Mapei: Modern Cycling's Greatest Team, part three

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.

Part one
Part two

Part three, 2000-02: Dreams and Revolutions 

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.

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.

Giacomo Carminati
As his WhatsApp profile jokes, he’s the Mapei man with the most wins – as the team bus driver who was there from start to finish. “The riders confided in me, talking about the problems they had in the race or at home. You felt like you were in a big family,” he says.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Michael Rogers
A three-time world time-trial champion, the Australian rode for Quick Step, T-Mobile, Team Sky and Saxo. He became one of the most respected road captains in cycling via two Giro d’Italia stage wins and one at the Tour de France.

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.”

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.

Bettini: My first Classic was the 2000 Liège-Bastogne-Liège, a race Mapei had never won before. It was easy. In the sense that it was without athletic stress. A rider wins when he’s living in a calm environment. So when many say to me that the first four years of my career at the service of Bartoli were wasted, I disagree because in ’99 and 2000 at Mapei, I perfected myself. I could finish my development as a rider in a team where it wasn’t my responsibility to win. Because there was Bartoli, Tafi, Nardello, Steels…

Giacomo Carminati: Paolo embraced me at the finish, he took me in his arms. I cried when we won – every single time – from the happiness I had. It was as if I had won.

Bettini: Logically after that, the team considered me differently to how they did at the end of the 1999 season. That hurt Michele. And that’s where the friction started.

Bartoli: It’s simple, there wasn’t the complete friendship between us there was before. These things happen: in a marriage, it’s I love you, I love you, then after a few years, I don’t love you anymore!
Bettini: We don’t see each other every day, but we have a good relationship.

Bartoli: Are we friends? Yes. Acquaintances. I’m not indifferent to his life. He’s someone I shared a lot with. He did it his way, I did mine. Those were two very complicated years after the accident. I owe my comeback to Yvan Van Mol and [physiotherapist] Lieven Maesschalck. To the Belgian lot: the ones who could have easily been against me at the start saved me.

For Mapei, I was someone who cost a lot of money and couldn’t race: it was a problem. However, it was an accident, not my fault. Sometimes I felt a bit alienated. 2001 was not the worst year of my career, but the most painful. The relationship with Mapei was fundamentally over … It was a mental thing too. I didn’t feel I had the faith of the squad. It was better we both turned our backs. [Bartoli joined Fassa Bortolo in September 2001.]

Lefevere: I asked Dottore Squinzi to leave because I was sick – I didn’t know I had pancreatic cancer at the time. Plus not everyone in an Italian team of 80 was happy with being commanded by a Flemish guy.

[Belgian rider] Nico Mattan’s neighbour was the marketing director at Domo, he knew nothing about cycling but wanted to talk to me about it. So I had nothing to lose. We were speaking about numbers and with one foot in the grave, I thought if I recover, I will make a team in 2002. But he said “no, we want one in 2001”.

Peeters: I remember it like yesterday. Patrick came into the room and said he had a new sponsor. I was there with Johan and we asked each other what we were doing. “We can go together to Domo with Patrick,” I said. We shook hands and we had the first two riders.

Museeuw: Mapei was also the beginning of Lefevere. Now he’s one of the biggest team managers with a lot of good riders. Before it was Mapei, now it’s the Wolf Pack. He has something special in his brain, in his feelings, in his DNA to work with a lot of good riders in the same team. To try and make everyone happy. I don’t know if anyone else could do that.

During races, I was always silent and different but afterwards, I wanted to have fun with team-mates. That was, and still is, the spirit of Lefevere: in the race, we are going there to win. In training, we want to go hard. But occasionally, we can drink, eat well and have a laugh.

Carminati: Davide Bramati was a big joker; him, [Paolo] Lanfranchi, Fornaciari. If someone started messing around, it never stopped. Water bomb fights, shaving cream sprayed around, hiding the possessions of team-mates.

Michael Rogers: During a long training camp one year, the older guys must have been getting a bit bored. They rushed into the room of Giampaolo Cheula, who was lying on a bed in his underwear. They picked up the whole mattress, him included, put it in the lift and sent it down to reception.
Davide Bramati
Tafi: They decided to add a Mapei youth team with Roberto Damiani: Fabian Cancellara, Cadel Evans, Pippo Pozzato, Luca Paolini. An incredible squad of talents. The idea was for them to replace us.

Rogers: I signed for them after the Olympics in 2000. I can still remember getting to my apartment. Two brand new Colnago C40 training bikes were sitting there with 40 sets of shorts and jerseys. Can you imagine? It was like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

All the development team riders were living together in a beautiful residence in Varano Borghi [near Varese]. There was a pool, a carer and an Italian family there who would help us if we needed anything.

The idea behind the whole young pro team was also to be dependent on the new methodology of coaching Mapei Sport Centre was putting together. We were constantly there doing endless testing and working with Luca [Guercilena] and Aldo Sassi on training programmes. I even met my wife there; she was working as a secretary.

