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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.
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.
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.
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…”