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Studying Roubaix 1996: Mapei’s dominant podium sweep

Mapei swept the 1996 Paris-Roubaix podium in unbelievable fashion, but the race's outcome wasn't decided on the road.

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With Paris-Roubaix only days away, we are taking a look back at some of the most memorable editions of “The Queen of the Classics.” The race favors the strongest riders who can handle the rough cobblestones, but a healthy dose of luck is always crucial in this unpredictable classic. What can we learn from the history of this grueling monument?

A phone call came in from Italy as the Roubaix velodrome inched closer: The Belgian will win.

It was placed by Giorgio Squinzi, the sponsorship director of Mapei, as three riders from his classics juggernaut rode alone and off the front in the closing kilometers of the 1996 edition of Paris-Roubaix. It went to Patrick Lefevere, then the director sportif of Mapei. Squinzi was clear. Johan Museeuw would get his first Roubaix win, even if it meant two Italians would be relegated to lower steps on the podium. Such decisions are the type of luxury that comes from sweeping a Roubaix podium with time to spare.

And so it was. The three Mapei riders — Johan Museeuw, Gianluca Bortolami, and Andrea Tafi — rolled around the velodrome together, refused to sprint, and crossed the line in precisely the order directed to them over the phone.

What happened? Mapei was at the height of its powers in 1996, and it played Roubaix perfectly. After creating a 20-rider move across the Arenberg, the Mapei trio separated themselves from the rest more than 80km from the finish, quickly stretching their lead to over a minute.

It seemed a smooth team time trial was in order, but Roubaix had other ideas. As Museeuw, Bortolami, and Tafi sped across Orchies, still far from the finish, Museeuw suffered a puncture and was forced to stop for a wheel change as the Italians rode on. The pair waited, and Museeuw rejoined before the group behind could make contact. The gap once again stretched out.

With 8km remaining Museeuw punctured again, as the Italians rolled on. But the call from Squinzi had already been made. The finish order was set. Lefevere drove to the front and called Tafi and Bortolami off; they slowed once again and waited for their leader.

Museeuw took the lead just before the velodrome and led to the finish, where all three crossed the line with their arms in the air. There was a bit of jockeying, though, behind a slow-moving Museeuw. Both Tafi and Bortolami wanted to be second.

What did we learn? Cycling was certainly different in the ‘90s.

The 50 percent hematocrit rule was instated in a year after Mapei’s sweep, which came two years after Gewiss swept the podium in a similar manner at Flèche Wallonne. We haven’t seen rides like that since.

There’s something to be learned about cycling’s team dynamic, too, and ’96 Roubaix is a good reminder that pro racing is still a business. Tafi and Bortolami were excellent riders in their own right. They could have disobeyed orders and ridden on to victory, but neither did. A conversation intercepted by Italian RAI TV suggests that it wasn’t loyalty that kept them at bay. No, their contracts hung in the balance. Some things are more important than a Roubaix cobblestone trophy.

Cycling’s fundamental injustice was on display in 1996. A team sport with a lone winner just feels so unfair sometimes.

Can it play out this way again? It’s unlikely. The peloton is deeper, if not faster. And as salaries have risen, compacting talent into a single team as Mapei did has become more difficult, though not impossible.

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