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Mapei 1996

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It was 1996, and since moving to France four years earlier, I’d been working as a freelance photographer and journalist in cycling, mainly stringing for VeloNews, along with sundry publications around the world, most of which no longer exist. With the spring classics approaching, I was looking for an offbeat topic I could sell. The Mapei team looked like a good place to start. Since its inception in 1994, it was motivated for the cobblestone classics whereas most teams were only motivated for the Tour de France. And though Mapei had won Paris-Roubaix the previous year with Franco Ballerini, it was not yet the armada it would soon become.


TEAM MANAGER Patrick Lefevere tries to make sense of the official accreditations. Normally in a race there are only two team cars, but in Paris-Roubaix they had no less than six team cars.


JOHAN MUSEEUW looks over each of his wheel sets in the courtyard on Saturday afternoon. Museeuw was the most tense the day before the race and he was frustrated by Colnago, his bike sponsor, that refused RockShox front suspension. After winning the race a day later, he appeared much less concerned!

In the weeks prior to that 1996 Paris-Roubaix I spoke with Patrick Lefevere, the team’s directeur sportif, about the possibility of embedding myself with the riders in the 24 hours leading up to their biggest objective of the year. He agreed. I then contacted my editor at VeloNews, John Wilcockson, who liked the idea as well. Story sold.

I met up with the riders early Saturday afternoon at the official Paris-Roubaix team presentation in Compiègne—where the start is traditionally held. Lefevere briefed the riders who were standing in the wings of the auditorium in the city’s Imperial Theatre. And with a smile or a nod of the head, they all understood that I would be with them for much of the weekend.


GIANLUCA BORTOLAMI sits at the center of the table during the team’s last supper on the evening before the race.

Soon after, I followed them back to their hotel, the bucolic Auberge de la Vieille Ferme in Le Meux, a small village outside of Compiègne. While many teams preferred the more modern Hôtel Mercure in town, Lefevere always took his team to this family-run inn, sufficiently removed from the buzz around the start of the epic French race.

On the warm April day, the riders relaxed in the sunshine that bathed the inn’s courtyard. Italy’s Ballerini, the defending champion, was relaxed, virtually Zen-like throughout the weekend. In contrast, Belgium’s Johan Museeuw, who had yet to win the first of his three Roubaix races, appeared more nervous. More introverted, he spoke little as he studied his wheels or mechanically signed autographs. He was nervous and showed his displeasure in the fact that the team’s bike manufacturer, Ernesto Colnago, refused to equip the bikes with the revolutionary RockShox suspension forks. What he didn’t know yet was that, with the team’s stunning victory the next day, the pendulum would swing back to using more traditional bikes on the Hell of the North cobbles. Small talk was the order of the day, be it in French, Flemish or Italian, as this multinational team prepared for their biggest race of the year.


ONCE THE BUS ARRIVED in Compiègne, the mechanics set up the race bikes. Unlike most teams, the Mapei bus remained far from the start area and the riders simply rode over to the start at the end of sign-in, before lining up for the start.


ON THE BUS to the start in Compiègne, the riders cut through the tension with silly humor. Here Wilfried Peeters puts his own helmet on the head of a rider’s postcard, while Johan Museeuw (left) and Tom Steels (center) look on.

On the team bus the next morning, I expected the mood to be tense among the riders as they headed to the start. Instead, many of them were almost giddy. Now it was Ballerini’s turn to be introspective as he sat calmly in the back of the bus, while the others joked up front.


WHILE HIS TEAMMATES SAT in the front of the bus, Ballerini preferred the quiet in the back as he prepared to defend his title in his favorite race.

Parking nearly a kilometer from the start, the mechanics prepared the race bikes while the riders remained sheltered inside for a few final moments. Then, shortly before the start, the team grabbed their bikes and rolled to the sign-in.


TOM STEELS leads the riders out of the Auberge de la Vieille Ferme on Sunday morning. The old brick farmhouse with its cobbled entryway was a fitting stopover as the riders prepared for the Hell of the North.

Throughout the day, Ballerini’s teammates never left the front. Riding aggressively, they accelerated shortly after exiting the mythic Arenberg Forest. And soon there were only three riders alone at the front of the race—Museeuw, Gianluca Bortolami and Andrea Tafi—all sporting the multicolored Mapei kit.


BART LEYSEN, one of the team domestiques, tests his bike on the road in front of the Auberge, verifying the handlebar position with the added layers of bar tape.

Their dominance that day was not well received, especially when the trio appeared to openly disagree as to who would actually cross the line first. Museeuw was the handpicked favorite of Lefevere, and likely the strongest rider on the team. But Bortolami, who had won the UCI World Cup title in 1994, felt it was his turn for Roubaix glory.

On the outdoor Roubaix velodrome, the trio rode to the finish in a well-orchestrated formation, with Museeuw taking first, Bortolami second and Tafi third. Again, the reception was mixed as their overt dominance did not sit well with the cycling community—just as the media were outraged two years earlier in that EPO decade when another Italian team, Gewiss-Ballan, completed a too-good-to-be-true sweep at the Flèche Wallonne classic. But then, no other team in the history of the sport focused so uniquely on the cobbled classics as Mapei. With top specialists Museeuw, Ballerini, Bortolami and Tafi joining forces, they simply flooded the list of potential winners. Ballerini would go on to take a second Roubaix victory in 1998, Museeuw would win twice again, and Tafi would join them in the winner’s circle in 1999. In short, year in and year out, Mapei was the team to beat on the pavé. p


FRANCO BALLERINI talks with journalists outside the team bus in Roubaix after the race, remaining jovial despite his own disappointment. Ballerini flatted just when the team launched its massive attack and could only watch from the roadside as Johan Museeuw, Gianluca Bortolami and Andrea Tafi raced up the road.

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From issue 41. Buy it here.