ComoLagoBike and a Mapei-Paris-Roubaix Legacy
This story originally appeared on ComoLagoBike 8-April-2018.
This Sunday marks the end of a different kind of Holy Week: the last race of the Spring Cobbled Classics, the 116th edition of Paris-Roubaix. In honor of this race, ComoLagoBike is excited to announce our updated cycling kit design for 2018 with the familiar colorful blocks of our sponsor, Mapei, and other partners such as Hotel Il Perlo Panorama, DAMA, Quality Bicycle Merone, and Bottecchia. But what is the connection between our Italian cycling kit and a legendary cobblestone race in northern France?
The Hell of the North
Since it began in 1896, Paris-Roubaix has become one of the grandest spectacles in professional cycling as it winds 260 kilometers from outside Paris to the Roubaix velodrome near the Belgian border. Unlike traditional bike races on smooth pavement, Paris-Roubaix includes 20 sectors (or sections) of pavè for the racers to navigate. These narrow, cobblestone roads are hundreds of years old and were originally constructed for farm animals and heavy machinery tending the fields. These pavè aren’t neatly packed, uniformly formed bricks on your country lane. These large stones with the equivalent of sharp teeth can lash out at the delicate rubber tires or unfortunate patches of skin that come their way. Packs of men on skinny race wheels charge en masse over the pavè, their bikes bucking and arms rattling, hoping for a miracle of physics to hold them in a straight line. If the pavèare covered in mud from spring rains there is little chance of stability among the uneven terrain, but even in sun-baked conditions the farmland dust quietly settles on the cobblestones to create an equally slick surface. Team support vehicles stand by at the end of each sector with extra wheels and even full bikes in preparation for the carnage their riders may have faced as they forge ahead to Roubaix.
The race is nicknamed The Hell of the North because after WWI the race organizers reconned the remains of the course and found a landscape altered by warfare and death: blackened trees, trenches of muddy water and military debris, skeletal remains of roads and villages, and fields ripe not with fertile crops, but with craters and rotting cattle. Still, as Europe recovered from the Great War, the race persisted among the rebuilt paths connecting Paris to the north. In the decades after WWII as Europe once again faced the monumental task of rebuilding itself, the race’s famous pavè were actually in danger of being left behind for the sake of progress. When live television coverage began, towns that hosted sectors of the race would rather show off newly built, modern roads rather than the crude farm roads. The race organizers found themselves scrambling the preserve the unique characteristics of the race. Eventually the towns recognized the importance of preserving their local pavè and even sought out new sectors as a source of pride. The Spring Classics have become a rite of passage for professional cyclists and Paris-Roubaix is considered the Queen of the Classics. It is a throne for modern one-day specialists who would never have high Grand Tour or mountain finish ambitions. Their bodies are built for brutality and power, not for flight among the birds.
Cycling aficionados and Italian tiffosi know that from 1993 to 2002, Mapei sponsored what some have called the most powerful cycling team in history, winning Paris-Roubaix five times in ten years, three of them with a rare full podium sweep. During their reign, the team won over 650 races, dominating the Spring Classics and carrying victories in the world road championships, multiple national road championships, the World Hour Record, Vuelta a España, and the Giro d’Italia. The team and their distinctive, often garishly designed kit are still recognized and revered today by fans nostalgic for the 1990s cycling era. To complete the winning Mapei formula, the team’s innovative Colnago C40 carbon fiber frames were designed and tested by Ernesto Colnago specifically for the cobble races in an effort to push traditional frame materials and engineering dogma. Mapei team founder and company CEO, Dr. Giorgio Squinzi, was initially hesitant for his team to race such new frames in the toughest one-day race in the world. In 1995, however, they proved their worth by being the first full carbon bike to win Paris-Roubaix, ushering in the age of carbon bikes in the pro peloton. And their paint scheme? Nothing less than the iconic Mapei cubes hand painted over Colnago’s distinctive star-shaped tubing.
The history of Mapei goes back to 1937 when it was founded as a construction materials company by Rodolfo Squinzi, a former professional racer who passed on his cycling passion to his son, Dr. Giorgio Squinzi. Under the continued success and globalization of the Mapei company in the early 1990s, Dr. Squinzi was able to found the Mapei cycling team in 1993 and invest the largest budget of any team at that time. Estimates range from €7-10 million/year, nearly twice what other teams were spending. What advantage did that give their squad? With over 40 professional racers from around the world, the team boasted enormous depth and talent that other teams could not obtain. In contrast, that kind of budget – and often higher – is a regular occurrence in today’s World Tour team so the greatest racers are typically distributed amongst the teams and no one team dominates the others.
The Paris-Roubaix Trifecta
But Dr. Squinzi was more than the source of funding and talent pooling. When needed, he also orchestrated the results. One of the most famous Mapei victories was in 1996 on the 100th anniversary of Paris-Roubaix when three of their racers had distanced themselves from the peloton 85 kilometers from the finish. Despite two flat tires in the closing kilometers, their lead on the charging peloton was enough that all three worthy winners would inevitably enter the Roubaix velodrome together. Who would climb the top step? According to cycling lore, that was decided some kilometers ago when then-director sportif, Patrick Lefevere was driving the team support vehicle behind the winning trio. He called Dr. Squinzi at his Milan office and was instructed by the maestro of Mapei on what the winning order would be:
1. Johan Museeuw (Belgium)
2. Gianluca Bortolami (Italy)
3. Andrea Tafi (Italy)
Was there squabbling among the racers and Lefevere in those final kilometers or were they all in agreement to allow their Belgian strongman to win? Accounts vary, but either way the Italian papers were outraged at throwing an Italian win. Dr. Squinzi, ever the leader, assured the world that they were proud of their international squad’s success and ultimately an Italian-owned team’s win.
