Like many sports, cycling has its founding myths: the great heroic struggles of the riders, their giant shoulders broad enough for the current peloton to stand on. Henri Desgrange’s express intention when starting the Tour de France was a race more difficult than all the others, longer and more arduous. His ideal was a route so tough that only one rider would finish.
Desgrange enforced his conception of what the Tour and bike racing should be with a will and rod of iron. While his rules were constantly evolving, they were always punitive. Restrictions on equipment, support and food and water, rules against drafting, against mass sprints, even bad language. In 1913, with riders banned from receiving any mechanical help, Eugene Christophe – in one of the most storied events of the Tour – was forced to repair his own forks at a local blacksmiths, even incurring an additional time penalty. We remember Christophe’s dedication rather than Desgrange’s ridiculous regulations.
Riders chaffed against the restrictions but were always caught between the whims of race organizers who controlled the rules of the events and, importantly, the prizes. In 1924, Henri Pélissier invoked Desgrange’s ire with his intention to wear two jerseys, issued by the Tour, on a stage with a cold, early morning start and discard one when it warmed up. Participants had to return the jerseys at the end of the Tour and were also banned from wearing two at a time. “Nous acceptons le tourment, nous ne voulons de vexations,” he said, saying that they would accept the torment of riding in the Tour, but would not take the harassment from the organizers. Les Forçats de la Route, indeed.
Desgrange had his own notions of the ‘epic’ quality of cycling, but the myths created around the Tour and the riders also helped publicity and to boost sales of L’Auto. After all, the Tour has always been a commercial endeavour and, like all professional sports, needs daring tales of suffering and sacrifice to drive its popularity.
One such myth is the story of French rider René Vietto in the 1934 Tour. The traditional story was recently described by Bicycling magazine as follows:
1934 – René Vietto’s Great Sacrifice: Bicycle racing is nothing without sacrifice, and in 1934 René Vietto set the standard in an incomparable “beau geste.” Starting the race as a support rider for the legendary Antonin Magne, Vietto proved to be the revelation of the race. Easily the Tour’s best climber that year, Vietto won four stages and rivaled Magne. And it didn’t help that Vietto’s leader continued to be slowed by mechanical mishaps. And when Magne crashed on the descent of the Portet d’Aspet climb, his chances to win a second Tour (after his first victory in 1931) appeared over. But once again the 20-year old Vietto came to the rescue. Doubling back, Vietto, who once again was in the breakaway, climbed back up to Magne to give him his front wheel. He then sat on the stone fence, waiting for the support vehicle to finally arrive-and cried, knowing his own Tour chances were over.
Except the real story was somewhat different.
Desgrange had relaxed rules against drafting and mass sprints in the 1920s. For 1934, he allowed riders to support each other with equipment, such as wheel changes. It was therefore expected, that as a domestique, Vietto (on his first Tour and aged only twenty) would give support to his team leader – a prior Tour winner no less – if required.
It is inaccurate to say that Vietto rivaled Magne, although Vietto did indeed win four stages and the mountains classification. But Vietto was a talented young grimpeur on his first Tour, not a hardened veteran of several editions. At the time of the first incident on stage 15 with three stage wins already the official Tour history reminds us, however, that Vietto was 29 minutes behind Magne in the general classification.
On this stage, the first in the Pyrenees, Magne crashed and broke his front wheel. Vietto offered his wheel but, according to writer Benjo Maso, it would not fit Magne’s bike (for reasons not noted). Magne actually took the wheel of teammate Georges Speicher, who was able to make Vietto’s wheel eventually fit his own bike – a series of events not noted in the conventional history. Speicher was also senior to Vietto in the team hierarchy, having won the Tour the year before.
With his own bike, without the front wheel, on the side of the road, the famous photo of Vietto sitting on the stone wall was taken. One of the spectators at that point was journalist Jacques Goddet, later director of the Tour, who noted the moment and resolved to make an iconic story out of it for L’Auto.
