The multi-coloured cubetti of the Mapei strip, it’s fair to say, are the old black. Nowadays the dominant team in professional cycling sweeps to victory in Grand Tours and one-day races in chic kit with understated logos and subdued colours, but between 1993 and 2002 a superteam decked out in jerseys and shorts bearing a design that looked as if someone had detonated a car bomb beneath a Rubik’s cube ruled the road.
During their nine years of dominance Mapei blew the peloton to smithereens.
Mapei is an acronym for Materiali Ausiliari Per l’Edilizia e l’Industria, Italian for auxiliary materials for construction and industry.
That might sound boring — and remember cycling is full of boring-sounding sponsors such as the Molteni sausage factory — but Giorgio Squinzi, the CEO and son of the founder of the Mapei company, not only financed the 20th century’s most successful cycling team but he also ran it.
If three Team Sky riders were circling the Roubaix velodrome and looking at each other and preparing for a three-way sprint, the last person Sir Dave Brailsford would call would be Rupert Murdoch.
But in 1996 when Gianluca Bortolami, Johan Museeuw and Andrea Tafi were in exactly this position, Squinzi had already phoned Mapei’s directeur sportif Patrick Lefevere from the Milan HQ with his orders: Museeuw must win.
‘Il Dottore’, as Squinzi was known — his doctorate was in chemical engineering rather than anything related to medicine — invested an alleged €12 million per year in the Mapei team, a sum that was regarded as too much for cycling.
He was able to buy virtually every star of the era. His team achieved two more clean sweeps of the Paris-Roubaix podium in 1998 and 1999. Mapei won an incredible 653 professional races.
Squinzi claimed the reason for his team’s uncompetitiveness in Grand Tours was because Mapei refused to tolerate blood doping. But in 2012 Museeuw told the Gazet van Antwerpen that doping was part of daily life for almost everyone.
And it was a doping scandal that eventually caused Squinzi to pull the plug on the team: Stefano Garzelli tested positive while leading the Giro in 2002.
Mapei is still an evocative presence in cycling — most recently sponsoring the World Championships in Doha — but for the many fans who still proudly ride clad in the famously garish kit, the tumbling cubes will always represent the golden era of cycling.