Ronde van Vlaanderen

About Magni, Coppi and Bartali in Flanders. Viva Fiandre?

10min reading time   by Frederik Backelandt on 23 August 2022
That Fiorenzo Magni won the Tour of Flanders three times in a row, is known by almost every self-respecting cycling fan. But that Fausto Coppi once won the Omloop Het Volk (although that is not entirely true either), is less well known. And why could you hardly meet Gino Bartali on Flemish soil? The story of the big three of Italian ciclismo in Fiandre...

We can be brief about Gino Bartali: Flanders was not his thing. There's no crystal clear indication of why the Tuscan turned his nose up at Flemish races. But we can guess why. Bartali was a climber and a excelled during stage races. Even more so than Coppi and Magni who were keen on one-day adventures in the north. Bartali was also not very keen on working on the velodromes of Ghent, Antwerp or Brussels, which were important attractions at the time.

The Tour of Flanders only became "interesting" to foreigners after 1947. At that time, a sort of challenge trophy was created, the Desgrange-Colombo Trophy, which crowned the most regular cyclist of the year. The Tour of Flanders was then, like a bunch of other races, included in this embryonic predecessor of the WorldTour classification. But Trophy or not, Bartali was not seen in the Ronde. In 1948 Bartali, at 33 years old, was already called Il Vecchio, 'the old man'. What would he be doing in the Tour of Flanders in the autumn of his career? He wanted to win the Tour de France again, ten years after his first victory.

Once that year he wanted to compete in the north, in Valkenburg where the world championships were held in the summer. But Flanders? No, rather not. "Non mi piace, I don't like that", Gino must have moaned in his rusty voice. Actes de présence at criteriums, also in Flanders, Bartali was there for.


So we soon come to an end about Gino Bartali: the North was not for him; in contrast to some of his contemporaries and great rivals from the 1940s and 1950s. Especially Fausto Coppi and Fiorenzo Magni looked beyond the stage races and Italian one-day races...

As soon as I set foot in my first Tour of Flanders, I discovered that I could have been Flemish.
Fiorenzo Magni

Magni was wild about racing over cobblestones. "From the first metres of my first Tour of Flanders I discovered that I could have been a Fleming. Cobblestones were my biotope. It was as if I was riding on asphalt. On cobblestones I was supposed to attack, that's all." It was an Italian journalist who nicknamed Magni Il leone delle Fiandre, the Lion of Flanders, in 1951, after his third consecutive Tour victory. "I love that name. Not particularly because they call me a lion, but because they call me the 'lion of Flanders'.

In those days it took a lot for a rider, especially a foreign rider, to come to Flanders and fight all those great Flemish champions on their own ground. It took courage of a lion. The lion's courage of which Magni had more than enough, Gino Bartali apparently did not possess. And, if we continue the reasoning, neither did Fausto Coppi. However, in Coppi's case it could have been different...


Had Coppi not been relegated to second place after his victory in the Omloop Het Volk in 1948, he would probably have been happier to compete against Magni and Van Steenbergen in the pulpy spring classics. But the shame of the 1948 Omloop sidetracked that scenario. That Omloop was Coppi's first big cobbled race in Flanders. "My toughest race ever", he would say afterwards.

It was thanks to Guillaume 'Lomme' Driessens, who acted as Coppi's soigneur, coach and mentor in Flanders, that he appeared at the start of that Omloop. Driessens had taken care of Coppi in 1947 at his home in Vilvoorde when he came to ride a stage race. He took care of the Italian, who had already won the Giro, several classics and held the world time record. Coppi moved in with Driessens and learned to... eat fricassee. "Fausto stopped halfway up the stairs and sniffed loudly with his nose. He had never eaten anything so tasty before", Lomme later wrote. In any case, Lomme arranged everything for Coppi, including the race contracts, in which he of course earned his own money.

Coppi was totally committed to the 1948 Omloop. He rode the entire race in the front group but also had two punctures. On the Kwaremont he got a wheel from his teammate Conte, in Mater the individual rider (a non-teammate) René Walschot offered him a wheel! Coppi accepted the gesture but the - for that time - illegal wheel change cost him the victory. It was the runner-up, Sylvain Grysolle, who could now boast that he had 'beaten' the campionissimo.

