Italian cyclist Fiorenzo Magni died early last Friday morning; he would have been 92 in less than two months.
Sometimes on the same national team, sometime rivals, Magni was capable, and often did, beat the other two.
In a period when the sport was less globalized, he won the Tour of Flanders three consecutive years in 1949, 50, and 51. At that time the second non- Belgian to do so.
The press named him, "The Lion of Flanders." He won the Giro d’Italia three times, the last time in 1955 at the age of 35, which to this day stands as a record for the oldest person to win the Giro.
This era is sometimes called the “Golden Age of Cycling.” In the decade following the end of WWII, cycling was the main sport on the European Continent with Italy, France, Belgium and Switzerland being the main players.
Italy had been on the other side during the war, so there was little love lost between Italy and the other countries. But all these nations had suffered a terrible beating, and the exploits of these great riders once again instilled national pride.
I started racing in 1952 so Fiorenzo Magni was one of my heroes, Just as today’s teen racing cyclists would follow the likes of Phillip Gilbert, Tom Boonan, Bradley Wiggins, and Taylor Phinney.
On rare occasions I got a glimpse of my heroes in action in black and white news reel footage, but mostly I just read about them, and studied photographs.
Surely one of the most famous photos of Magni is the one at the top of this piece; he had fallen in the 1956 Giro d’Italia and broken his collar bone. He refused to quit the race, reason being, this was to be his last Giro a race he had won in 1948, 1951, and 1955.
He would rather suffer the immense pain of a broken bone, that to give up on the last opportunity he would have to finish a race that was obviously dear to his heart. The photo shows Fiorenzo with a piece of inner tube around his stem which he held in his teeth because he could no pull on the handlebars due to his broken clavicle.
The amazing end to this story is that Magni not only finished he placed second in the General Classification, beaten only by a younger Charly Gaul, incidentally one of the greatest climbers of all time. How could such courage not go unnoticed by a young cyclist like myself? Fiorenzo Magni taught me a valuable lesson in life; push on, never give up.
Later in more recent years, while researching to write about him here on this blog, he taught me another lesson. This time one of humility.
Let one’s achievements speak for themselves, while accepting life’s disappointments, and realizing that this is the way it was meant to be.
I speak of the 1950 Tour de France. Magni won the Giro three times but the TDF eluded him. Magni was wearing the yellow jersey when the Italian team pulled out en masse after Gino Bartali was threatened by French supporters on the Col d’Aspin.
In an era of national teams, and with Fausto Coppi in his prime, Magni would never again have such an opportunity. (Magni leads Coppi, picture below.)
In recent years he spoke of the 1950 Tour in an interview:
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.
Rest in peace, Fiorenzo Magni; you will be remembered by me and many others I’m sure.