If you were an ex-pro looking for an audacious return to the road after more than a decade in retirement, there are plenty of easier races for a comeback than Paris-Roubaix.
One man this logic didn’t seem to concern was Andrea Tafi, who planned to race Paris-Roubaix 2019 two decades after his win on the cobbles in 1999.
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The 52-year-old said he had found a team for the race and also signed on to the UCI’s Registered Testing Pool, allowing him to ride at WorldTour and Pro Continental level. With the media attention surrounding Tafi’s planned return, the publicity garnered by including him on the start line in Compiègne on Sunday would surely have left many teams’ sponsors satisfied.
Despite a number of setbacks including Dimension Data dismissing rumours Tafi would ride the cobbles for the South African team and former Mapei team-mate Paolo Bettini publicly telling him to “do something else in your life,” Tafi remained determined to return to the race on the 20th anniversary of his victory.
However, a collarbone fracture following a crash in a local race near his home in Tuscany ended the former Italian road race champion’s dream of riding the cobbles one final time.
Tafi says he has “zero regrets” about his planned return as he “trained hard and was ready to race”, adding that he had previously never broke a bone throughout his entire career despite the many crashes that come with being a pro.
He reveals the idea came about after a friend saw him still cycling and in good shape after riding the cobbles of the Appia Antica, part of the Granfondo Campagnolo route.
“He [Tafi’s friend] said to me ‘why not try to return to Paris-Roubaix 20 years after my success of 1999?’ Honestly, before the injury I felt really good. When I rode the cobbles of the Appia Antica I got excited about my chances and that made me think of a return to the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix.”
Tafi, whose palmarès also boasts victories at the Tour of Flanders and Il Lombardia, admits a lot has changed since he won, from the materials and technologies to the techniques and training riders go through, but he still wanted to prove that people over 40 can ride and race competitively, even on the cobbles.
Australian Mathew Hayman (Mitchelton-Scott) won the race in 2016 at 37 years old, but the oldest ever winner of Paris-Roubaix is Frenchman Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle, who claimed his second title in 1993 at 38 years old.
Tafi’s dream to race on the cobbles alongside riders such as Wout Van Aert (Jumbo Visma), who hadn’t even been born when he turned pro, may have been ambitious, but the Italian was more realistic about his actual chances of winning.
“Of course I did not want to come back and win – I am 52 years old and there are so many strong young riders, thankfully, like Bettiol!”
Alberto Bettiol (EF Education First), who won the Tour of Flanders last week, also hails from Tuscany and has trained with Tafi before as the pair are both part of a WhatsApp group chat with other pros who live in the area, which is mostly used to organise winter rides.
Bettiol suffered two broken collarbones last year in what was an unlucky season for the young rider, but according to Tafi the coincidences don’t end there.
“In 2002 my last pro win was at the Tour of Flanders, while for him it was his first as a pro rider. Alberto won with the number 77, which was my number when I won in 2002, and my father was born in Castelfiorentino, just like Alberto.”
Tafi says his collarbone still hurts a little, but that it has not dampened his dream of racing one final day as a pro. “I wanted to race for one more day – just one – and celebrate everything I love about this sport. But I won’t give up…”