What did Mapei mean? Literally, it stood for Materiali Ausiliari Per l’Edilizia e l’Industria, a Milan-based firm specialising in paints, tiles, floor coverings and sealants. Among the logo-busy jerseys of the pro peloton, some say that it was prettier than most, with its graphic of multi-coloured cubes floating on a blue sea of tile adhesive, like a flotsam of Liquorice Allsorts. It was certainly one of the loudest and most easily-recognised. But what this Italian team really stood for during its decade of sponsorship (1993-2002) was an unprecedented domination of the northern classics, fronted by that quintessential of Belgian riders, Johan Museeuw, and flanked by a roster of Italian strongmen – Franco Ballerini, Michele Bartoli, Andrea Tafi, Gianluca Bortolami and Stefano Zanini.
They were not a Grand Tour squad – the fact that Tony Rominger won the Vuelta (1994) and the Giro (1995) in a Mapei jersey is almost forgotten. Easily overlooked, also, is the fact that four times in ten years Mapei’s riders brought home the World Champion’s jersey (Abraham Olano, 1995; Museeuw, 1996; Oscar Camenzind, 1998; Oscar Freire, 2001). For spring, not summer or autumn, was Mapei’s natural season, and its specialty were the gritty, attritional one-day races of 250km or more: the exposed roads of Ghent-Wevelgem, the Flèche Wallone and Het Volk, the cobbled muurs of Flanders, the hills of Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Amstel Gold.And, above all, the fearsome pavé of Paris-Roubaix.
For the second half of the 1990s, Mapei owned the franchise to Paris-Roubaix in a way no other team has ever managed. It is an astonishing record in a race where chance – a crash here, a puncture there – plays a far greater role than in any of the other classics. Look at their list of winners and see why: 1995, Ballerini; 1996, Museeuw; 1998, Ballerini; 1999, Tafi; 2000, Museeuw. Only a win by Française des Jeux’s Frédéric Guesdon in 1997 spoiled Mapei’s relentless procession (and Museeuw still no worse than 3rd then). The explanation for such consistency was simply that, in any given year, any one of three or four Mapei riders were individually capable of winning the race. On two occasions, the question of who actually crossed the line first in the velodrome at Roubaix was resolved not by strength but by diktat of the directeur sportif, as Mapei took over all three podium places in 1996 and repeated the feat in 1998.
These were awesome displays, in which sheer power and endurance trumped the best efforts of team tactics. Mapei eventually left the sport after Stefano Garzelli tested positive in the 2002 Giro, and several other Mapei riders have subsequently been tainted by doping scandals, including Museeuw himself, Camenzind and Frank Vandenbroucke. It was an almost inevitable side-effect for a team so dominant during that low, dishonest decade. Yet Mapei’s final exit did not come before it had joined forces with another flooring manufacturer, Quick Step, to set up the next era of Belgian hegemony. But even with such extravagant talent as Paolo Bettini and Tom Boonen, Quick Step has not reproduced the exploits of Mapei’s masterclass: the rouleurs’ rouleurs.