Frank Boifava and Carrera Professional Cycling Team
Frank Boifava’s life was destined to revolve around bicycles. One of the three owners of the Carrera bicycle brand, Frank now resides in Brisbane Australia. In the mid 1980’s when the world of professional cycling was undergoing radical transformation, Frank played his part in witnessing and enacting some of the most profound changes in the history of the sport. Changes which resulted in a traditional European focused sport, become the international version of cycle sport that we know today.
In the 1980’s foreign riders, Americans, Australians, Irish and many more were heading to Europe in unprecedented numbers. What made Carrera different in this era was that Carrera was one of the first pro teams to have “two teams, within one”. Including a large number of foreign English speaking riders. An innovative team approach with new ideas and all young blood, an Italian team breaking away from old traditions and forging a new way into the future, for cycle sport to model itself on.
At the same time foreign companies like Shimano began to penetrate the market. Marked by one insidious moment in a car park in Switzerland, in the mid 80’s while working on a Carrera team bike, Frank Boifava throws a cable on the ground, later Frank turned around to see a weird Japanese guy pick up the cable, examine it and bag it. There’s a story behind this which we’ll cover in part two. Within a couple of years, European teams would begin using Shimano components instead of Campagnolo.
Frank’s cycling story is especially relevant to foreign riders who tried to make their mark in Europe in the 1980’s and before. After all, when it began for Frank, he was one of these “foreign” riders racing in Italy in the 1970’s. It was an era where individuals from many countries, forged their own way into the pelotons of Europe, by whatever means. Each rider with their unique approach to breaking into the pro ranks. For every Phil Anderson, Alan Peiper, Sean Kelly or Stephen Roche, there were fifty more in there having a crack. Carrera helped make this possible for the riders they contracted, the team depended on Frank speaking English as well as his negotiating skills. This new approach earned Carrera knick-names like "The Kids”.
Then there was stage fifteen of the 1987 Giro, from Lido di Jesolo to Sappada. Roberto Visentini vs Stephen Roche, English speaking rider vs Italian speaking rider, team mate vs team mate, DS vs virtual leader on the road, Carrera against Roche, Italian press vs Roche then finally the Italian fans vs Roche. Write and say what you want about Sappada, opinions will always be divided. Yet set in stone forever more, whether European’s liked it or not, the traditional European version of cycle sport had come tumbling down like an avalanche on the mountainside of Sappada. English speaking riders were there to stay and teams like Carrera had invited them in. The doors to Europe had to open some time and thanks to visionaries like Carrera's DS Davide Boifava, continental cycle sport became more accessible to the rest of the world.
This is part one of an interview with Frank Boifava, a story of a team bound up in an era of change. In part two we’ll focus on the changes in equipment and technology, including The cycling story about that Shimano guy.
FRANK'S FIRST RACES
“Listen being a mechanic on a team I worked very hard, I worked VERY VERY HARD we started at six O'clock in the morning and finished at seven at night, you'd drive all night maybe, it's a hard job but also there's a lot of fun stories about things that happened, that can happen only there. You see things happening and you go it happens because it's like a circus, cycling the sport, we lived it one year at a time together, it's like a circus and you move the circus around the world, just imagine what can happen.” Francesco Boifava
You grew up in Australia yet had strong family ties back in Italy. When you went to Italy, how did you get into racing bicycles?
I travelled to Italy with my family in 1971, I hadn't even learnt to ride a bicycle by then, not even a normal bicycle. My uncle Davide Boifava introduced me to cycling, he was a professional bicycle rider, I asked him what's a bicycle and that’s how I got started. My uncle was a big promise he was a strong amateur he'd worn the Yellow Jersey at the Tour de L'Avenir, then in his first year as a professional in 1968 he won I think eight races including wearing the pink jersey at the Giro. At the end of the season he had a bad fall, hit his head and broke his skull, he was in a coma for a week. Then he recovered, started racing again, they discovered this after a pain in his left leg, he went for an entire season with this pain. Next a doctor in Austria discovered he'd been racing with four torn tendons. At the end of ten years as a professional he won fifteen to twenty races. I think what he missed out as a rider, he recovered as a team manager, because he had teams like Carrera and Asics.