It really was so, so far ahead of its time. I can still remember a training camp meeting where they said: “Guys, we do it the hard way. Nobody will take anything without doctors’ permission. You do not put a pill in your mouth or anything in your vein unless we tell you, and obviously that includes nothing illegal.” We understood that [anti-doping ethos] from day one.

I think it was one of the first attempts to replicate cycling in a football-style togetherness: training together, having support staff 24 hours a day and a sports centre. A few current teams have tried to replicate that structure but to my knowledge, it didn’t have the broad vision of Squinzi and Sassi.
Bettini: We were a new thing for the Noughties. There were so many racers from so many nations because the objective of Mapei was to be visible around the world.

Peeters: I think one year we had 48 riders. We saw each other once a year at training camp and most of the guys went on another race programme. It wasn’t possible to know everybody.

Bettini: We speak a lot today about the globalisation of bike racing. Mapei started it with those kids, racing at the Tour Down Under, the Tour of Cuba, China, South Africa.

Rogers: We learned about everything: racing in crosswinds, on cobbles, how to defend a race lead. They didn’t let us specialise on anything too early. If there was a good young climber, they’d send him to Belgium to broaden his skills. I still think it’s one of the reasons we became such versatile riders. Look at Fabian Cancellara: fantastic at the time-trial, Classics, cobbles and sprinting. We always saw he’d be something special.

Steels: Oscar Freire was by far the most talented rider I ever saw. We were team-mates but he beat me into second at the 2001 Tour of Germany like I was standing still.

Bettini: Freire was incredible. Incredible for having his head in the clouds [laughs] In the best possible sense. He was so strong because he always had a relaxed approach to life. In some aspects, Nibali reminds me of Freire; Vincenzo is always in his own world. But Oscar was unbeatable for that.

The day before the 2001 Worlds in Lisbon, he went out training and couldn’t find the Spanish team hotel. He flagged down a taxi and asked them to take him there – with his bike. The taxi took him to the police station, the cops made two calls to work out where the accommodation was and took him there. Then he won the Worlds the next day! That is Oscar Freire. And he was very much into the Mapei philosophy.

Squinzi: So many riders defined it. Andrea Tafi is certainly one. He came to us as a gregario and became a winner of great Classics. We forget that he won a Giro di Lombardia, Paris-Roubaix, Tour of Flanders, Paris-Brussels.

Another was Cadel Evans. At the 2002 Giro d’Italia, he held the maglia rosa until five kilometres from the final climb and cracked. He’s certainly one of the cleanest riders in the history of modern cycling. We felt the wins he achieved afterwards belonged a little bit to us because we continued to train him with Andrea Morelli and the Mapei Sport Centre.

Bettini: I was shopping in my local supermarket. My phone rang; it was Aldo Sassi.
“Ciao, Aldo.”
“I have to give you some bad news.”
“What’s happened?”
“Mapei is closing, it’s finishing.”
And I walked straight out, leaving the trolley with all my things there.

Rogers: It was June 24, 2002. I had just won GP Beauce in Canada and we were about to board the plane home. Our sports director received a text message. We were all devastated, that was a long flight home.

Squinzi: The disqualification of Garzelli at the 2002 Giro d’Italia [for a positive Probenecid test] was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Because we realised at that point we weren’t well accepted in the environment and there were too many things that I wasn’t able to understand. And also don’t forget that after ten seasons, the publicity and promotional effects were slightly lessened.

Bartoli: I can only say thanks to him and Mapei because cycling grew so much. Sponsors came onto the scene, teams became businesses of 70 people. Now, all the WorldTour teams have that, minimum.

Rogers: They had a massive influence in the broader community of Italian cycling too. They sponsored several amateur teams whose philosophy they liked and put on races for everyone from kids to adults. That’s been a real loss.

Bettini: Even the other teams were grateful for Mapei. Because they raised salaries for the champions, the directeur sportifs, the masseurs, the mechanics. They changed the game.

Steels: When I built my house, I got some products from Mapei. I still have every jersey and the Colnago, which was also the best material. They worked with carbon frames far ahead of other teams, so the bike often made a difference. It was more than just a team, that’s for sure.

Tafi: My dream would be that one day, there can be a second Mapei. A second chance to re-live these huge moments we enjoyed together.

Davide Bramati: If they come back, it will be good for cycling. Maybe they’ll return to win the Tour de France and Milan-Sanremo…

Lefevere: I think Mapei is the greatest team in history. Because Squinzi was a good boss and wanted to help cycling with the Mapei Centre. He didn’t drop humility and made the effort to try to change the sport. I think a lot of people disappointed him. I hope I didn’t.

Squinzi: What’s been has been. I don’t think we’ll come back to cycling. It’s difficult to go backwards. We’re living this adventure in football [sponsoring the rapidly-risen Serie A club Sassuolo] and I think when we leave it, there won’t be any other investments on sport. We’ve done enough already.

Museeuw: You can still buy those jerseys, there is a Mapei account on Instagram that still makes the Colnago bike in those colours. There’s still something going on with the Mapei generation. It’s history. In the beginning, nobody knew Mapei. And now everybody does – even 20 years after they stopped. There’s never been a Mapei team reunion. But if somebody organises it, everybody will come.

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