Over the history of bike racing there have been a few exceptional riders who have been unlucky to arrive on the scene at the same time as a truly dominant force. Felice Gimondi has an impressive looking palmarès and was the first Italian to win all three Grand Tours . Perhaps he would have been the first and only Italian to win all five monuments if he wasn’t racing alongside Eddy Merckx throughout his career. Giuseppe Saronni won two Giri and could have added to that number and been confident of having an assault on the Tour de France if it wasn’t for Bernard Hinault.
The man with the unluckiest birth date in cycling though must be Fiorenzo Magni. He was around at the same time as not one but two of the greats. Born six years after Gino Bartali and one before Fausto Coppi meant Magni’s career was usually spent fighting with everyone else over the scraps tossed away by the two. These battles would more often than not end in victory. Despite being in the shadows ‘The Third Man’ still managed to win the Giro d’Italia three times. He could also have won the Tour in 1950 but as usual he had to defer to one of his superiors. During the race when Magni was in the yellow jersey Bartali got the Italian team to abandon in protest after supposedly getting attacked by some French fans.
Magni was immensely strong. He thrived in long stages and was powerful on flat or hilly terrain, using those skills to win three Tours of Flanders in a row between 1949 and 1951. He was never the best going up the high mountains but being an expert descender he could usually make up any time he lost on them. His biggest asset was his courage, he would never give up. But for Bartali and Coppi, he would have been a superstar.
Today’s stage starts in Castellania, the birthplace of Il Campionissimo (Champion of Champions) Fausto Coppi. He was born in September 1919 just a few months after Costante Girardengo, known as Campionissimo no.1, won his first Giro d’Italia. The fact that Girardengo comes from Novi Ligure only a few kilometers away makes this area highly significant in the history of Italian and world cycling. But perhaps both riders wouldn’t have been able to reach the heights they without a third character from this otherwise unassuming little area on the Piedmont and Liguria border.
Biagio Cavanna, born in Novi Ligure in 1893 was a boxer and track cyclist turned trainer and masseuse whose reputation reached legendary and even mythical status. Based in Novi Ligure throughout his life he built up stable of riders, champions and gregari alike mentoring them in all things from training to sleeping. Cavanna was a guru much like the Maharishi but instead of rich hippies going on a pilgrimage to seek his blessing and find themselves it was poor young men travelling from all over Italy, wanting to escape the drudgery of a lifetime working in the fields or factories, hoping Cavanna would accept them as cyclists of merit. And just like the yogi claimed transcendental power it seemed like ‘The Wizard of Novi’ held magic in his hands as he got to work at his massage table.
Cavanna’s relationship with his riders was similar to the master-disciple relationship in a religious sect. He was an all or nothing type of trainer who demanded strict discipline and obedience. The riders would be woken up before five every morning for coffee and bread and then get sent off on a 200 km ride, partly timed and partly riding as a group. This happened no matter the weather, Cavanna’s philosophy was: ride each and every day. After the riders came back he would check their muscles to see if they had ridden all the way and hard enough, which they usually did as he was prone to fly into terrible fits of rage. Each evening all the riders and their master would sit together at a large table to eat and inevitably the conversation turned to cycling. They all literally lived and ate cycling. After the meal everyone was expected to have an early night and it would be a rare occurrence for a young rider to sneak out late at night to have some fun as Cavanna would have found about it from one of his spies in the small town and he was even known to knock on doors late in the evening to make sure everyone was tucked up in bed. He was so strict that even the focused Costante Girardengo, Cavanna’s first star pupil, who abstained from sex around races found his creeping around town checking up on what he was doing to be too much at times.