That Magne owed his continuation to his team was not in doubt but Vietto did not have to wait much more than 4 minutes for the support truck and finished stage 15 just 4’33” behind the winner Roger Lapébie (another teammate, who was eventually third in Paris).
The next day, on stage 16, descending from the Portet d’Aspect, Magne had a mechanical involving his chain and rear wheel. Vietto was up ahead and, after a motorbike notified him, did actually ride back up to Magne and gave him his bike (not his front wheel – that was the day before). He had to again wait for the support truck to get a replacement but this time no photo was taken.
Magne was saved again, and he also had Lapébie up the road for the final climb. “On the descent [from the Col des Ares] he continued to lead me out, and I don’t know to whom I owe the most today, Vietto or Lapébie,” Magne was reported saying.
Vietto, though, was indignant, and clearly not relishing his role as a domestique working for the yellow jersey and the overall team win. “I’m going to lose ten minutes,” he said. “I’m not going to play the slave forever.”
On stage 16 Vietto apparently lost another 4 minutes. He was 8’37” behind the stage winner Adriano Vignoli in 18th place and only 4’02” behind Magne, who was clearly no slouch in the mountains either. Indeed, Magne won stage 17, which included the climbs of the Col de Peyresourde and the Col d’Aspin. He finished over 6 minutes ahead of the second placed rider, further securing his lead, and Vietto was 7’46” behind in 4th.
Despite the numbers, Goddet had a story on his hands. His article in L’Auto was copied my many other newspapers and the story soon evolved that without making his sacrifice Vietto would have won the Tour. The public were swayed and Magne was not permitted his victory lap and the velodrome in Paris without Vietto. Banners from fans read, ‘Long live Vietto, the moral winner of the Tour’. “A legend is born and no one will dare attack it,” journalist Georges Briquet wrote, according to Maso. By the account of cycling writer Richard Yates, who has little time for the legend, the French team were ‘stupified’ by the story of Vietto’s supposed sacrifice.
Desgrange was not above creating myths himself, but he was apparently furious at Goddett’s efforts and wanted to attack the legend. Desgrange had not seen fit to mention Vietto’s ‘sacrifice’ in his own race reports and was quick to distance himself from Vietto’s exploits. In L’Auto he reminded readers of the time gaps, and than Vietto had only lost a cumulative 8 minutes whilst waiting for mechanical support. Despite Goddet’s story, and the opinions of the crowd at the finish, Vietto was never in contention for the yellow jersey in Paris. His losing margin behind Magne was 59’02”, even though he was fifth overall. In fact, Magne had taken the yellow jersey on stage 2 and held it all the way to Paris, 27’31” up on Giuseppe Martano from Italy – a completely dominating performance.
Following his win on stage 18, which included the climbs of the Tourmalet and the Aubisque, Vietto moved up to 3rd overall, 43’05” behind Magne. The final stages revealed his weaknesses as a rouleur and time triallist. In the first ITT of the Tour de France, over 90 kilometres, Vietto placed a credible 7th but was still 9 minutes down on Magne’s time. Vietto therefore continued to lose time all the way to Paris.
Desgrange was perhaps being a bit precious, for although Goddett’s story created a narrative of sacrifice that Desgrange had not intended, it undoubtedly added a new dimension to that year’s Tour that sparked public interest and excitement.
For Vietto, it was an enormous boost to his public profile and to his wallet as he was able to trade on his name and reputation in lucrative post-Tour appearances. In fairness, his sacrifices for his team leader were something new, but the race rules and expectations had changed and it was his job to help Magne defend his yellow jersey. Despite his protestations to Goddet, he was actually a ‘slave’ on the mighty French team. Unfortunately, too, he would later lose much of his money, but that story – as well as his actual exploits on the bike – is best covered later.
That the Tour is built on tradition is no surprise. That its myths continue to be perpetuated is simply another fascinating way that the race looks back on its past for both continuity and sustenance. And, of course, to sell newspapers.