A single team podium sweep, how often could that happen in such an unpredictable and challenging race as Paris-Roubaix? During Mapei’s reign it happened two more times, in 1998 (Franco Ballerini ITA, Andrea Tafi ITA, Wilfried Peeters BEL) and 1999 (Andrea Tafi ITA, Wilfried Peeters BEL, Tom Steels BEL) – the last win by an Italian. In modern racing one team sweeping the podium is unheard of, thus demonstrating no less than three times the dominance of the Mapei team.
Mapei’s Continued Sponsorship
Even after the Mapei team folded in 2003, the company continued to show its devotion to cycling and other sports by investing further in the Mapei Sport research center near Milan. Dr. Squinzi founded the center in 1996 to provide his athletes with the best science and training available. Today it is considered the most advanced sports performance research and training facility in the world. From cycling to soccer, fencing to skiing, top international athletes work with the center’s scientists and analysts to fine tune and push their bodies to their full potential. Walking through their hallways you find the jerseys and trophies of champions from the Olympics, World Championships, World Cups, Italian and other national championships.
In addition to their sports performance lab and training top athletes, Mapei continues to be a lead supporter of UCI World Tour events, including the World Road Race Championships.
In 2008 ComoLagoBike’s founder, Luca Molteni, a lifelong cyclist and former professional racer well-regarded in the Lombardia cycling community, was on a Sunday ride with Dr. Squinzi. Luca discussed with him the idea of founding a sport association dedicated to helping tourists ride and enjoy the roads of Lake Como. Luca had observed many visitors riding around Lake Como, but having problems finding their way. The lakeside roads and mountain climbs of Lake Como have been home to famous races such as the Giro d’Italia and Giro di Lombardia for over 100 years, as well as a destination for cyclists to visit and train. Luca saw an opportunity to guide cycling guests the famous sites like the Madonna del Ghisallo chapel and newly opened Ghisallo Cycling Museum and climbs like the Muro di Sormano and Passo Agueglio. During their discussion Mr. Squinzi smiled enthusiastically at the idea of this new business venture and agreed to be a long-term supporter of Luca's idea.
At the same time, Luca met up with Carlo Sancassano, the proprietor of Hotel Il Perlo Panorama, situated along the challenging Ghisallo climb from Bellagio to the Madonna del Ghisallo chapel and a common photographic backdrop of racers in the Giro di Lombardia. In addition to running Hotel Il Perlo, Carlo was also working with the tourism office in Bellagio and recognized the potential for providing hospitality and cycling guide services for guests on Lake Como. When they met, Luca had just started the ComoLagoBike sports association (ASD) as a non-profit sports club with a group of friends and the support of Mapei. The club needed a place for tourists to rent their small fleet of bicycles as well as a central location for their cycling guides. Carlo was more than happy to provide free space at Hotel Il Perlo and as they say, the rest is history.
Luca and Carlo's collaboration brought together both the professional cycling guide and rental bike services of an accredited Italy Bike Hotel to offer accommodations, meals, and holiday planning to create a full cycling retreat for visitors from all over the world. Carlo's wife, Enrica, has also been part of the team since the beginning, managing the business and booking services for all ComoLagoBike guests. When you contact ComoLagoBike she is the first person to help put your dream holiday into motion and to also follow up once you're home.
ComoLagoBike started small with only six rental bikes, but over the years the fleet has grown to over 40 bikes including beautiful carbon fiber Bottecchias, mountain bikes, and e-bikes. All equipment is maintained by our bike shop partner, Quality Bicycle Merone, which is managed by one of our guides, former professional racer and wearer of the Maglia Rosa, Gabriele Bosisio. This year ComoLagoBike is joined by their new Cycling Manager, Alberto Elli, also a native of the Lake Como region and former professional racer who competed for 16 years at the highest levels. Alberto raced the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix twice, but his proudest moment was wearing the Tour de France Maillot Jaune for four days in 2000. Both Gabriele and Alberto enjoy their post-racing years as cycling guides. If anyone knows the best roads of Lake Como it’s those who have trained on them for their whole lives. ComoLagoBike and Hotel Il Perlo have introduced thousands of guests to the roads of Lake Como over ten years, from the snowcapped Grigne mountains to the required pilgrimage to the Patron Saint of Cyclists, the Madonna del Ghisallo.
Mapei and Mapei Sport continue to be an important sponsor and we are fortunate to be the only cycling club carrying their name, another reason why we proudly wear the famous Mapei logo and colored blocks on our cycling kit. For special ComoLagoBike guests there are opportunities to visit their facility near Milan for assessments and presentations.
Your Cycling Holiday on Lake Como
Ready to wear the legacy of Mapei? Our kit is available to buy at our bike shop and rental point at Hotel Il Perlo in Bellagio, and it is also bundled into our PRO level cycling tour packages. Not able to visit Lake Como this year? We can ship them for a fee dependent on your location. For sizing and prices please contact Enrica at email@example.com.
Whether visiting for one day or ten, we look forward to sharing the beautiful landscape of Lake Como. Our guides are all former professional cyclists, some who have raced the Spring Classics and can tell you over a post-ride meal and aperitif what being rattled by cobbles and pavè truly feels like. We look forward to guiding you soon on Lake Como. In the words of Dr. Giorgio Squinzi:
“Never stop pedaling!”