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Italian cyclist Andrea Tafi hopes to go where no man has ever gone before. The retired classics specialist hopes to become the first rider over 50 years old to race the grueling Paris–Roubaix classic. No, he is not interested in racing the gran fondo event or even the amateur version, the winner of the 1999 Paris–Roubaix hopes to return to the Hell of the North on the 20th anniversary of his Roubaix victory and once again race with the pros. We caught up with Tafi just after he returned from a training ride to talk about his spectacular dream and how it just may happen next April.
According to my sources, you just got back from a training ride?
Yeah, I just got back from a 100-kilometer ride. I am just starting to build up my endurance base again before focusing on specific training.
A good friend of mine said he raced with you in Hungary earlier in the year and that, although you have been retired for over a decade now, you are still really fit. And now I hear that you are trying to find a team so that you can participate in Paris–Roubaix next year. Andrea, you are 52 now. Where did you get this idea?
Well, the last three years I have still been able to ride a lot and even do a fair amount of amateur races. I’m not racing to win, but just to really stay in good shape. And, as you mentioned, last year I had a chance to race in Hungary with a Continental team. I did really well. We raced 160 kilometers at nearly 48 kilometers an hour. We were really flying, but I managed to hold my own. And that is what gave me the idea to return to Paris–Roubaix. Next year will be the 20th anniversary of my Paris–Roubaix victory and I have what I think is the unique idea to line up once again. Some people may think I am crazy, but those around me know that I am not crazy. And I don’t want to do something crazy. I just want to show people what you can do at 50 if you take care of yourself and are in good shape. Of course, I don’t think I can win the race or anything, but I do think I can be an active player and that alone would be pretty amazing at my age.
That’s definitely an original idea. But I remember that, in 2012, when Jacky Durand decided to celebrate the 20th anniversary of his victory in the Tour of Flanders, he did the Ronde’s gran fondo event. Why didn’t you focus on the Roubaix fondo or even the amateur event?
Ah, well, the Roubaix grand fondo I do all of the time. I wanted another challenge, a unique challenge. I know it is going to be really hard. But I want to see from the inside everything that has changed in the 20 years since I won. I want to see how I have changed, but also how the sport and the race have changed. Obviously it has changed immensely. Bikes alone are five times different than the way they were. And, of course, I have changed. I am not the same rider I was before, but I can show that even at my age, with the right equipment and the right training, I can still be there. I know it is going to be very hard, but even finishing is going to be a victory. And all those things combined have really motivated me to be at the start once again in 2019.
How many kilometers a year are you doing now?
Oh, I’d say about 18,000.
Wow, you won’t get old and fat that way! And how many did you do when you were still a pro?
Oh, I remember one year I did over 30,000 kilometers. I raced 115 days alone, and with all the training, yeah, I was up over 30,000.
Okay, I understand the logic behind your motivation now. But how are you going to go about realizing this dream? How are you going to find a team? What can you do for the team that will encourage them to give up a spot to you for example?
Well, I don’t pretend to be at the level where I can do something for Quick-Step. They already have several riders that could win the race and each one of the supporting riders has a specific role. But there are a lot of teams that I think could benefit from my experience. Not every team is going to Paris–Roubaix to win. There are a lot of teams that have little chance of winning and I think I could bring something to those teams with my motivation and experience. In addition, I don’t think that this dream of mine will go unnoticed in the media and I think that whatever team hires me will benefit from some added coverage, because what I am doing is really unique.
And in terms of training and racing, how will you prepare? If you find a team, will you do the training camps with them, some of the earlier cobbled classics that are so important in preparing for a race like Roubaix?
I’ll do whatever I can do. I would love to be able to do some training camps. But I also have a good relationship with the Mapei training center in Milan and they have said that they will gladly help me. Already I will be going there to do a series of tests and work with some of their trainers. But I would love to be able to do some training camps with the team.
And the races?
The races are a little more complicated. I would love to, of course, but for the WorldTour events you have to have participated in the biological passport program for six months. I am definitely in the time frame for Roubaix, but for some of the earlier races I would need to get an exception and I don’t know what will be possible. But if I can—”pas de problème!” I am an ex-professional who simply wants to prepare for this objective the best way possible.
When you look at your body, how do you feel you have changed the most as a rider in the past 20 years?
Well, I would definitely say that I have lost some explosivity. That said, I will be really curious to do the testing at Mapei, because I feel that my endurance has actually improved.
When you watch Paris–Roubaix today on television what has changed the most since when you were racing? Or has it changed?
Well, I was one of the last riders in the generation that raced and trained without power meters all the time. As a result, we really had to know our bodies and know our limits. That was really valuable, but for me to be competitive this next year I have to get up to speed with the new methods, because the technology has improved performance. As a result, training has changed a lot too. But I want to embrace those changes and live them and see where they can take me. But at the Mapei training center I will have all of the modern, up-to-date training methods.
So you are training with a power meter today?
Oh, yeah. It’s very different. Heck, back when I won, we didn’t even wear helmets!
Has the way the riders race Paris–Roubaix changed much in your opinion?
I think it has definitely changed in the first 100 kilometers, where I think it has just gotten faster and faster. That is going to be the hardest part for me I think. Once we hit the cobbles, I think I will be okay. Like I said, I have done the Roubaix fondo and ridden on the cobbles often. I still know all of the sectors and I still know all of the lines to take. That is something that has not changed. But when you race through the Arenberg, or when you ride through Mons-en-Pévèle or the Carrefour de l’Arbre, well it’s just mythic. And I want to be there again!