The young French grimpeur René Vietto was riding high following his Tour de France exploits in 1934, which boosted his public profile as well as his earnings, even though he was the benefit of considered myth-making by Jacques Goddet. Over the next four years, however, his performances waxed and waned as he struggled to live up to expectations.
For the first season, 1935, there were early successes as the climber evolved into a more complete rider – the overall win in Paris-Nice and fourth in Paris-Roubaix. But for the Tour, the French national team was divided in the absence of Antonin Magne, who had won in 1934 with Vietto’s famed assistance but was injured during the 1935 edition and had to withdraw.
Vietto and Georges Speicher competed for the team’s leadership role, negating the possibility of challenging the Belgian rider Romain Maes, who ended up winning the overall by 17 minutes and wore the yellow jersey from start to finish. Vietto won two stages, into Aix-les-Bains and Digne, both having rated climbs. But he struggled in the high mountains, the Alps and the Pyrenees. Although typically finishing in the top ten, he was not living up to his billing as a pure climber. He would finish 8th overall in Paris.
The next two years were marred by injury and personal struggles as Vietto lived the high-life in Cannes, having worked as a bellboy in a local hotel before his professional career, and spent away his earnings from the post-Tour criterium circuit that was becoming an important source of income during this period. Henri Desgrange, in his typical moralistic style, was disdainful of Vietto’s lifestyle and refused him entry into the 1936 Tour except as a privateer. Vietto was out of the French team and abandoned the Tour early on before the mountains. His only victory for the year was the lowly la course de côte de La Turbie.
For two years, 1937 and 1938, Vietto was out of the major races, contesting more local events. Even here, victories were few and far between and on courses including the G.P. de Nice, the Mont Faron hill climb, and Nice-Mont Agel he was unable to revisit his former glory. He did not ride the Tour in 1937, which was won by Frenchman Roger Lapébie (skillfully using a derailleur, the first time they were allowed). Lapébie was the first French rider since 1934 to win but who surely benefitted by the forced withdrawal of the new Italian rising star, Gino Bartali, riding his first Tour.
In 1938, there were no more individuals allowed to race the Tour, but were instead two extra French teams (the model format for the regional teams that were to come). Vietto secured a place on one of the teams but had become a surly character, “morose and difficult” according to one writer. He fell out with Desgrange again and withdrew after the second stage.
For Vietto, his star quality was rapidly diminishing. Bartali was the outstanding winner, taking his revenge for 1937, and giving the Tour one of its classic stages when Bartali won alone by 17 minutes on the 3-mountain stage from Digne to Briancon. The final stage to the Parc des Princes, though, gave French crowds something to cheer about as Antonin Magne and André Leducq sealed their retirements with a joint win.
Trouble was looming in Europe in 1939, intensifying the ideological contest that had been shaping up throughout the 1930s. Politics kept Italy (and Germany) out of the Tour for that year and, even though the public had largely given up on him, Vietto was ready to stage his comeback.
The field was reduced in strength, to be sure, but – given his record in the last two years and meagre results so far in the season – few would have been betting on Vietto, riding on the South-East regional team, to perform in the Tour. He had clearly lost his climbing potency, part of which was attributed to him modifying his riding style to become more of a rouleur, but apparently not his hunger to perform and was indeed proving to be a capable all-rounder in this Tour.
Surprisingly, he grabbed the yellow jersey – the first of his career – at the end of stage 4. There was only one tough stage through the Pyrenees, and Vietto held onto the jersey until the Alps, where he rode poorly and lost it to Sylvère Maes of Belgium, the eventual winner. Still, he did enough to place second overall. It was an impressive result and a new beginning for Vietto in terms of popularity and earnings.
The next year, could have been Vietto’s chance at ultimate Tour glory. But it was not to be, and part 3 on the inter-war years will continue the story.