Mapei: The greatest ever team

Procycling looks back at a team that dominated the sport of cycling

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They were the biggest and most ambitious team that cycling has ever seen and won practically everything. Looking back from another decade, we examine what earned the Mapei team its unique place in cycling history.

Never judge a book by its cover, a building by its façade. Even so, number four, Viale Jenner was and still is an unlikely mission control for the biggest – maybe the best – team that professional cycling has ever known.

An anonymous boulevard like a hundred others in Milan’s urban cobweb. That facade, as grey and grim as the jerseys and their collage of cubetti were gaudy. Six storeys – auspices of corporate nothingness from street level, a cycling fan’s el dorado beyond the vast swing doors: jerseys, memorabilia, trophies. Through the corridors, the murmur of common folk paid to develop, promote and sell chemical adhesives dissecting last week’s Tour of the Med, relishing this week’s Trofeo Laigueglia.

On the sixth floor, in the gym, Tony Rominger’s Colnago rigged up to the turbo trainer for the secretary or accountant to use in their lunch break. Two flights of stairs from there, an office, a desk and behind it the man Angelo Zomegnan defined as a “demiurge”, some a “demagogue”, and others a “hero”, a “saviour” or any number of other hyperbolic epithets: the boss, ‘dottore’ Giorgio Squinzi.

The fact was that from here, for a decade, Squinzi presided over a team which won 653 races and dominated professional cycling. They were the biggest, richest and, some would argue, most influential team that has ever existed. It’s easier and more eloquent to name the champions who hadn’t sported their distinctive multicoloured jersey – Marco Pantani (though they tried), Lance Armstrong, Mario Cipollini and Jan Ullrich – and the major races that they hadn’t won – only the Tour de France and Milan-San Remo – than to do the reverse. “Ah, yes, I forgot about San Remo,” curses former team manager Alvaro Crespi with a laugh. “No sooner had we pulled out than our riders started winning it every year: Paolo Bettini, Oscar Freire…”

Some regrets no doubt remain, not least about the circumstances of Squinzi’s exit nine years ago. Spurned by Pantani in 1998, ‘il dottore’, as he was universally known, had identified the climber’s teammate and heir Stefano Garzelli as the man to end a grand tour drought stretching back to Rominger’s win at the 1995 Giro. Garzelli’s positive test while wearing the pink jersey in 2002 heralded not only the end of his Giro but also of the Mapei cycling empire. Having summoned Crespi and the late Aldo Sassi to tell them it was all over two years earlier, only to then change his mind, now Squinzi invited them to Viale Jenner to announce his irrevocable decision.

The next day, Angelo Zomegnan, then still a Gazzetta dello Sport journalist before his promotion to the directorship of the Giro, penned an editorial which betrayed traces of personal malice. It also, though, highlighted some of the jealousy and criticism which had become the background music for Mapei’s successes.

“Mapei bids adieu and pulls out because its demiurge, patron Squinzi, reckons that he’s been misunderstood and unsupported in his efforts to clean up cycling and eliminate the cheats,” wrote Zomegnan, infuriating Squinzi. “His mission is incomplete. There’s no more avid lover than he who thinks he’s been betrayed by the woman of his desires.”

Zomegnan continued: “in the last few seasons, [Squinzi] has invested 12 million euros a year: too much for cycling and for a team which has been on the margins of the major tours. He’s gained a lot in terms of brand visibility but he has also drugged the transfer market by grabbing every sparkling object around him.”

“There was a lot of jealousy,” says Luca Scinto, a rare domestique in a galaxy of stars at Mapei between 1999 and 2002. “Everyone wanted to ride for Mapei. The organisation was perfect. We may never see another team like it.”

Scinto’s is an opinion you hear often in an Italian cycling scene which undoubtedly misses Squinzi’s millions and boundless ambition. Scinto’s friend,  Michele Bartoli, who quit the team in a huff in 2001 after three unhappy years, remains a rare dissenter. “Michele would turn up to Milan-San Remo, look around, and see seven teammates there to try and win and two domestiques,” Scinto recalls. “He wasn’t used to that, couldn’t deal with it. The blame for the divorce was 70 per cent his…”

Filippo Pozzato and Bernhard Eisel, two of a number of Mapei alumni still racing, maintain that the best years of their career were the two
they spent within a team that Sassi and Crespi created in 2001 to nurture their young talent.

