Tafi says goodbye to Hell

One of the best classics riders of his generation, Andrea Tafi, will be riding his last Paris-Roubaix this Sunday, April 10. The solidly built Tuscan rider has five top 5 finishes in the Hell of the North, including one win in 1999. Riding for Saunier Duval in his last season, Tafi wants to go out on a high note by winning the feared classic one more time. It might not be his last race, as he told a press conference that he could be riding the Tour de Georgia, and possibly even beyond that.

"I want to show that a rider of 39 can still ride with the best, especially during a physically demanding race like Paris-Roubaix," he said. "I feel stronger than in my best years in Mapei. Furthermore, I'm mentally balanced and experienced."

Paris-Roubaix holds a special place in Tafi's heart, and he has finished on the Roubaix velodrome podium four times. "I have lived my best moments as a rider in northern France," he said. "It will flash through my head during the race that this is really the last time. That was also the case during the Ronde van Vlaanderen last Sunday. I'll miss it. The trophy from 1999, a mounted cobble, stands on the fireplace in my house. It is an honour. Because I have everything to thank this race for."

Two years of physical problems almost convinced Tafi to retire, but at the Tour of Lombardy last year, he received encouragement from his friend and Saunier Duval team manager Mauro Gianetti. He signed a contract until April 10, 2005, and got ready to start his 17th season as a pro. "I could look back on a beautiful career, but I didn't want to retire like that," he said. "I still wanted to set a few things straight."

Tafi rates the new Paris-Roubaix parcours - without Arenberg - as difficult, more so because it will make it less predictable. Arenberg was always the point where the race really exploded. Now, the favourites will have to keep a closer eye on things in case a move goes earlier. Tafi said that he hopes to rely on his experience to read the race. That includes a fleet of seven spare bicycles in case of a mechanical problem,. Saunier Duval will have helpers placed at key points of the course with the bikes, as it's often very difficult to get one from the team car in the madness that is Paris-Roubaix.

After the race is over, Il Gladiatore doesn't believe it will be finished for him as a professional cyclist. "I prefer not to rule anything out," he said. "I'll ride perhaps until the Tour of Georgia. And who knows, the whole season if I feel good. But it's certainly my last year as a rider. I've promised [his wife] Gloria that."

Tafi's new career? Producing wine and olive oil in his beloved Tuscany.

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