Did you just start out straight away training and racing.
First I got on a bicycle and learnt how to ride, then progressed to racing.
What age were you when you started racing?
Fifteen and I only ever raced in Italy. Back then there was Juniors and then Elite, Dilletante Junior and Dilletente as Elite. In the year when I made Elite I only raced for six months, so I started that season in a strong team. During the season I had a dry cough and the only remedy was to go to high altitude to get rid of it and I couldn't train. My first race back was a Criterium around a two kilometre circuit, I only weighed fifty two kilograms. I looked at the Polish team their legs were the size of my waist, I was eighteen and they were thirty year old men. So we started the race and the only thing I could do was hang on the back of them, they were on 53 x 12 and riding like motorbikes. It was a huge change from Juniors over to Elite, I did another few races but the difference was too much. In the Juniors we used fixed gears like 53 x 17 to then having to push a 53 x 12 in an Elite race, this was a big jump. Those Polish riders used to “sleep” on those big gears.
You stopped racing then?
So I lost it psychologically I couldn’t cope, one day I started training and out on the road came across my team mate Bruno Leali, he said Frank come with me. I rode with him and by the time I said I'm going home, it was one o'clock in the morning and Leali goes "what you're going home". So I went home and hung up the bike and didn't touch it for five years.
WHEN FRANK BOIFAVA BECAME A CARRERA TEAM MECHANIC
How did you make the transition from rider to mechanic at Carrera?
I was Australian born so I decided to come back to Australia when I was about twenty two. After three years in Australia I went to visit my parents in Italy as a surprise visit, by then I'd lost all contact with the racing scene. On that trip I went to visit my uncle Davide and he said well tomorrow we have the Tour of Italy starting, why don't you come and have a look. I had previously raced with Bontempi and Leali and now they were both professionals in the Carrera team. My first language was English and back then nobody in the pro racing scene could speak English, mainly French and Italian. It was the years where the first Americans were coming in, about 1984. So my uncle said you speak English and Italian why don't you join the team, because speaking both languages would be very helpful to the team, so I thought why not. So I started a career with Carrera professional team just because I could speak English.
You first started out as a mechanic?
Practically my first job was as a mechanic, but I was also taking care of all the contracts. We also had sponsors like Avocet and other American sponsors coming on board. So speaking English was quite handy, especially in that era.
So you'd not only taken on the role of mechanic, but also signing new riders as well as liaising with new sponsors!
I was taking care of all the contracts especially on the technical side. Many times it happened we were contacting Australian and American riders. At one stage for example we contacted Phil Anderson. So I was translating the first contacts before signing on new riders. Now everybody speaks English, but back then I had offers as a job from Campagnolo and Shimano because I was a mechanic who spoke English as well as Italian.
Signing on English speaking riders like Roche, you would have been the first contact?
Yes the first contact was always myself and Davide and I was translating. I was always taking care of the English speaking riders. In the sense that we always stayed together, we rented a big residence for all the foreign riders and I spent a lot of time with them. Carrera was the first Italian team to have two teams within one team, so that meant a double programme. I was always with the foreigners going to France or America or outside of Italy.
Given that this was one of the first times this approach was tried with two teams within one, were there any regulatory issues to contend with regarding the UCI or Italian Federation?
Practically you were going from twelve to say twenty riders and it was only a case of whether you had enough money to do it. Later it became regulation, but back then it was how much you could spend!
In 1987 Roche achieved the triple crown the Giro, Tour de France and World Championship. The only other racer to do this was Merckx, that was a big year for Carrera.
That year we won forty seven professional races. I was making very good money too, because back then mechanics were paid very well.
Did some of the money come from the riders?
The staff were part time and some full time. There were three full time mechanics and three masseurs. The six permanent staff were getting twelve percent of the total prize money divided amongst ourselves. With the prize money in 1987 I made more money than my wages, we won seven stages at the Tour de France, plus overall GC.
