By Andy Sullivan
After a career of near retirements, victories and uphill battles, Andrea Tafi, the last gladiator, is setting out for possibly his last year
in the professional peloton. But is he rolling down easy? Taking a handy
ride? Helping his younger teammates fit in to the world of
the professional cycling? No - he still wants to win some of the biggest races in
the world, battling away to the end like you
would expect from an old warrior!
For Tafi cycling almost began as a joke, a bit of fun between friends, but once
he started he was hooked. Even at an early age he
rode full on and hard, just in the style he does today - attacking again and again! Never known as a climber, sprinter or even a
time-trialist, he fit in well with the role of a gregario, a workhorse, and he
rarely got a chance to win in his early years, but when
the opportunity came he often took it.
Victory in the 1991 Giro del Lazio laid
the foundation to his now legendary nickname
,"IL Gladiatore" - it also led him to bigger contracts with bigger teams. Since
then he has become a grand champion with the
Mapei team and has been able compete in some of the world's top races. He also
became the only Italian in history to have
won both the Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders in a single career. Many
Italians have won Roubaix and other Italians
Flanders, but no Italian, not even his hero Moser, has both Flanders and Roubaix on
his Palmares together. Each success seemed
spurred on with a point to prove. At different times in his long career
retirement seemed the only option open, but each time he
came back to prove the doubters wrong, like in Lazio1991, Burgos 2001 and Flanders
Deutschland Tour June 2002. Photo by Emilia Reutin. Click for
Many claimed the same thing last year when "Tafone" seemed to drop off the
face of the earth in the second half of the season
after a poor first half, but then, many never knew the full story. The simple fact of
the matter was that he began to have breathing
problems with his nose when complications came about from a crash at the end of
2002 GP Prato in Italy, his last race for
Mapei. Mid season his nose became blocked 99 percent on one side and because
of this Andrea had to breath out
completely through his mouth instead, causing many fevers. As he laments, "The
year 2003 was a difficult one for me as I
suffered from a series of physical problems, especially respiratory ones. During
this past winter I had laser surgery on my nose.
When I started to train again, I didn't suffer from any type of respiratory
problem. So I am hopeful and firmly set on bringing
home some good results".
His last race was, ironically, the Tour of Denmark for the Danish CSC squad,
his first foreign team, and not for the first time in his
career he stared down the thought of retirement. But after numerous contract
negotiations he finally returned home to ride for
the Alessio-Bianchi team for 2004. Already he has fit in well with the modest
"I found a very peaceful atmosphere, very
family-like, but also very professional. The ideal environment", emphasized Tafi, "for finding new motivations, one that will
certainly allow me to get back to being competitive and successful real soon".
Andrea is also delighted to be racing on a Bianchi
bike this season as well: "I'm really proud to be competing on a Bianchi bicycle.
A bike that contributed to making the history of
cycling, becoming a legend thanks to Bianchi's commitment and constant
technological research in the competitive sector and
with the collaboration of some of cycling's greatest champions, such as Fausto
Coppi. It's a 'historical' but extremely modern
bicycle. I used it for my training all winter long and I just can't wait to test
it during a race."
But what are his objectives for 2004? Well there are always the major northern
classics to consider and of course Paris-Roubaix
is the target. "My dream is to win one of the classic competitions in the North,
like the Paris-Roubaix, which I had the pleasure
and honor of winning in 1999, or the Flanders. It's not going to be easy", he
says, " but it's not impossible".
Another dream is the Italian national road race championships in Tuscany this
year. The circuit passes near his home and the
home of his parents and he would love to add it to his 1998 win in Bergamo. The
championships are held just before the Tour
de France, but the question is whether Tafi will ride Le Tour or any of the three
majors in possibly his last year as a pro. After all,
he has never managed to win a stage in any of the three-week major tours, but
with the Italian Olympic team to be selected
according to good rides in the Tour, it is a distant possibility that he may line
up in July, even at 38 years of age!
Then there's the
World's in Italy in Verona, where a twelve man squad may be easier to gain a
place in; after all, he finished 11th the last time the
Worlds was held in Verona in 1999 - amazingly, this was his last ride in the World championships. That year a crash put paid to
his chances but 2004 could bring better luck.
Most important of all targets near the end of the year for Tafi will be the
Giro del Lazio, a race he has won three times, and if he
were to gain a fourth victory he will become the greatest rider in that
prestigious race. It would be a great moment indeed if the
Gladiator could stage one final great victory in Rome not far from the Colosseum!
But so far this season has not started so well. Problems with his teeth caused
him to require an operation and he missed
important races in February, then a stomach bug at the Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne
meant retirement after two kilometers. But
there are signs of greatness still, like his near 100 kilometre break at the
second stage of the Giro di Lucca, and Tafi himself
claims he feels," five years younger!"
Now he has ridden Tirreno-Adriatico in
search of the elusive form to bring him possible
success, and he is on the start list for Milan Sanremo this Saturday, but with little miles behind him it will be difficult. But any who would
doubt him in his abilities and chances to return to
the top of his form would take note that whenever he is down and seemingly out,
"the Gladiator" fights back and succeeds, and
hopefully 2004 will be no exception. GO TAFI!
Tafi at the 1999 Paris Roubaix. Courtesy Team Malarenergi.