“There’s a reason why, when you go out onto the roads in Italy today, you still see so many of those cubed jerseys,” says the team’s former communications chief Alessandro Tegner, now of Quick Step. “That’s one legacy, in people’s affections. another big one is that group of young riders – not only the results those individuals have since produced but also the model which has been copied with great success by the likes of Rabobank since then.”

Speaking to Procycling in September, Squinzi admits that he couldn’t and wouldn’t have dreamed of such an outcome when his friend,
1958 Giro d’Italia champion Ercole Baldini, called on the eve of the 1993 race and asked him to salvage the sinking Eldor team. Fired up by his family’s lifelong passion for cycling, Squinzi “made his decision in a day”. The following year, his Spanish directeur sportif Juan Fernández promised him that Tony Rominger would win the Tour de France.

Squinzi got straight on the phone to Paris’s plushest restaurant, the Tour d’Argent, and booked every table for the night of the race’s arrival on the Champs-Élysées. Rominger ended up retiring, Miguel Indurain won the fourth of his five Tours, and Squinzi’s would-be champion’s dinner turned into rueful and expensive reflection on what might have been. What Squinzi didn’t know then was that the sport’s holy grail, the Tour, would forever elude him.

Two years later, though, he could have perhaps guessed the reason: a week into the 1996 Giro d’Italia, he called one of his directeurs to
ask why his team leader, the world champion Abraham Olano, had conceded 40 seconds on a climb as innocuous as Monte Sirino.

“The problem is that his haematocrit is only 52,” he was told. It wouldn’t be long before Squinzi was banning his riders from consulting external coaches such as Luigi Cecchini and Michele Ferrari. or before Ferrari’s most famous client, Lance Armstrong, was cold calling the Viale Jenner switchboard and ranting at Squinzi’s daughter Veronica about ‘il dottore’s’ assertion that it was impossible to finish in the top five in major tours without blood doping.

Even today, Squinzi maintains that Mapei “excluded ourselves from contention in major tours when we refused to tolerate blood-doping”.

Instead, with its massive, multinational roster (44 riders of ten different nationalities in 2001) they “reigned supreme over one-day races” and “gave a massive return on the 100 million-plus euros we invested over ten years, as an integral part of our corporate globalisation strategy.”

Here, perhaps, Squinzi gets to the crux of what made Mapei truly unique. Other sponsors have also owned their teams, rather than relying on a separate management company as per the current model, but maybe nowhere has that team been such an integral part of the company’s day-to-day business, culture and image.

“Castorama did something similar but only in France – we did it on a worldwide level,” says Squinzi.

“You really felt like the team was another department of the company, or a part of the marketing department,” Tegner adds. “It wasn’t just a case of sticking the company name on the jersey, they used it as a real tool. And in that respect, too, they really influenced a lot of things in cycling today. Team presentations, for example, had always been and are often still just glorified press conferences. Well, [at Mapei] they were these big show business extravaganzas…”

Scinto remembers “not training for three days because they used to have us doing three days of dress rehearsals for those presentations!”

But even his is a fond and admiring recollection. “There was a real connection to the company, a real loyalty. As far as they were concerned, it was as important to go and spend a week cycling and eating seafood with clients in Rimini as it was to perform well in races. But did they treat us well? An extra 80,000 lire on top of what you would have earned somewhere else meant nothing to il dottore but to a domestique it was double the salary.

And Aldo [Sassi] was brilliant on a human level. If ever you had a personal problem, you could go to him and he’d take care of everything on the professional side. The family was sacrosanct to him. When my wife’s mum died, he told me i could take four months off if I wanted and it wouldn’t jeopardise my contract for the following year.”

There is no doubt that the mists of nostalgia and, in a few cases, amnesia have distorted some memories of Mapei, just as a fog of resentment clouded perceptions ten and fifteen years ago. Zomegnan wrote that Squinzi was investing 12 million euros a year by 2002 but Crespi insists to us that the total budget was “10 million – and that was including what the minor sponsors also put in”.

“It was a lot less than the 17 million that Sky put in now,” he continues, quoting a figure that the British team’s principal, Dave Brailsford, would doubtless contest.

As for Zomegnan’s belief that Squinzi “doped the market” with his bumper salaries, Crespi claims it was too easy – and factually wrong – to reduce Mapei’s success to a question of spending power: “We never paid over the odds for riders, especially not the top riders,” Crespi says.

