprint … it was a bit hard to digest but I’m happy because we gave the fans a special memory.

Museeuw: There are pros and cons, but I’m still pro. I don’t believe that another team will ride together with three team-mates into the velodrome.

Tafi: I remember what Museeuw said when we got off the bike in Roubaix: “Thank you – don’t worry, I won’t forget this.” Five months later at Paris-Brussels, 30 kilometres from the finish, he told me: “Today, you’re winning Andrea.” He blocked our rivals’ attacks after I escaped alone. And this was the strength, the real point of Mapei. We knew that if Museeuw won today, someone else would win the next day.

Lefevere: At the finish, I said to Andrea: “Do you remember what I told you at Paris-Roubaix?” Dottore Squinzi, who had been in the car with me that day, started crying. And then Tafi started winning. After Paris-Brussels, he won Paris-Roubaix, Paris-Tours and Flanders.

Squinzi: Of the Mapei trophies in my office, I’m very attached to the Paris-Roubaix one which Franco Ballerini gave to me before his fatal rally accident. He was a man to whom we were all very connected.

Steels: Before the 1998 Roubaix he won, it was like Ballerini was on another planet. He got on to the team bus before the start and was totally in the zone. I never saw that before, he was talking to himself in Italian. He was gone. I think that day he was so obsessed about winning Roubaix because if there’s one rider over the years who had the build, power and willingness for that race, it was him.

TafiPeeters: Behind Franco, I was with Tafi. He never pulled a metre. I said before the final 500 metres “okay, I finish second,” and he said nothing. Then the last corner, he passed me like a mad dog. He flicked me. I was very pissed off. Okay, long time ago. Second over third would have changed my life. That was not correct.

Steels: It was never easy [with many champions and egos on the team]. We went to the 1998 Tour with two sprinters, Jan Svorada and me. We actually both did our own sprints – he went left, I went right. I won a stage [four, in fact - Ed] and he won a stage. It isn’t an easy situation, but you have to use your professional attitude to overcome it.

Peeters: The next year at Roubaix, it was the same situation. I was away on a tarmac road. Who comes up from behind? Andrea Tafi, with Leon van Bon on his wheel. Then he goes on the left side of the road, Van Bon stays with me on the right, Tafi takes 15 metres and is away. The race was over. Then I had the legs to take second in the finale. So that was also not correct. You never chase a team-mate. I never did that in my life.

Tafi: Sometimes, someone could feel bad for a victory that didn’t come their way or perhaps think a team-mate had done them a discourtesy, that’s normal. But were there ever problems between riders? Zero. Never. This was the great strength of Mapei … we said the captain is the one who is most in form. If there’s four of you and one is in front, you’re the captain and the rest help you.

STeelsMuseeuw: The strongest of the day always wins. Most of the Classics, that was me. But that 1998 Paris-Roubaix, I had a bad crash in the Arenberg and broke my knee. The season was over, I didn’t know at that moment how difficult it would be. The leg got gangrene.

Dr Van Mol: There was a real risk of losing his leg, of losing his life. After two months, he could think about the possibility of pro racing again. I’ve never seen someone spending so much time on his recovery, with such conviction. It was incredible.

Museeuw: To win Roubaix two years later, the same race where I’d crashed and almost had my leg amputated, was something great. I had a lot of emotion. Pointing to my knee was a sign to say thank you to the people who brought me back: my family and my doctors.

In the winter of 1998, Mapei made the big money signing of world number one and World Cup winner Michele Bartoli.

Michele Bartoli: It was an attractive deal where I could take many of my Asics team-mates to the world’s number one team. Originally, Mapei didn’t want to take Paolo Bettini. I insisted.

At the start, it was a perfect group. I started winning right away at the Ruta del Sol, Tirreno-Adriatico, Flèche Wallonne. Perhaps the only problem was working with Aldo Sassi. I won races with my training philosophy [and coach Luigi Cecchini]. And I had to completely upturn my way of working. But they let me follow my ideas, always staying in contact with Mapei.

Paolo BettiniBettini: It was like going to university, I’d found myself in a team with so many champions and so many possibilities to learn … I started with the philosophy of vincere insieme, which was the secret to Mapei’s success. At the ’99 Tirreno-Adriatico, I was working for Bartoli. One day, he gave me carte blanche and I won. From there, it started to change – not the relationship with Michele, but the logic of the employment with Mapei. I was not just Michele’s gregario, I was Paolo Bettini, who could win too.

Bartoli: Then this bloody crash ruined things. Unfortunately, I remember everything. It was the final stage of the [1999] Tour of Germany. I had stopped with team-mate Pavel Tonkov and we were getting back on at 30km/h. There was a fall, he braked, his bike turned and my knee went into his wheel – a Spinergy carbon one. My kneecap was cut in two; my knee basically didn’t exist anymore.

Paolo Fornaciari: Bartoli had great class. I was one of the gregarios: it’s this altruism I get from my mother. I’m not cold-blooded. The night before Paris-Roubaix ‘99, my room-mate Tafi said: “Forna, stay near me tomorrow because I’m going to do a number.”

At the second feed zone, there were 40 left, seven from Mapei. There was war inside [the team] between Belgium and Italy, with Lefevere and Fabbri in the team cars – one preferring a Belgian, the other an Italian. I was up there, but my handlebars broke and I crashed in the only Roubaix I could have finished in front. Well, I’d have been fortieth…

Tafi: Forna was lying in the ambulance at the finish, moaning “Ow, oh it hurts… who won? Tafi? Tafi!! I’m okay, I’m fine, stop here!” He got out – he was scraped up really bad – and embraced me. That’s something that will stay with me.

Squinzi: The races I remember with the most passion are the five Paris-Roubaix victories. With Ballerini, Museeuw, Tafi, it was our race. That stays in my heart, I still watch it every year on TV.

Tafi: I think cycling has to be something lived, that gives you emotion, that you feel inside … Now I can say I’m happy because I’ve won Paris-Roubaix. But if I didn’t, it could have been one of the biggest regrets eating away at me.

Read part three

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