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You’ve seen the videos online: Astana’s Michele Scarponi riding with a huge parrot flying alongside him, hitching a ride on his back, and sometimes gnawing on his helmet.
Named “Frankje,” the blue-and-yellow macaw is Scarponi’s favorite training partner on the roads near his hometown in Italy’s Marche region. We got Scarponi on the phone to get the scoop on his fine-feathered friend.
“First of all, Frankje is not my ‘pappagallo,’” Scarponi explained, using the Italian word for parrot. “He is the macaw of a neighbor who lives in a nearby village. Frankje is a bit the mascot of our area, and during the summer, he flies from house to house, and goes into all the windows he finds open. He goes to the bar for the big soccer matches. Everybody knows him.”
Scarponi, who just happens to be one of the funniest riders in the peloton, explained his first brush with Frankje left him with ruffled feathers, so to speak.
“A couple of years ago, I rode past the village, and I saw this big bird flying around,” Scarponi said. “I thought it was quite strange to see a bird like that, and then it started to follow me. It came closer. I thought, what is he going to do? To tell the truth, I did not go back for a little while because I was almost scared. He would come close to me, and fly over me. I stopped, and then he would stop a bit further away on a tree, and wait for me. I thought he would attack me!”
A few weeks later, Scarponi happened to roll past the village again, and saw a man with the macaw. They started up a conversation — not with Frankje, who Scarponi vows cannot “talk” — and the neighbor put Frankje on his shoulder. It was love at first peck.
“He got comfortable with me, and I don’t know if he thinks we belong to the same team, because the color of my Astana jersey is similar to his feathers,” he said. “Something special started that day. And now, every time I pass by I call “Frankje!” and if he is around, he will join me on the bike. It is truly something quite curious.”
Scarponi said Frankje will tag along for as much as 15km, flying next to him and sometimes jumping on his Scarponi’s back and shoulders as he pedals along the road. Scarponi admits it’s hard to tell who enjoys it more, himself or Frankje.
“Here’s a funny anecdote,” Scarponi said. “Just yesterday, I was passing by, and it was a bit foggy, and he was inside the house, and I think he recognized me through the window, and he started to call me — Scarponi makes three times the sound of a macaw — yes, he knows me very well!”
Scarponi has posted several videos of himself riding with Franjke, and says he has hundreds more that he has not shared on social media. From the looks of things, it’s hard to tell who’s parroting who.
“Frankje is the most famous macaw of the world!” Scarponi said with a laugh. “I don’t know if Frankje thinks he is a cyclist or he thinks I am a macaw! I haven’t figured it out yet.”