Join respected author & journalist Herbie Sykes who continues the intriguing story of the Alfa Lum cycling team in our exclusive four-part blog. Part two explains how the formerly all-Italian team decided to adopt the Red Army cycling team.
As we’ve discovered in part one, Ernesto Colnago loved a rainbow jersey. That presumably, was why he supplied Colnago bikes to the Soviet cycling federation, and to the East German one. Ernesto had convinced them that only by riding capitalist bikes could their cyclists demonstrate communism’s sporting and ideological supremacy, and apparently he’d been right. Between them, they won pretty much all the big amateur stage races, on both sides of what the (euphemistically termed) “anti-fascist rampart”. They were forever hoovering up the medals at the amateur Worlds and the Olympics, and they were unbeatable on the track. The bikes they rode came from Cambiago and not Kiev, and best of all they paid for them.
Milk Race, 1983. A rather common sight in the 1980s was that of the USSR cycling team on the front of the bunch aboard their colour-coordinated Colnago bicycles.
Sportspeople, the so-called “diplomats in tracksuits”, had been geopolitical blunt instruments for the Soviet Bloc. Now, however, the cold war was all but lost, and USSR was fast running out of liquidity. Perestroika being the mother of invention, Communism PLC was flogging off the family silver, having a closing down sale. Everything had to go, and to that end, the sports ministry was working with an intermediary. Dorna was an agency in tax-free Lichtenstein, run by a bunch of sharp-suited Italians. They’d already divested those nice people at Juventus of five million of Uncle Sam’s dollars, for the Ukrainian Zavarov. He’d been the star of the team beaten in the final of the European Football Championships, and they had a deal lined up with Seville for Dasayev, the ‘keeper.
The basketball team had won the Olympics, and the ice hockey players were the envy of the world. Everyone would want them, but it wouldn’t do to sell them off as a job lot. People weren’t stupid, and cutting them adrift to the Americans would go down like 99 led balloons.
The ministry had provided a long list of the others it wanted off the books, and on it were most of the road cyclists. The trackies would need to be retained for now, because the track mattered a lot in the east and hardly at all in the west. They were successful, people enjoyed watching them, and monetizing them would be difficult. The road guys, however, were another matter entirely. The “Russian Merckx” Sukhoruchenkov had been the greatest on the planet, but he was in his thirties now. He couldn’t win anymore, and the East Germans had been dominating the Peace Race for years. Whatever it was they were doing over there it was working, and for now, at least there was nobody to touch them. The Tartar Abdoujaparov aside, the Soviet team had been anonymous at the Peace Race, and again at the Worlds. The standard-bearer Abdou’ would be kept back for now, but the rest could go if Dorna could find someone willing to take them off their hands…
So Ernesto rang back ten minutes later, and he told Primo there was no need for him to smash his face in after all. He said he’d found an entire cycling team, and it was in Vaduz. Primo asked him where Vaduz was, and he said, “It’s in Liechtenstein!” Then Primo said, “Cazzo Ernesto! You’re telling me you’ve found a cycling team in Liechtenstein?” and Ernesto said, “Yes that’s right. I’ve found you a cycling team, and it’s in Liechtenstein.”
Ernesto explained that it was the Red Army Cycling team, and it wasn’t actually in Liechtenstein. He explained the thing about Dorna, and told Primo that the window of opportunity was quite tight. Primo asked what he meant by that, and Ernesto said he’d need come back to him by 10.30, and that if he wanted in they’d have to drive to Vaduz the following morning. Primo told him it was 8.30 now, and that only gave him two hours. Ernesto said he knew that because he had a watch as well. Then he said there was niente da fare (nothing to be done about it) because, as he’d already told him, the window of opportunity was quite tight. He told Primo that they only had one shot at it, and if he was serious he’d meet him in Bergamo that evening. He’d explain everything there, and they’d drive to Vaduz the following morning.
Primo was quite agitated now, as you can probably imagine. He said, “Cazzo Ernesto!”, and told him he’d get back to him before 10.30. Then Primo rang Mike.
Mike was Italian-American, and he and his father owned Alfa Lum in San Marino. When, in 1981, Primo had approached them about sponsoring a cycling team, Mike had made him laugh. Primo had told him who he was and what he did, and Mike had said, “Oh cycling! I know that - It’s the thing they put on RAI just before I turn the TV off!”
Mike and his dad had sponsored the team anyway, and it had been good for business. They didn’t know the first thing about cycling – which was good for Primo - but they quite liked the idea of sponsoring the Red Army cycling team. They reckoned there would be loads of publicity in that, and they might even get to sell their stuff in this new Russia. Mike said they were up for it, so then Primo rang Don Peppino, whose real name wasn’t Don Peppino at all.
Don Peppino’s real name was Giuseppe Innocentini, but he was called Don Peppino because he was a priest. His diocese was the Republic of San Marino, he was a big cycling fan, and a mate of Gino Bartali. His brother was the director of a big Swiss bank, and so Primo said, “Ciao Don Peppino! come va?” Don Peppino said he was fine, and then they chatted about cycling a while. Then Don Peppino asked Primo what he could do for him, and Primo explained that he was trying to acquire the Red Army cycling team. He told him the part about Bergamo and Vaduz, but that if he and Mike were to pull it off he’d have to prove both his honesty and solvency to the Soviets. That, he said, was where Don Peppino and his brother came in, because who better than a priest and a bank manager to prove their honesty and solvency? Don Peppino said it sounded like a great adventure, and Primo said it was an adventure alright (!)
Don Peppino said he’d ring his brother straight away, and then he rang back and said his brother was up for it as well.
Primo rang Ernesto back and told him they’d meet him in Bergamo that evening. Ernesto said, “That’s fine then. Don’t forget your toothbrush!”, and Primo told him he was a nutter.
Then, later that day, Primo, Don Peppino, his brother the bank manager and Mike set off for Bergamo. When they got there they met Ernesto, and then they all had dinner together. It was 300 kilometres to Vaduz, and they’d to cross the Alps to get there. They decided to set off bright and early, and that’s what they did.
They set off bright and early, and reached Vaduz mid-morning…
If you have enjoyed reading Herbie's latest blog, we have a selection of previously published stories for you to enjoy.