Mapei: Modern cycling's greatest team, part one

WORDS: ANDY MCGRATH | PHOTOS: PAOLO MARTELLI / OFFSIDE

8 minute read

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.

This article was originally published in Rouleur 19.5.

Part one, 1993-95: A difficult birth 

The cast:

Marco Giovanetti
Mapei years: 1993-1994
The 1990 Vuelta champion was a consistent top-ten Giro finisher through the '80s. He now runs Hotel Le Cerbaie in the Tuscan town of Altopascio.

Andrea Tafi
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
1995-2000
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.

Dr Yvan Vanmol
1995-2000
The bespectacled doctor has been working in pro cycling since the early 1980s and is currently at Deceuninck-Quick Step.

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
1995-2000
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.

Mapei

Marco Giovanetti: It’s a bit of a painful story. You get some things in your head, commit to them fully, and then with time, you realise everything went wrong.

In 1992, I’d won the Italian national championships, a Giro stage and finished fourth overall there and at the Vuelta. Someone convinced me to create a cycling team and business for after my career. This man, Galletti, said he would find backers if I did the rest as rider-manager.

I trusted him to find sponsors, he made me think he’d got them too. In reality, he had none. I’d been tricked. Unfortunately, I had already signed up riders, masseurs, mechanics and directeur sportifs. So I found myself in the ugly position of telling all these people that there was no money.

Eldor was the name on the jersey, I think they made computer products. But Eldor never truly existed as a sponsor, they didn’t give us a Lira. It was an invention by Galletti. The boss of Eldor didn’t know anything about it, they hadn’t signed a contract. That was the problem. I was fighting all this while I was racing; I had to get lawyers and go to court.

Mapei

Still, we did well that spring; Luca Gelfi was second in Milan-Sanremo. We got by with the money from [secondary sponsor] Viner, but it was insufficient for the whole year.

At a meeting of the Italian cycling league, the great champion Ercole Baldini said to me: “Marco, I know somebody who can solve the problem.” It was his friend, Squinzi of Mapei. I went to meet him in Milan with my wife and Alvaro Crespi, head of the riders’ association, lending a hand. It was 18 May 1993, Squinzi’s fiftieth birthday, and he was waiting for us before his party.

What an adventure. Our cars got separated, I got lost and had to call Crespi and ask him to turn around. We were running late when we got there, I thought ‘oh no.’ But he was still there. I told him about our problems and he said ‘how much do you want? The only thing that I want is to design the jersey.’ [Laughs] Of course, whatever you want! That was no problem.

Squinzi

Dott. Giorgio Squinzi: I’d loved cycling since I was a child. We did a little experiment sponsoring Malvor-Bottecchia in 1988 without big results. This particular decision was made in two or three days.

Giovanetti: He gave us economic means and we could pay everyone immediately. This was five days before the ’93 Giro too – Parentini made the new jerseys and [mechanic] “Carube” [Roberto Lencioni] brought them to the team at midnight: another adventure. That Giro as Mapei-Viner was a bit flat, though I finished second on a stage.

I decided to be a rider for another year. If it didn’t go well, I’d become a team manager. I gave them a hand making the team for ’94. Squinzi wanted Franco Ballerini, and I convinced him to sign. Nobody knew Mapei, riders were unsure about coming there. [They also met with Mario Cipollini, but couldn’t agree terms.] Then Waldemaro Bartolozzi came on board as team manager and Crespi too. I fought for [Eldor DS] Fabrizio Fabbri and brought in Gianluca Bortolami. Even the bus driver, Giacomo Carminati, too, who was with me at Gatorade. And I signed a contract with Andrea Tafi, who lived nearby in Tuscany; he wasn’t going strong, it seemed he had no team.

Mapei

Andrea Tafi: So the colossus started. It was not the Mapei everyone would come to know. We started this beautiful, new experience in a big family, not a big team. It was a surprise for me to get to know a very important businessman who got on us with us as if he was our father. Squinzi always made you feel like you were at home.

Squinzi: Our ambitions were to grow, year after year; they got bigger after we joined with Clas in 1994, a fusion brought about by Ernesto Colnago [who supplied their bikes]. Tony Rominger joined, we had the goal to win Grand Tours – and he won the Vuelta in ’94 and the Giro in ’95.