“We also took gambles. For example, Oscar Freire’s agent called us after he’d won the World championships in 1999 and everyone was talking about a ‘fluke’ winner. We went to the doctor and he gave us the green light to take a gamble. We all know what happened next…”

With regard to doping, some would argue that Squinzi himself isn’t immune to a spot of historical revisionism. To brag that Mapei ruled themselves out of major tours by ruling out blood-doping, then boast about riders such as Johan Museeuw’s performances in the classics, is almost as rich as Squinzi. It’s also odd that, having decided three-week tours weren’t a happy hunting ground for riders without the right chemical artillery, he and his team were so committed to winning the 2002 Giro with Stefano Garzelli.

But then Squinzi, of course, remains of the view that his rider’s wasn’t a straightforward case of cheating – although he stops short of dredging up old conspiracy theories centering on Pantani and Garzelli’s old Mercatone Uno team. “I still think someone stitched us up there,” is all Squinzi will say. “There were a lot of strange things, like the fact we heard Stefano was positive even before they’d tested the sample.”

Crespi defended Garzelli at the time but, curiously, nine years later, has a slightly different take on what proved for Squinzi to be the last straw. “I don’t know, I honestly don’t,” he says, before pausing. “Thinking about it now, I just would have expected a more lively reaction from the rider. Okay, when some people take a hit, they can go a little bit numb, but he seemed cold…”

Whatever really went on, Squinzi has no cause to regret his decision. Mapei’s profits have suffered in the worldwide economic crisis that crippled the building industry but the company retains clear global leadership in the chemical adhesive industry, with a turnover of well in excess of a billion euros.

Over the past ten years, they have continued to invest millions in sport, through the training centre still used by top pros including Cadel Evans, Ivan Basso and the whole Lampre team, sponsorship of the 2006 Italian World cup-winning football team, lower league club Sassuolo, and numerous events in cycling including the World road championships. Sadly, though, like rumours a couple of years ago that Squinzi was about to purchase AC Milan football club, continual speculation that Squinzi is about to return to the peloton as the backer of a major team seems inaccurate. “No, it won’t happen any time soon. We’re not ready,” he says.

While Ivan Basso confirmed to Procycling that he, Squinzi and Sassi very nearly concocted a plan to come back together after Basso’s doping ban, Luca Scinto believes there was only one man who could have tempted Squinzi to dip his toes again. “Franco Ballerini was the only man who could have persuaded him,” the Farnese-Vini chief assures us.

We then put this to Squinzi, who corrects Scinto: “Well, if we’d come back, there’s no doubt it would have been with Franco and Aldo Sassi, neither of whom are with us any more. As it is, we still feel that Cadel Evans, who we signed at the end of 2001, is our ambassador, our product. If the cleanest rider in the last 10 or 15 years can win a Tour de France, that shows something has changed.”

Unfortunately, not changed enough for Squinzi to reconsider, at least not yet. While yet another new brand of cyclisme à deux vitesses reveals itself - with one group of teams either folding or fusing and another growing ever richer and more voracious – there is still nothing on the horizon quite like Mapei. Whatever its war-chest, Sky may be the closest equivalent: a team with an identity, its own philosophy, sustainability, and, yes, plenty of cash to fund their innovation.

We wrote last month that Bob Stapleton’s HTC-Highroad would leave a legacy “bigger and more positive than that of cycling’s last epoch-defining multinational, Mapei”. We stand by that  – but only because so much of what Mapei bequeathed was lost on a generation of Italian cyclists and teams, a fact now reflected by their dwindling numbers at the top level. Stapleton left a cleaner sport than the one he had entered, partly thanks to men like him; the same applied to Squinzi, but what progress had been made between 1993 and 2002 was largely and perversely due to a team which battled with Mapei for the title of the world’s greatest – Festina.

In one sense, therefore, Zomegnan was right: Mapei’s mission was incomplete, ending as it did in a minor failure. In recompense, just as HTC’s ideas and riders will now go forth and multiply in other teams, so Mapei offspring such as Fabian Cancellara, Michael Rogers and Filippo Pozzato went on to enjoy success in other jerseys – yet still hark back to their days in the garish multicoloured ‘cubetti’ beloved to Doctor Squinzi.

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