The biggest success of Carrera was Davide's ability to put together so many different riders. Once there was a lot of animosity between Italians, French and the nationalities, Italians are very snobby, back then they thought they were on top of the world, that's not the case now. We were all the same age group, in the past the top mechanic was at least fifty years old and the masseur was his age, the mentality was that he's got more experience, he's a top gun. Davide employed all young people we were all between twenty five and thirty, even the staff members including the doctor. As a result it became very much like a family, we were all very close as a result the team functioned very well.
So you were trail blazing, setting up a new structure that wasn't previously apparent. Two teams and a team of people all in a similar age bracket engendering a close team spirit.
Davide created everything, the other teams in the first year were looking at us, the youngsters, they used to call us knick-names like, "the kids" and things like that. The first year was unsuccessful, no wins at all. In the second year we won the Giro d'Italia and began to gain some respect.
When you'd setup the apartments at Lago di Garda to house foreign riders on Carrera, that must have required a significant shift in thinking to the traditional model also.
Definitely, previously everyone was living at home so then the problem was when these foreign riders came along, Danish, Irish, Australians etc you needed a central place, that's why we started renting the apartments, it depended on the number of foreign riders we had each year. The community was quite large back then. Now it's changed and I believe riders live there all year around. Back then it was a matter of accommodating them for a few months of the year.
You said you'd spent a lot of time with the foreign riders.
I spent a lot of time outside of Italy at the foreign races, my partner and other mechanic, Luciano Bracchi, he was Italian so he preferred to stay at home and do the Italian races. We always chose the riders who were suited to particular races, for example Bontempi always wanted Leali with him because he was suited to helping him in the sprints.
Acceptance of Australian racer’s in Europe has come a long way since the 1980's. It took a long time for many riders knocking on the door in countries like Italy, travelling at their own expense. Small things started to happen in the 1980’s, but opinions about the ability of Australian riders hadn't shifted significantly from the traditional view, that Aussies apparently couldn’t ride bikes. There's a funny story about Robbie McEwen which highlights the plight of Aussies back then, who were trying to break into the scene.
A year before Robbie turned pro, I was on the Gold Coast about November or December. I was at a race and you see this guy taking off, he looked great on the bike perfect position and he won easily. So I approached him and also spoke to his DS and his DS said yeah, Robbie's looking for a contract in Europe and he's happy to have a jersey and some costs met. So I went back to Italy and it was the day we were testing riders, back then we used to have riders coming for a first test. I spoke with Davide and told him about Robbie and his perfect win and how perfect his position was on the bike and that he was willing to come only for the cost. David said, "no Australian's on bikes, no they don't work!" Robbie turned pro the year after and we were at a stage race, by then he'd won about four races. I said to Davide that's that Australian guy that you said wouldn't work out on a bike and each time after, whenever I saw Robbie I was laughing.
There were a few Australian’s breaking through, Anderson, Wilson, Hodge and Peiper?
It wasn't only Australians, the Europeans thought they had the monopoly on cycling and anyone from overseas was seen as a little bit …. funny. When we saw the Americans coming it was like they were a bunch of jokers, overseas nahh not really they didn't cut it. The attitude of the Americans was distinctly different. Back then there was a tradition of mechanics and masseurs and a way of behaving too, these Americans came along with female masseuses, they had an approach of doing things which was seen as wrong. So they had no tradition.
This was a jump off point for the entire change of the culture of pro cycle racing worldwide.
There was the totally traditional concept and then at Carrera you had side stepped tradition by enlisting a youthful team of support staff as well as riders.
When we started Carrera we were all young but there was still respect there for the older mechanics and personnel. If you were going to the same hotel, it was always the older mechanic who first chose his preferred place to work. Back then there were no trucks to stack the bikes up in, you had to use a room of the hotel or a garage. So it was always the older mechanics from the Bianchi team or Del Tongo, they were in their sixties and seventies, so they were taking the best position first.
So there was respect there for the older mechanics and staff.
Then in came the Americans, they didn't speak Italian and they'd just walk all over the place and go where they wanted. The first sign was Lemond's win at Altenrhein, then in 1985 came Hampsten, but everybody was laughing at them as especially with the female masseuses, like what's a woman doing mixed in with them.
