Farewell to Fiorenzo Magni

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!

The threesome (l to r): Magni, Bartali, Coppi (image courtesy of Cycling Archives)

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.

They don’t make ’em like this anymore (image courtesy of Cycling Archives)

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.

Fiorenzo Magni at a press conference for his book, The Third Man, just a few days ago (image courtesy of La Gazzetta dello Sport)

Tour de France hosts: Up pops Pau again!

After Paris and Bordeaux, Pau is one of the most-visited staging posts in the Tour – it has previously hosted a start/finish 64 times – largely, it has to be said, because of its proximity to the Pyrenees. The list of riders who’ve won on Tour stages into Pau reads like a Who’s Who of cycling, so I’m going to be dipping in and out of Tours where either the Tour, or that stage, or both were won by some of the biggest names  in the sport.

Pau was first visited in the 1930 Tour, which introduced a number of firsts in its 24th edition. For the first time ever, teams were organised by country, with ten riders apiece, plus there were sixty touriste-routiers (amateurs and pros not allied to a national team) organised into French regional groupings. The entire peloton raced in either approved national jerseys or plain ones – no advertising whatsoever – and they all rode on identical yellow bicycles. This proved to be a successful format for the French, six of whom placed in the top ten overall. Andre Leducq, the star of the French team, won the overall while Charles Pelissier, ninth overall, achieved a stunning eight stage wins. [An early incarnation of Peter Sagan? – Ed]

Alfredo Binda (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Alfredo Binda (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

This wasn’t the only piece of modernisation. 1930 also saw the introduction of the publicity caravan and the abandonment of the rule whereby cyclists had to do their own repairs. Team time trials were given the heave-ho for a few years and an overall team classification was introduced based on the times on GC of the three highest-ranked riders. The Tour was broadcast live on the radio. The organisers named the Tour’s  ‘best climber’, an unofficial precursor to the current King of the Mountains competition. One of the more notable foreign cyclists taking part was Alfredo Binda who had, in recent years, dominated the Giro d’Italia with victories in 1925, 1927, 1928 and 1929. He was paid not to compete in 1930, so started the Tour instead winning stages eight and nine, which finished and started in Pau, before being forced to abandon the following day probably due to injuries sustained on stage seven where he lost over an hour, and all hope of Tour victory.

The Tour visited Pau every year thereafter up until 1939, returning post-war in 1947, 1949 and 1950. It was back in 1952 with a Tour which saw the introduction of more innovations – mountain finishes on stages 10, 11 and 21 – including the now iconic L’Alpe d’Huez and Puy de Dome. The overall was won by Il Campionissimo, Fausto Coppi, the first cycling superstar who was now managed by Binda. In 1952 he was at his zenith, winning five stages, including stage 18 into Pau, the mountains classification and was a member of the Italian winning team.

The charismatic Fausto Coppi (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

The charismatic Fausto Coppi (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Such was his dominance that the Tour organisers had to double the prize money for second and third places to retain interest. Coppi won by a margin of almost half an hour – such a margin hasn’t been seen since. Coppi’s domination aside, the 1952 Tour saw the introduction of the daily combativity award and TV coverage started.

Thereafter, the Tour stopped off in Pau every year. In 1964 it featured on stage 16, a mountainous parcours won by the 1959 Tour winner, Frederic Bahamontes –  known as the Eagle of Toledo – who went on to finish third overall and win the mountains classification. Trade teams were back on the menu, after Tour organisers succumbed to financial pressure in 1962. This was the only Tour to have included a mid-stage climb to Alpe D’Huez. The race was eventually won by Jacques Anquetil, his fifth Tour victory, following an epic battle in the mountains with eternal runner-up Raymond Poulidor. Having earlier won the Giro, Anquetil emulated Coppi’s Tour-Giro double.

Bernard_Hinault (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Bernard Hinault (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Fast forward to the late 1970s and the start of the reign of ‘The Badger’, Bernard Hinault, France’s last Tour winner. The 1979 edition started, most unusually, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, visiting Pau as early as stage three, where Hinault emerged victorious, having taken the maillot jaune on stage two. He went on to win the Tour, his second of five victories. He also won the points’ classification and his team won the overall team classification, which required them to wear yellow caps, and the team points competition. In fact, the 1979 Tour had a total of 16 competitions, each with its own sponsor!

1979’s Tour was also notable for a number of modifications and firsts. Doping tests performed in a Cologne laboratory were now able to detect anabolicals. Those found guilty of this transgression typically lost points and were given time penalties. It was the only Tour to ever visit Alpe d’Huez twice. US TV broadcasting of the Tour started, split-stages were banished and, as a consequence of the unwarranted attention given to the lanterne rouge [the last rider on general classification – Ed], a new rule was introduced for the following year whereby the last-placed cyclist was removed from the race every couple of stages.

From the 1980s onwards, the Tour halted in Pau most years and in 2005 it also became, as it is again this year, the location of one of the Tour’s precious few rest days. This was to be Lance Armstrong’s seventh consecutive Tour victory and, at the time, it was thought his final Tour appearance. This edition was notable for a number of reasons. It commemorated the death of one of Lance’s former team mates, Fabio Casartelli, who had crashed and died ten years earlier on the Col du Portet d’Aspet. Additionally, it commemorated the Tour’s first official mountain climb in the Tour, the Ballon d’Alsace, 100 years after its first inclusion in the race. For the first time, the race was part of the UCI’s recently introduced ProTour circuit and required to invite – albeit begrudgingly – all 20 ProTour teams. The Tour granted a single wild card to AG2R.

Oscar Pereiro (image courtesy of Oscar Pereiro)

Oscar Pereiro (image courtesy of Oscar Pereiro)

As a consequence of Michael Rasmussen making a complete balls-up [is that a technical biking term? I can’t find it in the glossary – Ed] of the penultimate stage’s individual time trial while lying third – he dropped to seventh – the race jury invoked the “rain rule” for the final stage on the Champs Elysees meaning Lance won the overall the first time the race crossed the finish line, rather than the eighth and last time. Additionally, it was the first and only time since 1994 that the stage didn’t end in a bunch sprint, rather it was won by Alexandre Vinokourov after a trademark escape in the final kilometre, a move which saw him rise from eighth to fifth in the overall. During the award ceremony, the winner was for the first time allowed to address the crowds, a practice which has since continued.

The mountainous stage 16 into Pau was won by Oscar Pereiro who also took home the race’s overall combativity prize. He was belatedly awarded overall victory in the following year’s Tour after the previous winner, Floyd Landis, was convicted of doping. Pereiro suffered a serious crash in the 2008 Tour and never really recovered his nerve. He retired in 2010 and achieved a boyhood ambition playing football for Coruxo FC in the Spanish second division. He now works as a race commentator and runs his own sporting foundation.

Will Pau be the setting for some interesting stories in this year’s Tour? The rest day is preceded by stage 15’s 158.5km run from Samatan to Pau – one for the sprinters, albeit those who can cope with a slight uphill to the finish. Here’s Chris Boardman’s  preview of the stage:

Cycling Families: The brothers Coppi

Serge and Fausto Coppi (l to r), (image courtesy of www.corvos.nl)

Serse and Fausto Coppi (image courtesy of http://www.corvos.nl)

Although they’re no longer with us, it’s worth heading back into the archives to remember the special relationship enjoyed by the Coppi brothers, Fausto and Serse. So special, that they each seemed one half of the whole and therefore incomplete without the other. As is so often with identical twins, they often completed one another’s sentences. Had he lived, Serse, the younger brother by four years, would have been 89 years young on Monday, 19th March.

Continue reading