The weekly spin: Evaluating Andrea Tafi’s improbable Roubaix return at age 52
Traditionally, a 20th anniversary has been celebrated with fine china, though in modern days that has become platinum. On April 14, Andrea Tafi will be hoping for something else — granite. A granite cobblestone, to be exact, awarded to the winner of Paris-Roubaix.
Andrea Tafi is not going to leave the Roubaix velodrome with a cobblestone trophy. But his attempt, at age 52, is unprecedented. So let’s discuss anyway.
Tafi won Paris-Roubaix in 1999, the last Italian rider to do so, and hopes to return to commemorate the 20th anniversary of that victory. In order to do this, he needs a pro team to buy into the idea. According to a November 14 report in La Gazzetta dello Sport, under the headline “The crazy idea of Tafi leads to South Africa,” Dimension Data is that team. That has not yet been confirmed.
Reaction to Tafi’s “mission impossible” dream has been mixed, but mostly skeptical, ranging from skeptical curiosity to rampant dismissal. I get it, but I think that’s a bit short-sighted.
No, he won’t win. Yes, it’s a publicity stunt. He’s acknowledged that a Belgian documentary crew would be filming his comeback.
But here’s the thing — we’re talking about a sport where the term “publicity caravan” is a regular part of the vernacular. Team funding (in most cases) comes from corporate marketing budgets. Riders in no-hope breakaways are commonly said to be “seeking TV time” — they know they won’t succeed, but they’re out there, putting on a show, getting their jerseys on screen, promoting their sponsors.
Why must an aging rider’s improbable comeback be so different?
“Everyone says I’m crazy,” Tafi told Het Laatste Nieuws, “but I do not think I am in my heart. I know how hard it is, I’m training and I’m going to see what’s going to happen. It will be difficult, but it’s something I absolutely want to do. It’s something no one has ever done in cycling history.”
Before we get to the reasons why Tafi won’t win, let’s explore what he’s got going in his favor.
CAN TAFI WIN? I MEAN, MAYBE
Regardless of what Tafi says, he knows he has an extremely slim shot at winning Paris-Roubaix. But I also have to think he wouldn’t be doing this if he believed he was setting himself up for embarrassment.
Fact is, Andrea Tafi is still very fit. He reportedly rides nearly 20,000 kilometers (12,400 miles) per year, and competes at gran fondos and masters races. In July he raced in the UCI 1.2 Debrecen-Ibrany event in Hungary, finishing the 157km race in 37th place, 90 seconds behind a lead group of riders you have never heard of. The average speed was over 48kph (around 30mph). Tafi says he competed in his old Mapei Italian champion’s jersey, which he insists fits as well as it did in 1999.
Before we proceed, a few obvious facts: Debrecen-Ibrany is not Paris-Roubaix; 157km is not 257km; 37th place is nowhere near the podium; staying lean is not the same thing as being ready to tackle the Queen of the Classics.
The reason I find this whole scenario compelling is because Paris-Roubaix might be the race on the WorldTour calendar that most favors endurance over speed. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Yes, the race oftentimes finishes with a small group sprint in the velodrome, particularly when there’s a headwind, but for the most part it’s not a race for the sprinters or TT specialists as such much as it is a true test of stamina. And while that explosive, top-end strength that wins races fades away as an athlete ages into his forties or fifties, the endurance aspect can remain intact for a long time — hence the expression “old-man legs.”
Mathew Hayman was two weeks away from his 38th birthday when he won Roubaix in 2016. The race’s oldest winner, Gilbert Duclos-Lassale, was nearly 39 when he won in 1993. Tafi was nearly 36 when he won the Tour of Flanders in 2002.
And while it depends on the course, and the field, events over 250km are often tests of endurance. Just look at Alejandro Valverde, the current world champion, who turns 39 in April.
Paris-Roubaix favors endurance, but it also favors experience. It’s a race of chance — crashes, punctures, and weather often play a vital role — but skill over the cobblestones and key positioning both increase a rider’s odds at success immensely. Some riders have what it takes to navigate the pavé; others do not. Tafi raced Roubaix 13 times, finished every time, and stood on all three podium positions. As he told La Gazzetta dello Sport, “I think I’ve earned a master’s degree in this amazing race.”
CAN TAFI WIN? COME ON
So Tafi may well have the endurance, experience, and skill set to put in a respectable showing at Paris-Roubaix at age 52. Will he have the physiology required to be competitive? Probably not.
Asked about Tafi’s chances, Belgian coach Paul Van Den Bosch told Sporza he thinks it’s “impossible” that the Italian would be able to play any significant role against top riders like Peter Sagan and Greg Van Avermaet.
“Someone aged 52 is no longer suited to train so hard and make such efforts,” Van Den Bosch said. “It is well known that exercise and staying active is healthy for people, but from the moment certain limits are exceeded, it is no longer healthy. There are obviously riders who can perform well until the age of 40. But there is a big difference between 40 and 52. The impact of the years is great and there is a loss of capacity per year. It is unreal to think that someone at that age can still perform in Paris-Roubaix. That Tafi has won the race in the past does not matter.”