These were subtle but very powerful markers that were significant in their impact on the changes that resulted in the international complexion of the peloton we see today. For example the shift in culture within the Carrera team where you had a structure to support non-Italian riders as well as emphasising young blood.
That's true, we had the double team.
Aussies like Hodge and Wilson etc, then the Americans with their Bravado, now there's Green Edge.
Now everyone speaks English! I think Radio Corse at the Tour de France today includes English, not only French as it once was.
When you first started working with Carrera as a mechanic, did you change the old school style of the way you worked, compared with the older mechanics? In the 80's personally sometimes I'd witnessed improvised methods where anything could be fixed or repaired or customised with non standard components or materials or whatever was at hand. These days it seems to be the concept that everything can simply be replaced.
We followed the style of the old mechanics, but the bikes were very much personalised back then. We had records of each rider's personal bike details, for example it might be that each handlebar on a particular rider's bikes all had to be cut off 3 cm from the end. It could be anything, we had to take notes because we were dealing with four bikes for each rider that all had to be the same. Back then there were steel or aluminium bikes that you could customise by the millimetre, now even that's lost, it's a bit of a lost culture.
I used to observe Italian mechanics working swiftly and efficiently, there was something special and pure about their style that appeared to me to be part of a timeless tradition.
With all respect to the mechanics of today, they just change parts.
These days there's a refined sequence to a lead out train, it wasn't quite as evolved back then.
It's boring, it started with Cippolini. The thing is back then winning as a sprinter was not that important, you were winning a stage but you didn't have a lot of coverage. The sprint was only two hundred metres. Compare this to a break away in the mountains and you get television coverage for thirty minutes. So the sprinter was always a second level rider. So many times a team would go for a good climber instead of a good sprinter. It was all about how many minutes coverage you'd see that jersey or that brand on television. It's not how many races you win. Things changed and marketing changed and sprinters became important too.
Cippo with his flamboyant personality was one to set the scene for a new era of sprinters.
The sprinters today are very important because the focus on winning races today is very important. Back then you had to compromise because you had nine riders, you could not sacrifice eight riders for one sprinter. Even if you were winning five stages but all sprint stages, well who really cared. So now you actually have teams which specialise in sprinting and teams which specialise in winning other types of races, they have to specialise in something.
L'Eroica honors the sprit of aloneness, the rider against the elements. The personal battle, the rider on a vast stage set in epic landscapes. Coppi suffered and is still remembered, there was a respect for the rider who suffered.
A rider he's alone. I think cycling is related to these heroic battles or the way of battling.
I get the feeling that Italian cycle sport is not just about the result of the race, but also the attachment of the audience to the human aspect of the sport, the riders exhibiting not just their strengths but their human frailties in front of an audience. There's a connection a public spirit of involvement with cycling.
The emotions and living proof of this was Chiapucci or even Pantani. Pantani won let's say some descent races Chiapucci was never a big winner, but the way he was racing really got the masses involved. Chiapucci attacked all the time uphill, downhill, he attacked in the yellow jersey, around the corners. Just the way he was riding really made people dream. I think it's still like thatbecause let's face it when you are watching a sprint these days and there are nine riders spinning around on the front for thirty kilometres and then it's all over in the last fifty metres, well it's still interesting to see but you can't compare that to a stage in the mountains or a stage where you have a little group breaking away.
You can sum it up that people can live their lives through cycle sport, it becomes the spirit of a nation, something to look forward to each week.
I think so.
If you go and watch a bike race and become involved with the passion that comes with it, masses of people out to collectively watch a bike race together. Sometimes throwing water over the riders, or willing them uphill.
I think that people are attached to the fact that they see you doing a big effort and in some way they want to help, in some way they feel connected.
If you're defining cycle sport it's not just about the individual athlete and a result on a sheet of paper, the win, the teams or the equipment.
I would love to one day find a statistic for how many people are on a mountain say on a popular stage at the Giro. Let's say there's five thousand, you ask the question about their knowledge of the riders. I bet that there's ten percent that know very well what's going on, then there's twenty percent that are so and so, but the majority of the people who are there don't know who the riders are.
