Today’s stage of the Giro doesn’t look like a thriller but ride the route and there are plenty of tales along the way, especially at the finish in Reggio Emilia where the city’s sports arena, the Mapei stadium, is a reminder of Italian cycling’s last glory days.
In the 1930s Rodolofo Squinzi founded Materiali Ausiliari Per Edilizia e Industria, “auxillary materials for construction and industry”, better known by its initials MAPEI. It sold paint, primarily for large construction projects like factories and airports. It grew and expanded into adhesives, especially to stick linoleum to the ground, all the rage back then. Italy then went through a ceramic boom which brings us to the start of today’s stage, the riders will pedal up the Lamone valley from Faenza and past huge deposits of clay which had been used since ancient times for pottery. In Italy’s post-war boom industrial techniques allowed mass production of ceramic tiling and flooring. So what? Well this manufacturing generated wealth and brands and cycling teams like Ariostea and Panaria thrived from this clay.
Ariostea ran from 1984 to 1993, later with a distinctive jersey with a rooftile pattern on the jersey, one of the earliest cycling jerseys to depict the sponsor’s product. The team did well although a lot of its success was probably down to surfing the rising tide of EPO abuse and it was among the first squads to catch the wave in the 1990s. Sponsorship by the likes of Ariostea and Panaria tells a tale of mid-size Italian firms able to back a top flight cycling team, something that is almost impossible today given the way the costs of team sponsorship have soared.
Back to ceramics because at Mapei Rodolofo’s son Giorgio took over the firm in the 1970s after finishing his studies as a chemical engineer. He expanded the firm to produce chemical additives for the ceramics industry and other products for like grouting, mortar and waterproofing agents which let people stick the tiles to the wall or ground. It boomed and expanded around the world. Giorgio Squinzi was a cycling fan and backed a cycling team in the early 1990s, rescuing the Eldor-Viner team in 1993 and then Mapei-Clas was launched for 1994, the merger of the Italian squad with a Spanish outfit. This then merged with parts of the GB-MG Maglificio to become an Italo-Belgian squad and the forerunner of today’s Quick Step team, or at least some of Mapei’s DNA was merged into the Quick Step team. Like Quick Step it thrived in the spring classics but also won the Vuelta a Espana and Giro d’Italia with Swiss rider Toni Rominger and was the dominant team of the late 1990s, topping the rankings regularly and packed with stars like Tony Rominger, Johan Museeuw, Franco Ballerini, Andrea Tafi and Paolo Bettini.
In 2000 they had a big roster with 41 riders that year if we include the stagiaires – this was before the UCI capped the team size at 30 – and was hoovering up the cream of the U23 talent. The budget back then was €10-12 million a year, a sum that would get you into the World Tour today and 15 years ago this was colossal. There’s a great feature from Pro Cycling magazine on the team over at cyclingnews.com.
The jersey itself was notable or rather the kit as an ensemble. This was one of the first times that the shorts and jersey went together and had matching patterns: partly because they could. New textile manufacturing meant cycling shorts could have patterned prints and so Mapei’s cubes appeared. They live on today with friends Prendas Ciclismo selling the retro kit. They rode Colnago C40 bikes, a carbon frame arguably years ahead of its time.
So far so good but the glory turned gory. It all came crashing down in 2002 when Stefano Garzelli tested positive during the Giro for probenicid, a masking agent. He was leading the race at the time, there was talk of spiked samples but whatever it was, Giorgio Squinzi decided to pull his money out of the sport, fed up with its inability to tackle doping. Squinzi wanted a clean team and a clean sport but given the mess of the sport in this era it seems hard to imagine everyone on Mapei was riding on bread and water to put it mildly but Squinzi did at least try to draw a line in the sand and his mere act of speaking out in favour of a clean sport was, as odd as it sounds today, outrageous and subversive at the time. He feuded with the UCI, then under the presidency of Hein Verbruggen. Squinzi told the Italian media that Verbruggen threatened to scrap Mapei’s team licence because he once said that it was hard to get in the top five of a grand tour without blood doping. On what grounds Verbruggen could have followed through is unknown but the point is that Squinzi felt he was raising an alarm but was told to shut up or face consequences. Squinzi walked out the sport but the team continued.
Squinzi gave up on cycling but not sport. Mapei had a factory in Sassuolo, near today’s stage route, and the company had sponsored the local soccer club since the 1980s. In 2004 Squizi bought control of U.S. Sassuolo Calcio as it languished in Italy’s Serie C2, its fourth division. The “miracolo Sassuolo” began as the team rose up the ranks, to Serie C1 in 2006, Serie B in 2008 and Serie A in 2013, and along the way moving into the Mapei stadium with plenty of politics too but that’s another story. Sassuolo have just finished sixth in Serie A after beating Inter Milan in the final game of the season to qualify for the Europa League. In the meantime Squinzi wasn’t just making chemicals and funding a football team, in 2012 he became the head of Confindustria, Italy’s powerful federation of employers and held the post for five years.
When the Giro reaches Reggio Emilia today and finishes a short distance away from the Mapei stadium it’s hard not to wonder what Italian pro cycling would look like if such an influential and wealthy person could have stayed in the sport or be tempted to return. Squinzi’s success in football suggests he’ll stay in the stadium.