The lion of Flanders

Fiorenzo Magni reigned between Coppi and Bartali.
A tenacious, volatile racer with an extraordinary skill, who knew how to force his way among the two champions. A flag bearer for Wilier Triestina. He was called the third man only because the other two stole the limelight and did everything to squeeze out their colleagues. Instead, Magni managed to cast a shadow on the champion and the surly Tuscan by achieving great victories. He was never in awe and had no problem in throwing a punch. He had to face bad luck and the malice of the men, trusting he would get them back with interest. Everything he won was due to his character, a rare intelligence and ability to suffer. He started young when he left school in Vaiano, a town outside Prato, where he was born in 1920, to help his father who owned a small transport company.

Two emblematic images of Fiorenzo Magni in action.

In the saddle of an old bicycle with rod brakes he tore around the dry roads of Tuscany dreaming of copying the acts of Binda and Girardengo. His legs turned and his stamina increased every day. He debuted in the candidate category with the Proto cycling association, learning right from the beginning how much energy was required to keep up with his adversaries. Dust and sweat marked the first outings and convinced him that it was the right path. When he was 17, as a novice, he did not even have the time to enjoy the sweet taste of victory: a road accident took his father away forever. A violent, sudden and premature loss. Fiorenzo Magni did not despair. He took charge of the family and continued harder than before, almost wanting to show his deceased father that a Magni never gives up, despite the cruelties of life. Work and cycling, cycling and work. Tons of fatigue. Cycling head down with thousands of thoughts rolling around his head, with a single objective: become a champion, at whatever cost.
His physic helped him. The first important victories made technicians and managers pay attention to him. «Have you seen that Magni! His legs look like pistons, never tired of going up and down like the rods of a locomotive». Flattering words even for the most famous cyclists, but not for Fiorenzo Magni, who was convinced that only continuous and constant work would allow him to reach his prestigious aim. In 1938 he wore the jersey of Montecatini Terme, team mate of Alfredo Martini, who learnt to fear him. Ready, set and he was already off, levelling the Apennines as if he had a steamroller instead of a bike. Kilometre after kilometre gripping the handlebar, head clear to learn the trick from the experts. Where effort failed him, cunning saved him. The many races and victories meant he was chosen to participate in the world championships. However war was at foot and the rainbow race was cancelled. He won gain and entered the world of professional cycling with Bianchi offering him his first engagement. The drama of 8 September took him by surprise. After the king and Badoglio fled and hid in Apulia, giving Italy up to German hands, he joined the Salo Republic like thousands of other young men. He moved to Monza, convinced that Italy’s future could still be bright. He met and married Liliana. He paid a high price for joining fascism. When the War ended and liberation took place, he was disqualified for all of 1946.

1946/1947 Cottur, Bevilacqua and their team-mates surrounded by fans.

Officially because he had allegedly reached start line of some races under a false name; more likely to make him pay for his Fascist stand point. He would not give up and every day continued to train as if he had to participate in a race the coming Sunday. He took out his anger and bitterness on the pedals, bending frames and forks, toughening his already strong character. While Coppi and Bartali, Cottur and Martini, Bresci, Maggini and Ortelli won hands down, he would endure hard workouts with the awareness that the luck would finally turn his way. In 1947 he was still a professional with Viscontea. A year of transition, enough to measure the competition, assert his skills and give it another try. In the Giro d’Italia, won by Fausto Coppi over Bartali and Bresci, he came in ninth, with more than 34 minutes of lead but had the satisfaction to seize second place in the third stage, the 220 kilometres Genoa-Reggio Emila, behind Luciano Maggini, and in the Pieve di Cadore-Trento, a large stage in the Dolomites with the Pordoi and Falzarego pass climb, behind Fausto Coppi, after an unending 194 kilometres. The Trento plain proclaimed him a spectacular acrobat, highlighting his spectacular descending skills. That year he gained second place at the Giro del Veneto and was seventh at the Milan-Sanremo stage. At Viscontea, Alfio Fazio, Giovanni Corrieri, Elio Bertocchi, Giovanni De Stefanis, Giovanni Ronco and Giuseppe Petrocchi were there to support him. At the end of the season he signed with Wilier Triestina, with Giordano Cottur as the captain and team car driven by the former Loria racer Giovanni Zandonà. Aware that races are won in winter, with a shrewd preparation, he challenged the fog of Brianza, the strain of the frozen fog, the snow of January, the freezing rain of February and the annoying wind of March. To not miss even a day of bread and cycling, he trained at a Swiss track.