From 1947 onwards Coppi could be spotted on the winter velodromes of Brussels, Ghent and Antwerp. Unlike Bartali, he was an accomplished pistier and one of the best chasers of his time. In April 1949 Coppi returned to the north to ride some spring classics. No more Omloop Het Volk, but he did ride the Flèche Wallonne and Paris-Roubaix. Without success. He finished third in the Flèche Wallonne after a controversial final in which the Italian was flabbergasted by Rik Van Steenbergen and co. In Paris-Roubaix Fausto saw his brother Serse win. The Hell's Classic would remain Coppi's favourite race in the North anyway. He won it in an unprecedented way in 1950 and in 1952 and 1955 he had to give way to Rik I and the Frenchman Jean Forestier respectively. In 1959, at the age of 39, Coppi, almost unrecognisable because of the filth, reached the velodrome of Roubaix in 44th place. It earned him, in the final days of his career, the sympathy of many cycling fans.

In short, it needs no further explanation: Fausto Coppi was excellent at riding on cobbled roads. And he loved it, just like Magni. "If I want to be sure of winning, I have to leave everyone behind. Then I have to accelerate powerfully and cycle alone, ahead of everyone and everything", Coppi once described his so often tested 'race tactics'. Admittedly, he could have used such tactics perfectly in a race like the Tour of Flanders. The main question remains: why was he never seen in Flanders' Most Beautiful, a race that was gaining more and more respect at the end of the 1940s?

No campionissimo

Maybe the balance of the Italian triumvirate had something to do with it... Bartali stayed at home, Magni could do his thing in the Ronde and Coppi had Roubaix as his playground. Was there some kind of agreement between the three, especially between the latter two - with Coppi agreeing to stay away from Fiandre so as not to spoil Magni's party?

Once, it looked like Coppi would ride the Tour of Flanders. In March 1951, Coppi would have told Het Nieuwsblad-journalist Berten Bafcop that he was keen to participate in the Tour for the first time. According to a self-confident Bafcop, the matter was already settled: "Coppi, by the double victory of his compatriot Fiorenzo Magni in the Tour of Flanders, insisted on declaring that he would come to contest the first Flemish classic of the year. (...) Fausto would love, and above all, to put his name on the list of winners of the Tour of Flanders.

A collarbone fracture, sustained on 11 March in a fall in the final of Milan-Turin, disrupted Coppi's plan to ride the Tour. And it was Fiorenzo Magni who, for the third time in a row, lectured the Flemish. Karel Van Wijnendaele said the legendary words "We still have our eyes to cry over". In 1951 Rik Van Steenbergen became the first Belgian to finish in sixth place. The nation was in mourning, the Italians (with Loretto Petrucci in fourth place) celebrated.

Did our riders waste away and become weakened in carnival races and criteria?
Karel Van Wijnendaele

In 1955, when his cycling career was already past its peak, Fausto Coppi is said to have declared to Willem Van Wijnendaele (son of) that he would ride the Tour of Flanders in 1956. "I am contesting, if circumstances allow me, at least two major road races outside Italy: Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders. Yes, the Tour! I feel morally obliged to finally keep the promise I made to your father and to you so long ago."

Coppi didn't keep his word. This time he didn't stay home due to a fall. So, what kept him away? We can only guess. Would the starting fee have something to do with it? Although the Ronde got more foreigners at the start because of the inclusion in the Desgrange-Colombo, the organization (in particular Karel Van Wijnendaele) refused to pay higher starting fees. Not even for the greatest champions. According to Van Wijnendaele a rider should consider it as an honour to start in the Ronde. Maybe Coppi did not like that? It remains guesswork. In any case, there is the documented story of the Swiss champion Ferdi Kübler who once asked 35,000 francs for a starting fee. Karel Van Wijnendaele laughed it off, after which Ferdi gave in and settled for a tenth of the amount he asked for.

Magni has never let the yes/no story around Coppi and the Ronde get to his heart. "I consider my three consecutive victories in Flanders as the perfection of my skills as a cyclist", said Magni, who died in 2012. And while Magni did the impossible - winning for a third time in a row against a string of dogged Flemish champions - Van Wijnendaele struck out hard. For Koarle, the Italian putsch and Magni's hat-trick were no longer a coincidence. Even the terrible weather, which should have been to the advantage of 'ours', was no longer an obstacle for these amazing southern Flandriens. "A dog's weather, that was made for the sons of the 'Trimards' from Ward Vermeulen's novel, and for these from Streuvel's 'Dood in den ast'? But not for the Magnis and the Petruccis, or the Redolfis and the Gauthieris from the sunny Italy and the French South! [sic]", Van Wijnendaele wrote in dismay. And his closing lines also counted: "Did our riders waste away and become weakened in carnival races and criteria?"

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