From the pages of Velo: Remembering hardman Fiorenzo Magni

We remember Fiorenzo Magni (1920-2012), the Lion of Flanders and a renowned hardman

Editor’s Note: This story originally ran in the November 2011 issue of Velo magazine, a special issue dedicated to the hardmen of cycling. Magni, born December 7, 1920, died today in his native home of Vaiano, Italy.

In many ways, Fiorenzo Magni was the ultimate hard man of professional cycling. Racing in the same period as the iconic Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali, Magni was still hugely successful, winning the Giro d’Italia and his national title three times as well as completing a remarkable hat-trick in the Ronde van Vlaanderen. Because of his gritty victories in that classic over the war-ravaged roads of Belgium they called him the Lion of Flanders.

Magni actually welcomed challenging conditions. “Cold, wind, rainy or snowy days were music to my ears,” Magni told Italian interviewer Valeria Paoletti five years ago. “In all three of my Tour of Flanders victories I remember cold, terrible weather. I was in my element!”

There were any number of examples that emphasized Magni’s toughness, but the race that fully cemented his reputation was his last Giro, in 1956, at age 36. He wanted to end his career with honor, but that was compromised when he crashed on a descent in his native Tuscany on stage 12 and broke his left collarbone. He finished the stage, refused to have a cast put on and vowed to continue, despite all the major mountain stages to come.

Stage 15 was a time trial up the challenging San Luca climb in Bologna. In his warm-up, Magni found he couldn’t pull on the bars with his left arm, so his mechanic Faliero Masi (who later built custom frames for the stars) fixed a length of inner tube to his stem and Magni gripped the other end of the rubber in his teeth to help him get up the ultra-steep gradient.

The next day, because of his weakened arm, he lost control when his front wheel hit a trench and he fell again on his left side. “I fainted from the pain,” he said. “When I realized I was being taken to the hospital [by ambulance] I screamed at the driver to stop.” Magni got back on his bike and the peloton slowed to let him return. He refused an x-ray [he was later diagnosed with a broken left elbow] and stayed in the race.

His bulldog spirit showed through on stage 20, the infamous day over four mountain passes that ended in a snowstorm on Monte Bondone. Dozens, including race leader Pasquale Fornara, quit in the awful conditions, but not the hardy Magni. He plugged on to end the stage in third behind a victorious Charly Gaul, who took over the pink jersey — while Magni climbed to second. Now that’s how you end a hardman career.