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Paris Roubaix 1996
 
By Guest Contributor
Date: 4/3/2006
Paris Roubaix 1996
 

“And it’s 1,2,3… what are we fighting for?”
Mapei’s Historic Super Sweep in Roubaix: “Per Vincere Insieme” (Winning Together) was the motto of Italian super squadra Mapei and it was never more appropriate than ten years ago on Sunday, April 14, 1996. The story of the race finish was the subject of some controversy at the time...

By Tony Szurly

  

“Per Vincere Insieme” (Winning Together) was the motto of Italian super squadra Mapei and it was never more appropriate than ten years ago on Sunday, April 14, 1996. In the centenary anniversary of the great “Hell of the North” spring classic, Mapei found itself in the unique position of having three of it’s top riders away and in contention for the victory. The story of the race finish was the subject of some controversy at the time and marred the memory of one of the most powerful displays of team strength ever seen on the roads of this cycling monument.

After the dreaded Arenberg section, a group of twenty riders containing Mapei’s Johan Museeuw, Franco Ballerini, Gianluca Bortolami, Andrea Tafi, Ludwig Willems and Wilfried Peeters and also 1994 winner Andrei Tchmil, Fabio Baldato, Slava Ekimov and Lars Michaelsen. In Walliers, with ten sections of pave remaining, defending champion Ballerini punctured. The Mapei machine rolled on, leaving Ballo to his own devices. The unlucky Italian cobbles specialist would puncture 3 times in around 10km, sealing his fate for the day.

The chasing group was behind the Mapei trio by around one minute at Orchies, with over 75km still to race. When Museeuw suddenly stopped for a wheel change, Mapei DS Patrick Lefevere quickly sped up to the still continuing Italian pair and ordered them to wait for Museeuw. It seemed reasonable at the time as there was still plenty of racing left and the efforts of strongman Museeuw would be a definite advantage. But it was the first hint of another strategic battle being played within the race.

Behind the leaders, Ballerini, a truly talented cobbles man of immense strength, had not thrown in the towel just yet; blasting over the Templemars stones at a rate that was quickly shedding all others. As he passed the front remnants of the splintering chase group, only Stefano Zanini could keep his wheel. At the 235km mark, Ballerini got his marching orders. Stop chasing. Zannini was too fast of a finisher to risk bringing him up to the front three. The Mapei man dutifully moved in behind Zanini. “He told me he was sorry but that he couldn’t help me chase”, Zanini said later. It was a truly professional arrangement that both men understood well and nothing more was said.

Ahead, Museeuw sat mostly in third position, happy to let the Italian pair lead the way. When he punctured just eight kilometers from the velodrome, Lefevere went ahead to “remind” his charges once again of the team plan and they slow pedaled as Museeuw caught up after his wheel change, although the Italians could be seen talking to one another the whole time they waited.

Their conversation over the Mapei team car radio signal was picked up by Italian satellite TV station Italia Uno:

Lefevere to Bortolami: “You’ve got to convince Andrea to keep cool- if he doesn’t, he’ll be looking for another team!”

Bortolami to Tafi: “Andrea, don’t forget the deal. Don’t try anything, Johan has to win.”

Tafi: “I don’t want to win; I just want you to let me take second. But you won’t even let me do that!”

In the previous year’s race, Bortolami and Tafi, the workhorse stalwarts of the team, had been away with Italian teamate Franco Ballerini, and provided textbook team support as he soloed away to victory. This time they both thought they had earned a chance at individual glory and were less inclined to throw away a rare chance to win the Queen of the Classics.

Spectators along the race route and all over the world via television were treated to some very animated discussions between the Mapei trio and the team car, with each man taking a turn to drop back to the team car to plead his case with Lefevere, their raised voices easily heard on the televion coverage. Bortolami seemed the most insistent and Museeuw’s anger over the squabbling could clearly be heard in his curt barking at his teammates.

According to Lefevere and also Museeuw, the decision who should “win” was made from the Italian office of Mapei’s managing director, Dr. Giorgio Squinzi. “He called me on the car phone from Italy and told me Johan should win. That was the decision we would have taken anyway. Anyone who understands anything about this team and cycling understands how much Johan has done for us.” said Lefevere.

  

As the trio entered the storied Roubaix velodrome, their finishing order was pre-ordained and there was no mad dash for the line. Museeuw, in a tribute to his teammates, made a victory salute that reached back and acknowledged his two wingmen as they crossed the line in a tight group. One would think it was the perfect finish and a great team moment for the perennially strong Italo-Belgian super team.

