Often referred to as the Third Man of Italian Cycling behind Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali, Fiorenzo Magni, who as I write this is 88 years of age, and is a living connection to the other two great Italian cyclists. He rode with them, raced against them, sometimes even beating them.
He also rode against other giants of that time, the likes of Geminiani, Robic, Bobet, Kubler and Koblet. In a time now referred to as “The Golden Age of Cycling,” when in countries like Italy, France, and Belgium, cycling had more fans than football. (Soccer.)
His numerous victories over the years included three wins in the Giro d’Italia, in 1948, 1951, and again in 1955. His epic ride with a broken collarbone to 2nd. Place in the 1956 Giro was the one that I wrote about in my last article. The reason for his determination to finish at all costs? He was about to retire that year and did not want to abandon his last Giro.
Above: Magni, Bartali, and Coppi.
Magni could have possibly won the Tour de France in 1950, but fate stepped in and denied him the chance. In stage 11 that went from Pau to St. Gaudens, crossing the Aubisque, Tourmalet and the Aspin, all famous climbs. At the top of the Aspin, Bartali and Frenchman Jean Robic crashed into a photographer. Robic remounted but Bartali was surrounded by angry spectators. He was kicked and punched.
After the crowd dispersed Magni and Bartali chased the field and caught the leaders, Bobet, Geminiani and Ockers. This effort gained Fiorenzo Magni 12 minutes and he took the overall lead ahead of Swiss rider Ferdi Kubler by two and a half minutes.
Above: Magni leads Coppi
The following morning the entire Italian team, including Magni, withdrew from the race. Partly in protest at the treatment of Bartali, but also because of concerns for the safety of the Italian riders. When asked in a recent interview, if he regretted having to abandon the TDF when leading, Magni replied:
Of course I felt bad about that but I believe that there are bigger things than a technical result, even one as important as winning the Tour de France. Team manager Alfredo Binda and the Italian Federation made the decision, on Bartali's suggestion. I stuck to the rules and accepted their decision. In my life, I have never pretended to have a role that was not mine.
When asked did he feel he could have won the Tour? His reply was:
That's another story. Hindsight is easier than foresight! I think I had a good chance of winning. But saying now that I would have won would not be very smart.
Magni was one of the first riders to negotiate sponsorship from outside the Bicycle Industry. In 1954 he managed to get a contract with Nivea. (The Face Cream Company.)
Professional cycling was struggling at the time, and this was a positive move for the sport. The sponsorship supported Magni and his entire team.
The move proved to be lucrative for both Magni and Nivea. It lead the way for other cycling teams to get sponsorship outside the bicycle industry. Especially important in the years that followed, when soccer started to gain public support over cycling.
When asked what it was like to ride against Coppi and Bartali, Fiorenzo’s reply was:
In life, defeats are more likely to happen than wins. Losing to Coppi and Bartali, and therefore congratulating them, is an experience that I am happy to have had and an experience that taught me a lot. I recognize as I always have that they were, simply fantastic Coppi was my age and we were very close. Bartali lived close by and we met very often.
I have always admired them for what they could do and esteemed them for who they were. Not only they were champions, they were also great men. Why do you think we are still speaking about them? Because they made history. I consider myself lucky because racing with them I could be part of this history. I would have won more without them but it wouldn't have been during a legendary cycling era.
Fioreznzo Magni was mentor to at least two famous framebuilders. Ernesto Colnago (Above center with Sr. Magni left.) worked on his first Giro d'Italia in 1954 as second mechanic. The first mechanic was Faliero Masi who Magni described in his interview as “The best mechanic of all time.” It was Masi’s idea to use the piece of inner tube to gain leverage, outlined in my last article.
Always a smart business man, Magni retired from racing in 1956. He could have gone on much longer, but he did so to manage his Motorcycle Dealership that he started in 1951. The business eventually became a car dealership in Monza, Italy, that still bears his name today. The picture below from recent years, shows Sr. Magni in the office of his business. The now famous picture from the 1956 Giro d'Italia is on the wall behind him.
He also is President of a Cycling Museum the "Fondazione Museo del Ciclismo.” The museum building is next to the famous Sanctuary of the "Madonna del Ghisallo.” The Madonna del Ghisallo is considered the patron saint of cyclists and the Sanctuary contains trophies, bikes, jerseys and photos from legendary champions.
You can read the interview with Fiorenzo Magni here. The responses to the questions show acceptance of the hand that life dealt him, without regrets. He also shows humility in accepting praise for his achievements, and a willingness to give credit to others. It shows the wisdom and character of Fiorezo Magni.
The joy for me is that this great man is still with us, when so many of the heroes of my teen years are not. Coppi, Koblet, Robic and Bobet, died tragically, and all relatively young. My memories of this era are from almost sixty years ago, and still there is a remote possibility I could one day actually meet Fiorenzo Magni.