Cycling: Mapei's cobblestone conundrum

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The Independent Online
The powerful Mapei team face a dilemma in Sunday's Paris- Roubaix classic as they bid for a third consecutive victory in the world's most demanding one-day race.

Last year the domination of the Belgo-Italian squad on the cobblestones of northern France was such that the team chief, Patrick Lefevre, decided to sacrifice the chances of Italians Gianluca Bortolami and Andrea Tafi in favour of Belgium's Johan Museeuw.

Since then, Museeuw has won a second World Cup and a first world road title, and it seems now to be the turn of Mapei's Italian leaders Tafi and Franco Ballerini.

Ballerini, winner on the Roubaix cycling track in 1995, showed recently in the Tour of Flanders he was in great shape. Tafi is in form as well and was the bitterest loser last year, coming close to tears after being asked to let Museeuw win. Bortolami has since changed teams to join Festina.

But even though rumours in the Mapei camp stress Ballerini might be the team's unofficial leader this year, Museeuw is also eager to make up for lost time.

The 31-year-old Belgian fell in the final sprint of the Milan-San Remo classic, the opening race of the World Cup. Last week he also found himself out of contention in the Tour of Flanders when the Italian Bruno Boscardin fell in front of him.

Despite winning the De Panne three days earlier this month, Museeuw badly needs a victory to boost his World Cup hopes. His team-mates may once again be his toughest rivals, but a last minute entrant could settle the feud.

Denmark's Rolf Sorensen has not taken part in the Paris-Roubaix since 1991, and his initial plans were to skip it again this year. But his victory last week in the Tour of Flanders persuaded him he should give it a try once again, if only to defend his lead in the World Cup standings.

"My victory in Flanders was so commanding I'm now convinced it can be a good Paris-Roubaix for me," he said.

Sorensen and other classic specialists may be favoured by the weather, which according to forecasts should be dry and sunny. Riders like Fabio Baldato, Briton Max Sciandri and even the German sprinter Erik Zabel may have a real chance if the conditions make the course faster. Otherwise, specialists such as Ukraine's Andrei Chmil, the 1994 winner, or Russia's Vyacheslav Yekimov should be Mapei's leading rivals.

But the French public would also like to see a Frenchman win in Roubaix now that Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle and Marc Madiot have retired. Another sprinter Frederic Moncassin looks their biggest hope.

Once again, the main names already preparing for the big summer Tours will be missing. France's Laurent Jalabert, Switzerland's Tony Rominger and Alex Zulle, the Briton Chris Boardman and the Dane Bjarne Riis have all decided not to risk their season in one day.

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