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Mapei: The greatest ever team

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The Mapei center in Italy

The Mapei center in Italy (Image credit: Bettini Photo)
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Ján Svorada spent two seasons at the Italian team

Ján Svorada spent two seasons at the Italian team (Image credit: Sirotti)
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Axel Merckx winning a stage of the Giro in 2000

Axel Merckx winning a stage of the Giro in 2000 (Image credit: Sirotti)
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Cadel Evans in pink at the Giro

Cadel Evans in pink at the Giro (Image credit: Sirotti)
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Gabriele Missaglia wins HEW Cyclassics in 2000

Gabriele Missaglia wins HEW Cyclassics in 2000 (Image credit: Sirotti)
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Oscar Freire, then at Mapei, wins his second world title

Oscar Freire, then at Mapei, wins his second world title (Image credit: Sirotti)
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Like Johan Museeuw, Andrea Tafi also won Flanders

Like Johan Museeuw, Andrea Tafi also won Flanders (Image credit: Sirotti)
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Johan Museeuw winning the Tour of Flanders after a solo break

Johan Museeuw winning the Tour of Flanders after a solo break (Image credit: Sirotti)
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Stefano Zanini leads a break and the World Cup

Stefano Zanini leads a break and the World Cup (Image credit: Sirotti)
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Franco Ballerini

Franco Ballerini (Image credit: Sirotti)
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Squinzi and Tafi share a joke

Squinzi and Tafi share a joke (Image credit: Sirotti)
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 The Mapei kit was one of the most distinctive in the peloton

The Mapei kit was one of the most distinctive in the peloton (Image credit: Sirotti)
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Pavel Tonkov during his Giro defence in 1997. He went on to finish second overall to Gotti

Pavel Tonkov during his Giro defence in 1997. He went on to finish second overall to Gotti (Image credit: Sirotti)
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Michele Bartoli spent three unhappy years at Mapei but there were some good times, including wins at Fleche and Het Volk

Michele Bartoli spent three unhappy years at Mapei but there were some good times, including wins at Fleche and Het Volk (Image credit: Sirotti)
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The greatly missed Franco Ballerini was one of Mapei's most iconic riders

The greatly missed Franco Ballerini was one of Mapei's most iconic riders (Image credit: Bettini Photo)
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Franco Ballerini says goodbye

Franco Ballerini says goodbye (Image credit: Bettini Photo)
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Franco Ballerini and Paolo Bettni pose

Franco Ballerini and Paolo Bettni pose (Image credit: Bettini Photo)
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Tony Rominger leads Pantani in the Giro.

Tony Rominger leads Pantani in the Giro. (Image credit: Sirotti)
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Pantani, Tony Rominger, and Berzin in the 1995 Giro. Rominger took the overall

Pantani, Tony Rominger, and Berzin in the 1995 Giro. Rominger took the overall (Image credit: Sirotti)
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When Bugno signed for Mapei he was already passed his best

When Bugno signed for Mapei he was already passed his best (Image credit: Sirotti)
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Marco Pantani and Pavel Tonkov during their epic Giro duel in 1998. The Italian would win his first and only Giro.

Marco Pantani and Pavel Tonkov during their epic Giro duel in 1998. The Italian would win his first and only Giro. (Image credit: Sirotti)
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Ballerini and Bartoli catch up at the start of Liege

Ballerini and Bartoli catch up at the start of Liege (Image credit: Sirotti)
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Frank Vandenbroucke trails Bartoli in Liege

Frank Vandenbroucke trails Bartoli in Liege (Image credit: Sirotti)
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Oscar Camezind wore the rainbow jersey for Mapei in 1998/9

Oscar Camezind wore the rainbow jersey for Mapei in 1998/9 (Image credit: Sirotti)
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Bartoli on the cobbles as he heads towards a win in Het Volk in 2001

Bartoli on the cobbles as he heads towards a win in Het Volk in 2001 (Image credit: Sirotti)
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Cadel Evans cut his stage racing teeth at Mapei

Cadel Evans cut his stage racing teeth at Mapei (Image credit: Sirotti)

This feature is from the latest issue of Procycling. To subscribe, click here.

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…”