That's a beautiful thing.
Yes, what they are attracted to, is to go and see this scene and to see these riders, yeah maybe they know who's in the pink jersey or maybe they know who's in the red jersey but apart from that? The good thing is that especially in France, this was quite typical and a little bit less in Italy, that the people applaud the last rider too, the very last one. So they are supporting every single rider from the first to the last one because they respect what they do and what they are putting into it.
I'll never forget a huge poster of Fausto Coppi on a wall in a bar near Rome and what Fausto must have meant to the people, it was like a shrine for the love for a racer who'd passed away many years before.
I think especially these days I find that I struggle to recognise the riders because of the helmets and glasses, so it's becoming very impersonal.
Whereas back then they didn't have helmets, you could see the faces and expressions.
Now they look like machines. They look like robots. Our society has changed, it's totally related to how young people want to see cycling, they want to see riders dressed up like robots and speaking into ear pieces,
Like it's a star wars film, commander to base, do you read me.
Here's the director sportiff saying change gears now, attack, attack. I believe in the right preparation, you have to be prepared well and at the end of the day you can use these modern tools to do so. The really important thing is the personal feeling that the rider should have, not based only on paper and on watts.
FRANK IN AUSTRALIA AT ESPERIA
So how did you make the change to coming back to here to Australia and working for Esperia?
In 2006 I came back to Australia for holidays and I thought it's time to go back to Australia, that's where I want to live, my partners at Carrera always knew this. With all respect to Italy which gave me a lot from the sport side and the business side I was quite happy I lived there, the plan was always to come back. I used to come back here every year anyway. Back in the eighties I used to ride on the Gold Coast and they'd throw tomatoes at you in cans, they'd swear at you, first of all I couldn't understand what was going on. So in 2006 when I came back to Italy I spoke with my partners and gave them a year’s notice, I wasn't an employee so we needed a year. Carrera was too small to support me in Australia, whereas Esperia is one of the major bicycle groups in Italy, I put a proposal to Esperia and they accepted. I'm still a partner in Carrera but I am working for the competition, Esperia.
The reason why I stopped being a team mechanic was because of the changes in the climate in the professional scene. Until the 90's our team was like a big family. We didn't have mobile phones and the guys you communicated with the most were the team members who you were travelling with. Then I remember the first mobile phones came in and you'd have everyone at dinner and instead of enjoying a chat and a good time together, everyone was instead standing around talking on their mobile phones to their family at home. I preferred being close with the team. Cycling as a sport has become colder and colder, this is a reflection of where society is now. Not being critical of the sport, this style just didn't suit me. That was a significant change. I felt like it was a family!
Sharing experience is important …. I think it's nice to know those inside stories which many times are fun. All the side stories connecting them with the stories that people already know, the side stories some of them are really hilarious.” Francesco Boifava
Roberto Visentini was colourful rider …
Visentini I was going to pick him up for races, he lived in a Villa next to the lake, every time I was going there to pick him up you could see the lake going off into the distance, he'd go "look at all those people having fun in their motor boats … they're having fun, while we're going to race", he was always complaining then he'd ask "Frank, where are we going to race today?” He really wouldn't know where we were going. That's Visentini.
Visentini took a saw to his bike once and cut it into pieces?
We knew Visentini since he was a kid, he was from Lago di Garda. My family is a cycling family, my father was a cyclist as well as my uncle so all the young riders in the area see us an icon. Visentini was world champion on the road, he was a big promise.Visentini on the bicycle was amazing, the only big problem was his head. I think he has a strong personality, but when he loses it he cannot react. You can take two bicycle riders who have the same power, but the difference is the strength that each of them has in their minds and their ability to cope with pain, in that sense Visentini’s very strong. But if Visentini decided he was sick of racing, he'd just stop. One year he was racing the Gran Premio della Nazione the time trial, Visentini went there to win and finished about second last so he got a saw and cut his bicycle into pieces, a steel bike all in pieces. So it's the end of the season and Davide gave him a call to take back his bicycle and give him another one. We sent a mechanic down and Visentini gave him a plastic bag with the bike in pieces. That was when we were sponsored by Bataglin. You had to see the mechanics face when he saw the bicycle.
