The late Fiorenzo Magni – he passed away today at the age of 91 – was known as ‘Il Terzo Uomo’ (‘The Third Man’) because at the height of his fame in the 1940s and 1950s he played third fiddle to Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali. Magni said:
People say I was unlucky to ride with Coppi and Bartali … It isn’t true. I was very lucky. Those two devils taught me how to lose properly.
Like his two compatriots he had something of an interesting history, not dissimilar to the book and film of the same name which also contributed to his nickname. But let’s first tackle his achievements on the bike, most notably his three Giro wins and three victories at the Ronde van Vlaanderen. Not forgetting that he also won three Tours of Piedmont, three Baracchi Trophies and three national championships. You could say three was his lucky number!
Born in the small Tuscan town of Vaiano in 1920, he started riding with his father who was killed in a car crash when Magni was 17. He’d already enjoyed success racing his bike when the war arrived and put his career on hold until 1947, well after the conclusion of hostilities. After winning the Tre Valli Varesine in 1947, Magni’s first major victory was in the 1948 Giro d’Italia where the Italian public had been anticipating another epic encounter between Coppi and Bartali. They were mistaken.
Magni took the maglia rosa on the brutally long stage nine – 278km from Bologna to Udine – only to lose it on the first stage in the Dolomites. However, he regained it in controversial circumstances on stage 17 after claims that his sponsor had bussed in fans to literally push him up the Pordoi. Two flats on the same stage had effectively dropped Bartali down the order and out of contention. Coppi was outraged at the flagrant cheating but the commissaires only docked Magni two minutes, still leaving him in pink. In protest, Coppi and his Bianchi team withdrew from the Giro handing Magni a ‘tainted’ win. Indeed, he was booed by the fans when he entered the Vigorelli Velodrome in Milan and had to be escorted away by the police. However, this might have been an exaggerated version of events as it was quite common for riders of this era to be given a helping hand up the climbs and might have had more to do with his youthful flirtation with fascism.
The following year, Magni set his sights on winning the Tour of Flanders. It was only his second visit to the race having been forced to withdraw the previous year. He’d prepared his equipment with great care, wooden rims on his bike and foam on his handlebars to absorb the bumps. With one teammate – who punctured and retired early on – no technical support, one team car and a couple of spare tyres round his middle Magni spent most of the 268km at the front of the race, defeating the elements and 185 Belgians to take his maiden victory. He was something of a rarity in Italian cycling: a real hard and gritty rider, with a riding style not unlike Eddy Merckx. Indeed, one of Coppi’s gregari said that if Fausto had had Magni’s grit, he’d have won twice as often as he did.
Magni repeated his Flanders triumphs in the following two years to the delight of the many Italians working in the Belgian coal fields. The competition remarked that he was like a non-stopping train. Once he’d set off he only stopped at the finish line. After his 1951 victory, where he was acclaimed ‘The Lion of Flanders’, he vowed never to ride the race again. He was as good as his word.
Magni’s most prolific season was 1951. Having conquered the cobbles for a third time he went on to take his second, less controversial Giro. While none of his victories were easy, his three wins were from nine attempts and he remains the oldest rider to win the Giro at 35 in 1955, when he was aided and abetted by none other than Coppi.
Magni’s reputation as a hard man was cemented in the 1956 Giro. A fearless descender, Magni fell on the descent from Volterra and broke his collarbone. With ten stages remaining, he put foam on the handlebars and continued riding. On the uphill time trial he famously clenched a tyre attached to the handlebars in his teeth to mitigate the pain. The following day, he fell again and broke his arm only to remount and finish the stage in the snow. He was runner-up that year to Charly Gaul – the stuff of legend!
Magni never enjoyed the same luck in the Tour where he was obliged and happy to work for the greater good of his country. In six Tours, his best finish was sixth in both 1949 and 1952, although he wore the yellow jersey and won seven stages. In 1950, on orders from Bartali, all the Italians withdrew while Magni was wearing yellow in protest at their aggressive treatment by the French spectators.
Magni’s early unpopularity and notoriety were based on his having fought briefly for the Italian fascists and being implicated in the tragic Battle of Valibona, although his name was subsequently cleared at trial thanks to the testimony of other cyclists. He’s also credited with introducing the first sponsors to cycling who had nothing to do with the cycle trade. He approached Nivea in 1954 and rode the last three years of his career for their team.
Post-retirement Magni ran a successful car dealership in Monza and continued his links with cycling, working as the national coach, acting as president of the riders’ association and running the Ghisallo museum. Having outlived both Coppi and Bartali, he’s also provided many an author and journalist with colourful copy. Gli Azzurri are in mourning at the loss of such a colourful character from Italian cycling’s golden era just a few weeks shy of his 92nd birthday. Rest in peace, Fiorenzo.