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Andrea Tafi 2004
By Staff
Date: 3/18/2004
Andrea Tafi 2004

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 2002.

Deutschland Tour June 2002. Photo by Emilia Reutin. Click for larger image.

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 squad.

"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.

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