We published the following story in December, 2010, when Magni was celebrating his 90th birthday.
“Laugh and the world laughs with you; Weep, and you weep alone" wrote American poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox. A thought that could be used to briefly describe the philosophy of life of Fiorenzo Magni, the "Lion of Flanders", who today celebrates his 90th birthday. He will celebrate his birthday at his home in Monticello Brianza (Lecco) surrounded by the affection of his family: his beloved wife Liliana ("I married her in 1947 after only six months of courtship and now after 63 years together I still love her as the first day that we met"), the equally beloved daughters Tiziana and Beatrice, the two son-in-laws, and five wonderful grandchildren.
"In my life I have faced many difficult times but always managed to find the positive side of every situation, I have never been overwhelmed by the difficulties I encountered. To face any problem with optimism is a great lesson for everyday life and for me it was also true regarding my long sporting career." This is the first reflection of Magni, who now also tells us what it's like to feel in his nineties: "I am proud to be 90 years old in good health and my mind still bright, but sometimes it makes me feel strange to find myself in conferences which, looking around, I find to be the oldest of the participants. Unfortunately, I think about how long my life will last. All in all my life has been been very happy and rewarding, even as I set out to the next goal of 100 years years old....".
A great cycling career, from the "terzo uomo" (third man) after Coppi and Bartali, during the golden age of Italian cycling to the approximately 160 wins including 3 Giro d'Italia, 3 Tour of Flanders(which earned him his nickname), 3 Italian Championships and 3 Tour of Piedmonte. "The most beautiful victories for me were the 3rd ones in the races which I was most fond of: the Giro, Flanders, and Piedmonte and the Italian championships, 3 is the perfect number .... ". Magni's career spanned twenty years from 1936 to 1956.
An enviable result, built with persistence over many years of activity in which Magni has dueled with opponents and enemies of various types, but during which he also built strong bonds of friendship such as with the great Alfredo Martini. "We met on the occasion of my first races in 1936. In my first major placement, a 2nd place, I finished behind a race in suburbs of Florence that Alfredo won. From then arose a great mutual respect between us, a friendship that has never known friction or crisis that has lasted until today. In 1939 we were teammates in the AC Montecatini and later we found ourselves among the professionals and competed for many years. Alfredo was an unparalleled tecnico (commissario tecnico of the Italian national squad). And poor Franco Ballerini, a young man that I appreciated very much and whose early death gave me a deep pain, I thought him a a worthy heir to the leadership of the Italian national cycling professionals that I've had the honor to lead."
The story of how "Lion of Flanders" chose a career in cycling is interesting. "It was a choice in life that was almost obligatory. My father Joseph, a big, tall, man with Herculean strength had a stable of horses which transported materials of various kinds between Prato and Valle del Bisenzio, earning some good profits and assuring my mother Julia and all our family a well-off life. In the late '30s, when my father was only 47 years, he was hit by a car in Prato (which was engulfed in fog) killing him instantly. I, who had already won the championship of Tuscany for amateurs, concluded in 1937 that cycling could become a rewarding, and financially feasible, job for me. So, with great sadness we decided to sell her beloved horses and the family business."
Magni's racing debut was not too favorable, "The first race was at Incisa Valdarno in 1936 but I fell and I retired. In the second race I was suffering from a puncture, but in the the third race came the first victory. Among the amateurs I won twenty or so races and met opponents that would become friends such as the montecatinese Gino Fondi, romano Quirino Toccaceli, pistoiese Serafino Biagioni, romagnolo Vito Ortelli and, of course, Alfredo Martin."
Magni shared the joy of his third and final victory in the 1955 Giro d'Italia with Alberto Martini against a hapless Gastone Nencini. With two stages remaining in the race it seemed that Nencini would be the winner of the 1955 Giro. Magni recounts, "I was not resigned to defeat and in the evening before the Trento stage (the third to last)I began to study the course at the hotel. I studied the course village by village, from Trento to San Pellegrino, and saw that there was a descent that was dangerous with a pebbled surface. It was what I was looking for and I said to myself, "Tomorrow I will escape right there!" This caused a skeptical reaction from Martini, my trusty teammate on the Nivea squad. But the next day, things went as I expected and I won the Giro there. Coppi won the stage, and I regretted having won the race against a very good young and emerging Tuscan as Nencini. Two years later, on the Leo-Diesse Chlorodont squad, I had the satisfaction of being able to contribute in good measure to the ultimate success of Nencini in the 1957 Giro.
Fiorenzo Magni is merited with having brought the sport's first, true sponsorships: "At the end of 1953 there was a major crisis caused by the arrival of the first motorcycles which threatened bicycle manufacturers such as Bianchi, Legnano and Ganna for which I competed. So, I had the intuition to try to change the regulations that at the time prevented non-sports companies from sponsoring teams and athletes. This struggle, to change the regulations, lasted three months and I benefitted from the important and unconditional support of the unforgettable President of the FCI Adriano Rodoni and great journalists such as Guido Giardini, Mario Fossati, Dante Ronchi, and others. At the same time I had successfully undertaken negotiations with the Swiss family of Zimmermann, owners of Nivea. At the beginning of 1954 Nivea entered triumphantly into cycling, marking the end of an era and the beginning of a modern view of sports sponsorship. My victorious battle, of which I am proud, also proved very useful to the sponsorship of other sports such as soccer and basketball."
Today cycling has changed further as to its relationship with the media: "I do not want to go into the fight against doping, I am displeased to encounter certain situations. In my office I keep different photographs: in one Martini and I are together in 1939 with our shirts of AC Montecatini and seem to be two young boys. The other is a reproduction of a page of Gazzetta dello Sport with a big group photo at the 1951 Giro; I am immortalized with Coppi, Koblet, Bobet, Kubler, Van Steenbergen and Bartal and Bartali. Below the photo you see a headline, written in rather small letters, which says "Al Milan lo scudetto tricolore" (the tricolor champions). Unfortunately, times have changed since then .... "
Today, Magni follows only the Giro d'Italia and the Tour de France. He expresses some opinions gladly about current riders: "I like Nibali a lot, he is a boy with a certain future, a man who will be our point of reference in stage races. But how does one go downhill so fast with a physique so thin? Obviously he has great courage. However, I also respect Ivan Basso very much."
This week the the city of Monticello Brianza has inaugurated the exhibition "I 90 anni del Leone" (the "90 years of the Lion") which will run until December 18th. The exhibition will have the two bikes on which Bartali won his two Tour de France, Coppi's hour record bike, and bikes of Merckx, Baldini and others.
Translation based on a story by Stefano Fiori
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