Have you heard the one about the DS, the priest, the bank manager, Ernesto Colnago and the double-glazing salesman?
You haven’t? Well Primo Franchini, Don Peppino (that’s the priest), Don Peppino’s brother (the bank manager), Ernesto Colnago and double-glazing Mike walked into an office in Liechtenstein…
And immediately stumbled into… Giampiero Boniperti. The Juventus president had been a useful rider as a kid. He’d been a fan of Fausto Coppi, but he hadn’t driven from Turin to Vaduz to talk ciclismo.
He was there because Michel Platini, the best number 10 in Europe, was retiring. Juve had need of a replacement, and they reckoned the Ukrainian Oleksandr Zavarov was the man most likely. The Soviets had asked four million US dollars and Boniperti’s boss, Gianni Agnelli, had that sort of change down the back of his metaphorical sofa. Primo told Boniperti that for that sort of money he could win every bike race under the sun. He said it would get you Fignon, Kelly, Delgado and Van Hooydonck; all three grand tours and more classics than you could shake a stick at. Moneybags Boniperti went in first, as they contemplated how the sport of Coppi and Bartali had come to this.
When they went in the Dorna guy, this Marzocchi, explained that the Soviets were wanting 500,000 US dollars. That was about 1.5 billion lire, and for it, they’d get 14 bike riders, one soigneur, two sports directors and one doctor. They’d get them for a year, and they could pay in installments if Don Peppino’s brother was acting as guarantor.
The riders’ salaries would be paid by Moscow because as officers of the Red Army they’d remain in the employ of the state. Alfa Lum would need provide them board, lodge and a daily subsistence allowance of 30 US dollars, so as-near-as-made-no-difference it came to the thick end of two billion lire.
Primo and Ernesto had a pretty good idea of what they’d be getting. A few of them had raced the Giro delle Regioni, and Dimitri Konyshev had won it the previous year. He was young and extravagantly talented, and so was Vladimir Poulnikov. They all had incredible power, though professional racing was much more textured than the amateur peloton. They weren’t accustomed to the stop-go nature of Italian racing, and logic suggested that some would acclimatize quicker and better than others.
One way or another, the cost was about 600 million lire over their market value as bike riders. If, however, 70 years of communism had taught the Soviets anything, it was capitalism. They understood aggregate demand, and that Alfa Lum would be getting infinitely more than the sum of the parts. What they were offering was much more than a cycling team. It was the history of the European century on a plate, ergo a sure-fire media frenzy. Give that brand awareness was the raison d’être of professional cycling, they knew that if Alfa Lum didn’t pay it then someone else most definitely would. They knew it, Primo, Ernesto and Don Peppino knew it, and double-glazing Mike certainly knew it.
He said he’d find half the money and Primo said that one way or another he’d find the rest. He said he wouldn’t rest until he had it because what they were doing here was making history. Don Peppino told Primo that in that case, he’d best be learning some Russian, and Primo told him the Soviets best be learning some Romagnolo dialect. They all had a good laugh about that, and when Primo got home he rang STA. That was a local gearing company run by two cycling-mad brothers, and they said they’d give him 500 million. Ernesto broke the habit of a lifetime and agreed to contribute 150 million, and so did Sportful. They made skiing clothing up in Trento, but they were wanting a pop at cycling and this was a once in a lifetime chance.
Primo rang Dorna and said, “da” and then, because perestroika was coming to Italy, he rang the local travel agents. He told them to book him a flight to Moscow, and when he got there he signed on the dotted line.
When he got back, he rang a nice hotel he knew at the bottom of the Passo Rolle. He told the guy he’d be needing a dozen rooms for the second week in January, and then he rang Ornella Favero. She was a linguist and a translator, and he asked her if she was free on 10 January. He told her there was going to be a big press conference up near Trento, that she’d be translating for a bunch of Russian cyclists, and then she’d be teaching them Italian.
Their flight was diverted from Malpensa to Genoa on account of the fog, but no matter. They were all present, though Primo wasn’t entirely sure they were all correct.
Seemingly they’d forgotten to pick up their luggage from the carousel, but they told him not to worry. When Primo asked why they’d flown from Moscow armed only with shopping bags, they said they’d been told to bring their cycling shoes because he’d take care of the rest. Primo said, “Well obviously I’ll take care of the cycling things, but I’m not sure… Oh well never mind! We’ll sort it all out later!”
Then he got them all safely onto the coach, and they were as quiet as church mice.
It’s five hours from Genoa to San Martino di Castrozza, so Primo told the bus driver guy to pull into an autogrill. He ordered them all a panino and a drink, and one by one the girl sorted all that out. She handed each of them a panino, and her colleague handed them each a drink. Primo assumed there was a problem, because they neither ate the panini nor drank their drinks. They just stood, stock-still in the autogrill, as if they were waiting for something to happen.
At a certain point Primo shouted, “Eat!”, and then they, the cyclists of the Soviet Red Army, did precisely that. They’d been told to eat, so they started eating.
When they got to the hotel he told them, through Ornella, that they’d need be down for breakfast at 8 o’clock sharp. At 7.58 the breakfast room was deserted, and by 8.01 they were seated, without exception, in the breakfast room. He told them the Italian lessons would start at 9.30, but he failed to tell them what time they needed to be in the conference room. When they asked Ornella to ask him he said, “I don’t know - maybe about 9.25?”. They thought that was funny, because it seemed like he was asking them a question. They thought Primo was funny, and Primo, who didn’t understand why they thought him funny, found that funny.
Afterward he gave them all their kit. It was very good, but they said, “Why not Adidas?” Primo had to explain that Adidas wasn’t a thing in professional cycling, and they seemed utterly, utterly nonplussed by that.
Each morning they’d elect a spokesman, and he’d come to Primo with a list of the things they were concerned about. That was a good idea, Primo though, because it meant he knew everything, he could deal with everything, and there were no arguments about anything.
At mealtimes they’d prod around with their food, trying to figure out what it was and watching to see what the other guests did with it. Primo thought that was funny as well, and in some way, he was starting to feel quite paternalistic.
Anyway, everyone seemed happy, everything was new and exciting and funny, and everyone got on really, really well.
If you have enjoyed reading Herbie's latest blog, we have a selection of previously published stories for you to enjoy.
A selection of 1989 Alfa Lum cycling team postcards featuring Djamolidine Abduzhaparov, Andrei Tchmil and Dimitri Konyshev. Looks like only Tchmil got the memo about taking photographs of bikes (Chain on the outside chainring, cranks level with the down tube, logos on water bottle, etc).