Our marketing department, led by my wife [Adriana Spazzoli], designed the Mapei jersey. I saw a recent Tour de France stage finish and there were still fans wearing it, which was nice. And I remember those coloured shorts – they created a lot of publicity in 1994. At first, Rominger didn’t want to wear them, he was used to having black ones. Now, it’s become a normal thing; we were innovators of that.

Mapei

 

Giovanetti: Squinzi wasn’t content with a squad that became a force over time; he wanted to do it immediately. He put Mapei with the Spanish team Clas without truly amalgamating them. That was a mistake.

Anyway, long story short, I broke a vertebra at the ’94 Giro, got no results and decided to retire. The problem was when I got back to Doctor Squinzi, I’d gone from being a manager to being nothing. They had already appointed jobs. All the friends that I’d put there… well, I don’t know what they said to Squinzi to make those changes, but they didn’t consider me a manager anymore, but press officer for 1995. And I was no good at that, I left after six months. So, it was a difficult birth, let’s say. I was on the inside when it was difficult; when it was easy, I was tossed to the kerb. I sowed the seeds and the others reaped the rewards! [laughs] Squinzi never explained it to me; I never asked him. My character is a bit like that. And I washed my hands with cycling. 

*   *

Patrick Lefevere: I was at GB-MG in 1994. Ariostea had stopped, its manager Giancarlo Ferretti had gone behind my back to the boss of MG and put his eggs in my team. He brought in Sørensen, Elli, all those guys and suddenly I was a sports director, not manager. We were so successful and then Waldemaro Bartolozzi asked me to join Mapei.

I said no, unaware that Ferretti had joined our teams. It was a deception. But to be fair, Ferretti was a big professional. With team spirit and grinta, he brought his riders to a higher level.

The second time Bartolozzi asked me, I said yes. I came to Mapei for free because I brought big Classics riders [Bomans, Museeuw, Peeters, Willems] and sponsors GB and Latexco, so we didn’t cost money. The Spanish gang was not so happy, they said what the hell are you doing here? But Dr Squinzi was about everyone being together; he said if I make a team, I want it to be the best in the world. So, we were a merger of two squads: having been Eldor and Mapei-Clas, now it was Mapei-GB. It was a fantastic team in ’95 and ’96. I had Olano, Rominger, all these strong stage race riders and I wanted a very strong Classics team.

Lefevere

Dr Yvan Vanmol: Something clicked between the Belgian and Italian riders from the beginning. That fusion was much easier than the one between the Spanish and the Italo-Belgian riders. Because the Spanish were always like little teams within teams.

Wilfried Peeters: I prefer to be among foreigners. For me, nationality is not important. Every country has its own mentality and I like that. We learn from each other and that’s one of the important points for Mapei – okay, I was in the Classics group but I did the Tour de France a lot of times and went on to work with Bartoli, Bettini, Olano.

Lefevere: I’m not a hypocrite: money brings structure. If you don’t have the budget, you can’t bring the structure you want. But I was not always thinking as a sports director, I trained as a bookkeeper. So, I was also considering the best possible thing for my sponsor and Doctor Squinzi liked me. He liked the Flemish spirit. He would ask me pre-season, “what will we win this year?” I said “Doctor, don’t ask me that. I won’t give you a number, but we’ll do our very best.”

Mapei

Tafi: It was a joy to win the ’95 Giro d’Italia with Rominger. That’s never simple. I remember a stage going over San Pellegrino in Alpe in Tuscany and finishing on the climb of the Ciocco. I had already done a lot of work for Rominger. He was the only captain who I would work for till I was dead.

He told me to drop off on San Pellegrino, I did, but I fought back on. It’s a good thing I was there too because he punctured at the foot of the descent. Fortunately, I was coming from behind, worked till the Ciocco and we kept that maglia rosa.

Before the penultimate stage, Rominger said he was sick and might quit the next day. We all went ‘no Tony, don’t worry, relax. And go to bed!’ He ended up being okay and there was the finale in Milan to honour a maglia rosa we’d protected from the second stage to the very end. We celebrated in one of Milan’s finest hotels. I saw the happiness in the eyes of Dottore Squinzi and [his wife] Dottoressa Spazzoli. They were in seventh heaven.

Part two, 'Vincere Insieme', coming soon...