One, ten, a hundred loops one after another. What a workout! A treat for muscles and lungs. He wanted to test himself against foreigners, challenging the muddy stones of the Flanders and the northern champions, as men used to every type of fatigue, ready to die like Homeric heroes. The first experience came in 1948, after having tasted the stones of Roubaix where he came fifth.
Alone against the rest of the world. Halfway through the race he fell and the broken frame meant he had to give up. An ordeal he came out of with his head held up high, aware that the Tour of Flanders would be his race. The following year, he did almost everything alone. One morning he took the train, loaded his bike and travelled to Belgium, together with Tino Ausenda. Guido Giardini, editor of the Gazzetta dello Sport who he had telephoned to inform him of his crazy idea, went too. Wilier did not send him a car or a mechanic. If he wanted to race, he could sort himself out. The journey was endless, able to exhaust the pioneers of the American West, but not the racer from Prato. He alighted at Gand and found accommodation in a small hotel near the station. By chance he discovered it was managed by a former cycling champion, Debaets. He told him of his plans and asked him advice. He tested the roads, the torment of the cobbles, the bitter taste of coal dust which stuck to his skin.
He prepared his bike. They put foam rubber on the handlebar to cushion the shocks, and on the more flexible wooden rims, he mounted the Clement balloon tyres he had «seasoned» in a cellar for months. He asked the hotelier the favour of letting him have a flask of hot tea halfway through the race.
He started afraid but gained confidence from the fact of having prepared everything so well, not leaving anything out, exchanging glares with the other 200 competitors.
In the front row was Van Steenbergen and world champion Schotte, Gauthier and Demuysère, Caput and Ollevier. The date was 10 April. At full pace right from the beginning. The rotating legs were a sight to see. One, two, three minutes of advantage. Incredible Magni. When he was flagging, the hot flask promised by Debaets arrived like a miracle. The Wilier red halberd jersey was soaked in sweet. The coal dust drew obscure arabesques with threatening tentacles. Ahead alone for 70 kilometres. When the signs indicated a dozen kilometres to the finish line, a small group of racers reached him.
No time even to see their faces. Head down and off again, after having caught his breath. He tore ahead. Fiorenzo Magni squeezed out the last energy left and won, burning Ollivier and Schotte. An extraordinary and unexpected success for Wilier Triestina, whose fame had crossed national borders. They celebrated in Bassano and Dal Molin offered a drink to all his employees. Magni went back to Gand the following year. Wilier Triestina followed him. Accompanying him this time were his team mates: the usual Ausenda, Toni Bevilacqua and Alfredo Martini. Knowing the route and difficulties represented by the rocks and stones, Magni played his trump card and attacked the group on the same wall where had sprinted the year before. Under lashing rain he picked up the pace. Upon arrival, his face was a mask of mud refined by a winning smile. His adversaries could only battle it out for second place. Schotte broke away at 2’12”, followed by Caput and Diot at 9’ 20”. The next year, with a different team, he did a hat trick, improving on his achievement. He became known by everyone as the «Lion of Flanders».
If Coppi and Bartali stolen his limelight, when in Belgium he made sure everyone focused on him. Flattered by journalists, feared by competitors, praised by fans, whether from Italy, Belgium or France.

Two great old friends: Magni and Martini. Along with Marino Vigna.

Zandonà from the team car to the van.

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18th June 2013