As the trio of teammates approached the famous Roubaix velodrome with a huge gap over the others, triumph gave way to an uncomfortable question: just who among them was going to win the 94th Paris-Roubaix?
In 1996, Mapei, the first incarnation of Deceuninck-Quick Step, was already a dominant force in the peloton three years after its formation. With stage race aces like Tony Rominger and Abraham Olano, and one-day killers like Frank Vandenbroucke, Tom Steels, Andrea Tafi, Franco Ballerini, and the Lion of Flanders Johan Museeuw, the team whipped off the wins. And with their distinctive cube jersey, they had the best kits in the business.
Mapei-GB went into the 1996 Paris-Roubaix with reigning champ Ballerini backed up by the likes of Tafi, Museeuw, Wilfred Peeters and Gianluca Bortolami. The team already had that season’s Omloop Het Volk, E3-Prijs Vlaanderen, Brabantse Pijl in its pocket and Tafi would go on to win Il Lombardia.
Mapei pushed out a 20-rider move on the Arenberg section of cobbles and then scampered away with four riders on the Tilloy-les-Marchiennes sector, the 11th of 22 sections, with 86-km to go. Ballerini, Tafi, Museeuw and Bortolami shook loose and quickly rolled up a minute’s lead, with Museeuw flatting and having the three Italians wait for him. Ballerini, on the other hand, suffered three punctures over 12-km and was left behind.
It was Mapei’s sponsorship director, Giorgio Squinzi, still the company’s chairman, who made the call to director sportif Patrick Lefevere that Museeuw would take the win. Again, the Italians had to wait for the Belgian with 12-km to go, the call having been made with 15-km remaining.
The trio had plenty of time to round the velodrome and arrange themselves for the famous photo of all three crossing the finish line, Museeuw trying to communicate with his arms that he owed it all to his Italian teammates. In fact, it was another Italian in Milan that he owed.
Ballerini found a compatriot to work with and finished fifth. Wilfried Peeters made it five Mapei riders in the top-11. Museeuw went on to win the Hell of the North three times to match his three Tour of Flanders titles. Mapei would sweep the podium again in 1998, but winner Ballerini, Tafi and Peeters wouldn’t cross the line in a dominant clump far ahead of the others. Tafi got his win the next year. Bortolami, who some believe to have been the strongest of the trio that day, would never take a victory in Paris-Roubaix, but he would earn the Tour of Flanders in 2001 while racing for Tacconi Sport-Vini Caldirola.