Three-time Giro d’Italia winner Fiorenzo Magni has died at the age of 91 after suffering an aneurysm in the early hours of Friday morning. His funeral will take place in Monza on Saturday.
Born near Prato in 1920, Magni was the “third man” of Italian cycling’s golden age - often overshadowed but rarely overawed by Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali during a career that spanned from 1940 to 1956, and saw him win the Giro d'Italia, Giro del Piemonte, Trofeo Baracchi and Italian championships on three occasions.
In spite of those Italian successes, Magni is perhaps best remembered for the remarkable feat of winning three consecutive Tours of Flanders between 1949 and 1951. In a far less globalised era, the Tuscan became only the second non-Belgian to win De Ronde, earning the moniker of the “Lion of Flanders” in the process.
On home roads, Magni struggled to compete with the popularity of Coppi and Bartali – in part due to his fascist sympathies during World War II – but still took three Giro d’Italia victories in the post-war period. His first win in 1948 came amid some controversy with Magni penalised two minutes for receiving pushes on the Pordoi, but he resisted the jeers of the tifosi to carry the pink jersey to Milan.
After adding a second Giro in 1951, Magni went on to become the oldest winner of the race in dramatic circumstances in 1955. By then 35 years of age, the wily Magni attacked in the company of Coppi on the penultimate stage to San Pellegrino Terme, conceding the stage victory to Il Campionissimo in return for his help in dislodging a distraught Gastone Nencini from the maglia rosa.
The most enduring image of Magni at the Giro would come from an edition he did not win, however. As defending champion in 1956, Magni broke his collarbone in a crash on stage 12 from Grosseto to Livorno, but continued in the race to finish second overall behind a rampant Charly Gaul, famously biting on an inner tube attached to his handlebars in a bid to alleviate his pain.
Magni also suffered ill-fortune at the Tour de France. In 1950, he 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’s successes on the bike followed controversy relating to his fascist sympathies during World War II and his continued loyalty to Mussolini in the wake of the Italian army’s 1943 armistice and during the subsequent civil war.
In 1947, Magni was tried for his alleged part in an incident on January 3, 1944 at Valibona in the Apennines in which a number of partisans were killed. Suspended from cycling and facing 30 years’ imprisonment, Magni was subsequently cleared, and among those to testify in his favour was his fellow Tuscan rider Alfredo Martini, who had fought on the partisan side during the conflict.
In his 2011 book Pedalare, Pedalare! however, John Foot paints a more nuanced picture of Magni's actions during the war, pointing to documents that commended Magni for "providing notable service to the cause of liberation" in Monza in 1945. Asked about the matter in 2011, Magni simply said that "your own conscience is what counts."
After his retirement in 1956, Magni remained involved in cycling, as a directeur sportif, as national team manager and later as president of the riders’ association. In recent years, Magni was a driving force behind the cycling museum at the chapel of the Madonna del Ghisallo, on the route of the Tour of Lombardy.