“Today’s result is a great testament to our togetherness as a team and the excellent support of our sponsor,” said Lefevere at the velodrome, perfectly echoing the Per Vincere Insieme company line.

It soon became evident that others had different opinions. “Scandal in Roubaix” decried Italian daily Carriere dello Sport the next morning. “Treason of 100 Years” railed Tutto Sport. “Throwing Away Parigi-Roubaix” cried Gazzetta dello Sport on their famous pink pages. Italian riders Bortolami and Tafi were vilified for helping a Belgian win the race and their patriotism was questioned.

Mapei’s head man Squinzi reacted to the press coverage. “I don’t understand that attitude. It’s journalism from another era, patriotism gone mad! Anyway, it was an Italian team who won Paris-Roubaix on Sunday.”

  

Squinzi initially denied making the decision as to who should win, saying, “That’s not true; as far as I was concerned the three of them could have a normal sprint. It was their decision to let Museeuw win. I tried to call Lefevere but his car phone wasn’t working properly.”

But later comments from both Lefevere and Museeuw suggested that Il Dottore was being less than forthcoming.

  

For Museeuw, the outcome was never a subject of discussion and he claimed his right as captain, “For me, winning alone or with two riders from the same team, it’s still the same thing. I won Paris-Roubaix. The hardest part was always deciding which one of us would win. In the end, I just said, “Look, I’m the leader so I must win.”

  

Bortolami was clearly crushed at the finish but put on a brave team face when he said, “It was a tough decision, without doubt. Everyone wants to win Paris-Roubaix. Johan has promised that he will help me in the future for the help I gave him today.”

  

The ever emotional Andrea Tafi, moved to tears in the final few kilometers when he was denied a second place that he wanted as a tribute to his soon to be born daughter Greta, appeared to come around to the team stance soon after the finish. "I'm happy to have arrived with two champions like Museeuw and Bortolami. I dedicate this to my wife Gloria, who is about to have a baby. I thought of my wife and son all the time I was chasing. I gave the power to push on the front group on the cobbles and believed I worked more than them all. But perhaps victory is too much to ask for, because Museeuw is a champion who deserves it. I also would have liked second, but Bortolami didn't agree. The admiral ordered me to 3rd place entering the velodrome and there I stayed. Maybe another time the places will change, but I can't hide how unhappy I am."

As for his part, Lefevere commented “It was an incredible ride, yet at the same time it was very stressful. Victory was never guaranteed- not in this race. They could have crashed, punctured, anything. I was firm about who should win. The Italians know how important Johan is to us, and they respect what he has done for the team. Since 1993, he has been the key to the team-everybody knows that. He could have ridden ahead to win on his own, but that would have lacked respect to the other two. It wouldn’t have been fair to everybody’s efforts if we had sprinted for the win.”

When you consider that Ballerini finished 5th, just 2:38 behind the winners, it was clear that Mapei and Lefevere had not only had the right horses for courses but that they also had their tactics right; turning the screw whenever possible to wear down their competition, working together to make pace when they were together and putting men forward whenever possible to offset any bad luck with punctures and crashes that are always a part of the reality at Roubaix. At the time, the 1996 edition claimed the fastest average speed since the race had moved to the more difficult easterly route in 1968.

Mapei Paris Roubaix Hat Tricks
The previously unheard of Roubaix hat trick would continue for Mapei- with two more podium sweeps in 1998 (Ballerini, Tafi, Peeters) and 1999 (Tafi, Peeters, Steels). Patrick Lefevere would demonstrate his tactical mastery of this race with another podium sweep with Domo-Farm Frites in 2000 (Knaven, Museeuw, Vainsteins) and has seen eight of his riders win on the velodrome at Roubaix. Will we see another sweep anytime soon?
Photos copyright and courtesy of  Mapei website and Tony Szurly

Other Articles by Tony Szurly:
The Paris-Roubaix: Commiserate and Celebrate Ride
Classic Contenders: Eric Leman
12 days in Belgium watching the great races and riding the courses.
Part 1: Ronde van Vlaanderen 2002 Images and Story by Tony Szurly!
Part 2: Twelve Days in Belgium: Part Two
Riding Le Mont Ventoux
The Poggio: Springboard to Victory
The Ultimo Chilometro?
Tafi, Cosa Fai - What Are You Doing?

Catching Up With The Gladiator

The UCI World Cup: A Look Back at 15 Years and a Look Ahead
Come to Canada - See the World!
Hamilton Photos!

 
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