Likewise, Giuseppe Miserocchi, an Italian professor of Human Physiology at the University of Milan Bicocca, told La Gazzetta dello Sport that he estimated Tafi would have lost about 14% of his maximum aerobic power between the ages of 32 and 52, citing the effects aging has on cardiac output. Paris-Roubaix may be more marathon than sprint, but a 14% loss in max power is going to be very difficult to get around.
There were also arguments made that Tafi will be out of practice when it comes to riding in the peloton, but I’m not buying that. He was a pro at the highest level for 17 years. He still rides, and competes. If he has trouble navigating his way through the field, it will because of his fitness, not because he’s uncomfortable in the bunch. (Look for our own deeper analysis on how Tafi should be able to hold his own at Paris-Roubaix later this week.)
Also, it must be said that Tafi won Roubaix during a period in pro cycling when the peloton was, shall we say, enhanced. He was never sanctioned for an anti-doping violation, but his name did appear on a list of doping tests, published by the French Senate in 2013, that detailed samples that were collected during the 1998 Tour de France and found positive for EPO when retested in 2004. The tests were conducted in order to validate a new lab analysis that hadn’t existed six years earlier; no sanctions were brought down on the basis of the results.
I don’t bring this up to single out Tafi — there were 30 riders from that volatile 1998 Tour whose urine either showed traces of EPO or was labeled suspicious — but it is fair to say that regardless of age, a fully doped peloton would not necessarily yield the same podium as a clean peloton. Oxygen-vector doping affects different riders in different ways; a fully doped peloton doesn’t level the playing field as much as it reshuffles the deck.
Questioning the legitimacy of victories from the late 1990s is a fool’s errand, but when comparing a rider from that era to the modern peloton — which faces more stringent doping controls — it is worth consideration, even when setting aside the age debate.
It’s also worth mentioning that when he won Paris-Roubaix in 1999, Tafi rode for Mapei, the cobbled classics super team that has been known as Quick-Step since 2003. On the podium he was flanked by teammates Wilfried Peeters and Tom Steels, both of whom now work as directors at Quick-Step. That’s not to say Tafi wasn’t the deserving winner — he also won Flanders and Lombardia during his career, earning him the nickname “The Gladiator” — but a victory at the Hell of the North certainly comes easier when you’ve got the advantages of depth, support, and tactical supremacy that come from riding for the best team in the race. It’s fair to say he won’t have anything like that at Dimension Data.
CAN TAFI WIN ROUBAIX: DOES IT MATTER?
In a recent conversation with Cyclingnews, Quick-Step team manager Patrick Lefevere, who oversaw Tafi during his peak years, said he “doesn’t understand” the Italian’s desire to race Roubaix again.
I would argue — and I have, in a recent column — that’s because Lefevere is an old-school team manager who views success solely through the lens of race victories.
“We all were asking Andrea if he had a fever or something, or if he had become crazy. I don’t understand it,” Lefevere said. “He asked me, laughing, but half serious, if our team was interested, but you know the composition of our team. It’s already a fight to make the seven riders for Paris-Roubaix and I don’t want to invest in a project just for publicity.”
Lefevere also mentioned that Tafi would be working with a Belgian film crew to produce a documentary about his comeback, and that it’s “a commercial and business thing.”
And that’s just it. It’s a commercial project that stands to benefit both Tafi — he runs a holiday rental business in Tuscany, Il Borghetto Andrea Tafi — as well as the team that signs him. That doesn’t make it inherently negative any more than it makes it inherently positive. It’s a publicity stunt. And it’s working.
If it’s true that Dimension Data will sign Tafi, it can certainly be viewed as a clever move on their behalf. Their best cobbled classics rider, Edvald Boasson Hagen, was fifth in 2016 — fifth from the five-man group that saw Hayman beat out Boonen in the velodrome. That’s a solid result, and Boasson Hagen would rightfully remain the team’s leader at Roubaix, but it was the Norwegian’s only top-20 finish in seven attempts. It’s hard to see Tafi’s spot on the team as impeding Dimension Data’s chances of victory.
It’s worth noting that Dimension Data was the lowest-ranked WorldTour team of 2018, with just seven victories on the season, and only two at the WorldTour level. Publicity is something that has been in short supply for the African team; the team will receive significantly more exposure at one of the biggest races on the calendar with Tafi wearing their jersey. It’s also worth noting that Dimension Data’s service course is in Lucca, a 45-minute drive from Tafi’s home in Lamporecchio — convenient.
Tafi’s former Mapei teammate Johan Museeuw, himself a three-time Roubaix winner and only one year older than Tafi, reportedly snickered when Tafi told him of his plans at Il Lombardia last month. “He started to laugh when he heard my plan, but not me,” Tafi said. “I know what I’m doing. A champion like Johan could do it, too.”
Perhaps, but this endeavor is unique for a reason. Cycling is among the hardest of all professional sports, and Paris-Roubaix is arguably the hardest day on the race calendar. Museeuw, who won Roubaix and Flanders three times each, as well as a world title and two World Cup titles, has nothing left to prove.
Is Tafi’s return to Roubaix at age 52 a shameless publicity stunt? Yes, of course it is. Can he win? Come on. Will it be a spectacle? Absolutely.
That said, I suspect he’ll do much better than most are anticipating. In some ways, he already has.
The weekly spin is a column from our Editor at Large offering commentary and analysis on topics ranging from racing to tech to industry to travel to simple observations from the saddle.