Alfa Lum's DS Primo Franchini enjoying a publicity photo shoot with a backdrop featuring the CCCP's hammer and sickle and one of those fabulous red & white Italian-made Colnagos.
Author & journalist Herbie Sykes continues his absorbing story of the Alfa Lum cycling team with the fourth and final part of this exclusive blog where the once close-knit team imploded eventually dispersing into amongst the European peloton.
So everything was funny, everyone was getting along fine, and everyone was looking forward to the press conference. It was standing room only, and nobody – not anybody – had been to a team presentation like it. It amounted to a bunch of monosyllabic Russians sat round in shellsuits, and yet the telegiornali, the TV news shows, were all over it. There were “serious” news journalists as well as the usual cycling suspects, and they’d come from far and wide. There were Germans and Frenchmen, Danes and Spaniards. They flew in from Holland, from Belgium and from Mother Russia and Ornella, the linguist, joked that she’d be needing reinforcements.
Primo Franchini had never seen anything like it, and neither had the Alfa Lum guys. They’d expected there to be interest, of course they had. This, however, was unprecedented, and so was the sheer quantity of race organizers imploring them to appear.
It was all going swimmingly well, but then one of the hacks insisted on knowing what a Soviet bike rider in Italy might be expected to earn. In a roundabout way they deduced that their 2000 roubles a month (daily expenses allowance included) was about $700. That was shy of a million lire, about half of what anonymous Italian gregario would be making. It was about ten percent of what they were paying Fondriest at Del Tongo, and a fraction of Lemond’s earnings at ADR. It was also a fraction of what Poulnikov, Konyshev and Soukhorouchenkov would have commanded but for the ideological accident that was Marxism, and someone asked them how they felt about that.
They shrugged their shoulders, but it was the end of the beginning. The penny was beginning to drop, and still more so when they learned that western cycling teams shared their prize money amongst themselves. They weren’t obliged to give half of it to their employer (in this case USSR plc), and nor to hand a slug of it to some faceless “publicity agency” in Liechtenstein. Primo Franchini insisted – quite rightly – that the contractual stuff had nothing to do with him. His job was to help them win bike races, and as he understood it Lemond and Fondriest weren’t officers in the Red Army.
The ‘papers were full of it the following morning, and it was nothing short of miraculous. Alfa Lum, a double-glazing company from San Marino bumped Juventus, Milan and Inter off the front page of La Gazzetta and Tutto Sport. It was brand awareness gold dust, but Franchini knew instinctively that the genie was out of the bottle.
They left the Dolomites for their new home, a pensione near the Adriatic Coast. They went out window shopping, and were immediately acquainted with stuff which ordinary Italians could afford but which they, elite athletes preparing to ride the Giro d’Italia, could not. Franchini told them it was nothing to do with him, and if they weren’t happy about the money they’d need to take it up with their commanding officers. They did precisely that, but when they didn’t get the answers they wanted they started taking it up amongst themselves. They started falling out amongst themselves, and suddenly the things that had seemed funny no longer seemed funny at all.
Their mentality had Franchini completely baffled. They did precisely as they were told, but wordlessly and without apparent enthusiasm. They seemed incapable (or unwilling) of making decisions, presumably because any ability they’d once had to think for themselves had been programmed out of them. They were strong, but the majority displayed no initiative and no flexibility. Rather they sought to avoid any sort of personal responsibility, because that way they wouldn’t be seen to make mistakes. They wouldn’t have to think, and as they saw it not having to think meant not having to worry.
They simply ate, slept and rode, and there was a bovine quality about most of them. The Italian lessons were farcical; Ornella didn’t understand cycling, they didn’t understand her, and Franchini didn’t understand the way they approached their work. They were extremely strong but seemingly devoid of enthusiasm. Andrei Tchmil, whom the Soviets had considered the runt of the litter, was the exception. His test results had been the least impressive, and he was only there because they’d decided to keep Abdoujaparov back. While the others bickered, however, he listened and learned. He was the first to pick up the lingo, and the first to embrace Italian culture.
By the time they got down to Palermo for Sicilian Week, capitalism was breaking them apart. They were doing the same job as the Italians but, like Zavarov at Juventus, earning a pittance by comparison. They were becoming obsessed, quite literally, with what the other riders were earning, and they felt cheated. History tells us that when cyclists feel cheated they start to cheat back, and Primo Franchini could see Pandora’s box opening before his very eyes. He had no way to mitigate it, however, and no way of foreseeing what would befall him at the Vuelta…
First, Poulnikov’s wife went into labour, Franchini invited him to go home. He said he didn’t, but not because he felt some profound sense of duty to Alfa Lum. Franchini deduced that he simply couldn’t be bothered, or at least that he lacked the gumption to fly home unassisted.
