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.
Just after the midpoint of today’s stage the race goes over the category 3 climb the Giovo. Just to the the south is Trento, a city visited by the Giro many times for stage starts and finishes. Trento is also where you would start the climb of Monte Bondone which in 1956 was the end point of one of the most epic stages in Giro history.
Stage 20 was to be the final mountain stage of the 1956 Giro d’Italia and with only two flat days to come it would be clear who the winner of the Maglia Rosa would be atop the Bondone. Only 9 seconds separated Pasquale Fornara and Cleto Maule in 1st and 2nd and anyone down to Giuseppe Buratti in 8th and 3 minutes 38 seconds back would have been in with a chance of snatching the lead. The day was a long 242 km from Merano and would go over Costalunga, the Rolle and the Brocon before the final climb so there would be plenty of opportunity to put time on rivals.
The pre-race favourites hadn’t been having a good race. Fausto Coppi had crashed out on stage 6 and Fiorenzo Magni, the defending champion, suffered two horrendous crashes. He had broken his left collarbone on stage 12 but decided to doggedly fight on. Before stage 15, a short uphill time trial, the muscles in his left arm were in agony making it almost impossible for him to steer his bike. So his mechanic came up with the crazy idea of tying and inner tube to Magni’s handle bars and getting the Italian to stick the other end between his teeth and steer by yanking his head back at the right moment. I don’t know what is the most surprising, the plan, the fact that Magni went along with it or that it worked. The next day he went down again, broke his upper arm, fainted, came to in an ambulance before getting back on his bike to continue. At the start of stage 20 he was only around 7 minutes behind the leader, remarkable given the circumstances.