There's a story about Visentini the Giro and a girl …
That year 1986, when Visentini won the Giro di Italia he met this lady. Normally when Visentini met a girl he'd say "I'm Roberto Visentini" and all the girls were falling at his feet. Not this time, he met this girl and said "I'm Roberto Visentini the bicycle rider", and she said well who are you, she was from a different city and she said "what's bicycles" so that "clicked him". That year the week before the Tour of Italy he has a fall and breaks his scaphoid and so he's got plaster and Davide says you can't go to the Tour of Italy with that, but Visentini insisted on going, so he started the Giro that year with plaster. I reckon the only reason why he won the Giro that year was so he could go back to that girl and say to her, "now you know who I am". That's a true story, it shows you how powerful the mind is over the body.
Pantani was a special person, how did he come to be on Carrerra?
Pantani was already in love with Carrera when he was a junior, he said when I turn professional I want to join Carrera. He won the Tour of Italy as an amateur and passed professional with Carrera, the young Pantani was amazing, his body shape, his lungs, he was not tall, his legs were longer than the rest of his body, he was a machine made to ride uphill, made by god just to climb. At fourteen years of age he used to train with professionals like Martinelli who later became his DS. Uphill he gave a hard time to the pro's even at that age. We all knew that he was a talent.
Pantani was a great guy, he first won two stages of the Giro in his second year and was already famous. I remember the time my mother used to spend at the seaside in his home town, I was there for work. I said "Marco my mum would like to meet you, why don't you come around this afternoon for a drink, he said 'yeah no problem'." Normally professionals would say hey, I've got lots of things to do, I can't really make it, that's what set Marco apart, he would just do that, come and spend some time chatting to my mum because he was genuine.
Pantani was a fun guy, although when he became famous it was stellar, this happens to a lot of youngsters and everyone wanted a piece of him. Everyone is holding you on a pedestal like a god, that was Pantani the god. When they created Mercatone, Cheni the owner and team management wanted Davide to be the manager, but Davide refused, Davide said that he'd seen this change in Marco. Marco wasn't that normal person anymore, he became like, I'm Pantani now and I'm god, I can decide who's team manger. Davide was very strict, he was the team manger and the one in command, that's how he does things, I think that's why he didn't accept. Pantani made himself alone, he'd expect you to say yes to him otherwise you weren't his friend.
THE CARRERA CLUB
There was a Carrera Club you'd setup and a couple of the members had some extreme experiences on bikes.
In 2000 - 2001 I setup a Carrera Club for local riders competing in Gran Fondo's. It was run from our store in Calcinato. The everyman rider could join and each month get together at our venue and swap stories. One day one of the club riders came up to me, he was a senator in the Italian parliament and for whatever reason his life wasn't going so well. He said 'Frank you know you saved my life'. He'd somehow found cycling through the Carrera Club that I'd set up and gone on to doing Gran Fondo's then graduated to doing overnight Randonneur events. He showed me pictures of himself, sleeping in gutters on cold over night rides, wearing our Carrera Club jersey. Whatever his journey was with a bike, it had apparently saved his life.
These stories illustrate the joy that cycle sport can bring to anyone who rides a bike.
Another rider from this group also amazed me with his approach to cycling. He was a former motorcycle road racer, and when he got into bicycle riding he thought it was so great you couldn't stop him. He couldn't ride a bicycle though and kept crashing. One time he had a high speed crash on a mountain descent, went face first down the road. I went to visit him in hospital, he was a mess, his face was all beaten up, swollen lips and gravel rash. The next thing he's back out there riding again and has a second accident almost identical to the first one. Again I visited him in hospital and this time I asked him if he was going to stop because it didn’t seem to be working out for him. This guy just loved riding a bike so much he said ‘”Frank I'm going back out there and riding my bike!”
In Part Two about Carrera cycling, we’ll take a look at technological change and how foreign companies began to break down the barriers, resulting in companies like Shimano supplying components to pro Euro teams for the first time ever.