Whatever; in Asturias, Ivan Ivanov delivered their first big win. With a 47 kilometre time trial, a big mountain stage and the stage to Madrid remaining, he lay fifth on GC. The Tour de France winner Pedro Delgado and the Colombian Fabio Parra were in a race of their own, but having finished second behind Pedro Delgado on the previous TT, Ivanov seemed fair-set to overhaul Oscar Vargas and Alvaro Pino for the final podium slot. Instead he dribbled round, shipping over three minutes and ruling himself out of contention. Franchini put that down to experience, but what Ivanov did next was the final straw. It convulsed cycling, made the sort of headlines Franchini had been dreading, and when the dust settled Alfa Lum remained a “team” in name only.
The penultimate stage, over five mountain passes, would finish in Delgado’s Segovia. He led Parra by 57 seconds, but whilst the Colombian’s Kelme domestiques were strong, Delgado’s Reynolds teammates were missing in action. Delgado had become a national hero in winning the Tour, and the Vuelta was supposed to represent the coronation. All of Spain expected it coronation, and whilst Perico had no team to speak of, he did have deep pockets. Ivanov had good legs, nothing much to ride for and the need, figuratively at least, of a Sony Walkman. At the roll-out – which is to say in full view of the TV cameras – Spain’s favourite cyclist was seen to offer him a white envelope, and he was seen to accept it. Hold the back page…
Delgado would later claim that the envelope contained nothing but his home address. He’d state that he liked Ivanov, and that it constituted an invitation for him and his family to look him up if ever they found themselves in (of all places) Segovia. He said that Ivanov’s having appeared to help him clinch the Vuelta must therefore have been purely coincidental, but he was fooling nobody. What had happened was the inevitable sporting consequence of cycling’s flirtation with perestroika, and millions had seen it on TV.
Phil Anderson (Tvm - Yoko), Gianni Bugno (Salotti - Chateau d'Ax), Claudio Chiappucci (Carrera), Vladimir Pulnikov (Alfa Lum) and Mario Cipollini (Del Tongo - Mele Val di Non). Photo: Fotoreporter Sirotti.
Primo Franchini was powerless to do anything about it and so he chose, insofar as he could, to pretend it never happened. The more he wished it away the more it haunted him though, and the more they raced the more factions emerged. At the Giro, Poulnikov and Ugrumov fought one another, thrillingly, for the maglia bianca. The former won it, and the symbolism of that was lost on nobody. All the old pro-am’, east-west conventions were being swept away, and so were distinctions between capitalism and socialism. The marketplace had prevailed in a 40-year-old battle of ideological wills, as free enterprise and personal empowerment trumped collective ownership and shared responsibility.
A new world, then, and with it a new cycling. That autumn Konyshev came within an ace of the rainbow jersey at Chambéry, France. Ostensibly it made sense to choose Sean Kelly’s wheel instead of Greg Lemond’s but, as his (Italian) DS had discovered to his cost, you live and learn. Franchini insisted that he’d continue only if the riders were contracted directly to Alfa Lum and so, as the union of Soviets began to dissolve, it was. The Red Army cycling team was disbanded, its demobbed constituents invited to take their chances as private citizens in the west.
The second season was basically a free-for-all, and at its conclusion, Ugrumov, Ivanov, and four others moved to Spain. Ugrumov would podium at the Tour and the Giro, while Tchmil took his chances in Belgium. Famously he won both Flanders and Roubaix in ’94 and another former Soviet, Evgeni Berzin, won the Giro. Some – Franchini included – maintain that Poulnikov ought to have won the maglia rosa at least once. They say he was more gifted even than Konyshev, and probably the most gifted of all the Soviet Bloc riders. The most gifted, the least ambitious and, as a consequence, the least fulfilled.
The former Soviets riders who dispersed into amongst the European peloton. Djamolidine Abduzhaparov (Novell Software - Decca), Piotr Ugrumov (Gewiss Ballan), Yewgeni Berzin in the Maglia Rosa (Gewiss Ballan) and Andrei Tchmil (Lotto - Vetta - Caloi). Photo: Fotoreporter Sirotti.
Primo Franchini is as bright as a button as he approaches his 80th birthday, and the team he presided over for two tumultuous years genuinely is the stuff of Italian sporting legend. As a rule of thumb, the man in the Italian street tends to recall individual riders more than their sponsors.
Professional cycling is designed that way, but hardly anybody has forgotten the saga of Alfa Lum. It remains a household name here because, in a sporting context at least, nothing better represented the end of the Cold War. There was no better metaphor for the spirit of ’89, and nor for the seismic changes – good, bad and downright ugly - which subsequently enveloped the redrawn Europe.
What a time it was.
Go in peace.
If you have enjoyed reading Herbie's latest blog, we have a selection of previously published stories for you to enjoy.
The La Vie Claire retro jersey was our best-selling cycling jersey of an unforgettable 2020. For the first time ever, the Mondrian inspired jersey came out ahead of the three-time winner the San Pellegrino jersey with the consistent Molteni Arcore jersey in third.