René Vietto – Part 3: the return of the king

The 1939 Tour de France concluded just before Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939. The threat of Fascism an outright aggression from Germany and Italy had been building during the 1930s and France – mindful of the horrors of a European war just two decades previously – took a defensive position both politically and militarily. (For part 1 of this series on René Vietto, go here; for part 2, go here.)

Unfortunately for France, this position proved a disaster. Nazi Germany under Hitler became bolder and when the attack on France finally came in May 1940, France’s famous Maginot Line of defence proved to be illusory. Germany moved its mobile forces through the supposedly impenetrable Ardennes and French armies, on paper quite strong, were hopelessly out of position. With British and French forces fleeing for safer shores from Dunkirk, it was all over for France by June.

Marshall Pétain, a hero of World War I, was given full control by the French parliament to agree to the armistice terms and was effectively given the leadership of the southern portion of the country that was not under German control. France was divided, therefore, into the occupied and ‘free’ zone and it was in the latter than Pétain set up his collaborationist, conservative Vichy regime. France may have been spared the death toll of 1914-18 but suffered a dislocated population, privations from occupation, not to mention the iron-fist of arbitrary justice meted out by the Germans and Vichy to French Jews and to anyone resisting the occupation.

Pétain’s control over unoccupied France was short lived, surviving only until November 1942 when the Allied invasion of North Africa forced Germany to exercise more direct control. Pétain was content to leave the mechanics of collaboration of Vichy with Germany to his prime minister, Pierre Laval, and embarked on a plan of national revitalization, a ‘moral crusade’, according to one historian, and a ‘dedication of discipleship’ with Pétain at the centre of a cult of personality. To reverse the indulgences of the pre-war era and the Republic, he even replaced Liberté, Fraternité, Egalité, with Travail, Famille, Patrie (Work, Family, Patriotism).

With Pétain’s emphasis on the purity of amateur sports, the commercialism of the Tour de France was immediately suspect. Henri Desgrange was not present to do battle with Pétain, however, having passed away in 1940 – cited by one source as being broken by the indignity of the Tour of Germany being scheduled in 1940 to coincide with the Tour (neither were run, of course) by Hitler, who Desgrange described as a ‘house painter’.

The affairs of L’Auto were left to Jacques Goddet, and he continued to publish a reduced version of the paper throughout the occupation (causing some political problems following liberation). Vichy and the Germans wanted L’Auto to continue with cycling races, including the Tour, as a symbol of ‘normal’ life under occupation by Goddet was reluctant and resisted the pressure.

History continues to challenge Goddet’s actions during the occupation. A Socialist sports minister later suggested that Goddet had the keys to the Vel d’Hiv when the Germans came calling to use the velodrome as a holding point for Jews being sent to concentration camps. But sources mostly suggest that Goddet was certainly a reluctant collaborator, that he did not volunteer any assistance and did not aid and abet any of the efforts of the Germans or Vichy to co-opt L’Auto for propaganda purposes. Like many during the time, Goddet was perhaps simply just trying to survive.

L’Auto continued to organize minor races, but nothing on the scale of the Tour. Eventually, in the Autumn of 1942, La France Socialiste (a collaborative newspaper, despite its name) organized with Vichy and German support a six-stage, 1,600-kilometre race that covered both zones of France, Le Circuit de France. It was supposedly a national event, contested by multi-national teams, with privations imposed on the riders appropriate to the times and in keeping with the moral and physical fortitude being touted by Pétain and Laval. But it was hampered by logistical problems, poor supplies, and bad planning.

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A great poster but a miserable race.

René Vietto was certainly not interested in Le Circuit. But he kept busy during these years with other races. In 1941 he became French champion and raced numerous times in races in the South of the country where he lived, often with strong results. In 1942, he was even able to race abroad in the Vuelta a Espana, where he placed eighth in a Spanish-dominated field.

Even once all of France was under direct German occupation after 1942 he kept riding professionally. In 1943 he was first in the Circuit du Midi, second in the Critérium des As, and third in Paris-Dijon. In 1944, the year of the Normandy landings by de Gaulle’s Free French and the Allies, Vietto was second in the G.P. de Nice; in 1945, with de Gaulle’s ascendency complete, and Allied victory achieved, Vietto won the Circuit des Cols Pyrénéens. By all accounts, he did well professionally during this time, despite the war. No doubt he suffered privations, too, but that he was able to keep racing at all, given the carnage and transformation wrought on Europe (and the world) by World War II, seems remarkable.

Vietto’s Last Chance

Following the defeat of Germany and liberation, France had to deal with not only rebuilding after the destruction wrought by the war in the north of the country but also the legacy of collaboration. The heroics of the resistance contrasted starkly with the shame of Vichy. Returning to a semblance of normality was high on the list of priorities for de Gaulle and his new government.

But first there was an accounting of ‘crimes’ under Vichy. L’Auto was affected, as it had been published during the war, and was closed down. Goddet started L’Equipe out of the ashes and vied for the rights to the Tour, which were being contested by other papers such as the Socialist paper Élans and the Communist publication Miroir-Sprint. Goddet bought out Élans, but there were other contenders, such as a confederation of bicycle manufacturers that were keen to control the race that would secure their recovery from the war years.

Goddet gained the upper hand in an alliance with the Parc des Princes velodrome and the newspaper Parisien Libéré (later Le Parisien), the latter run by Émilien Amaury. Today, the Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) runs both the Tour and owns L’Equipe (and other events and entities). The ASO is part of the Éditions Philippe Amaury (EPA), the media empire, with Philippe (who died in 2006) being Émilien’s son. (The EPA also owns the Futuroscope leisure park, hence it featuring as a Tour departure point.) Amaury insisted that Goddet have an assistant to run the Tour and appointed Felix Lévitan. This often colourful collaboration would define the second half of the Tour’s history and last until 1986.

But there would be no Tour de France in 1946. Other races were given special billing, however, with the Paris-Monaco race run in July and co-opted under the title the Course du Tour de France to help build excitement for the Tour’s return. In this race Vietto, now aged 32, suffered due to saddle sores but was a able to support a young aspiring rider, Jean-Apôtre ‘Apo’ Lazaridès, who Vietto had trained. Lazaridès was a natural climber like Vietto and had won on Mont Faron as an amateur in 1943. He had done well earlier in July 1946, in La Ronde de France, with a fine stage win into Grenoble after a massive breakaway but was bested into fifth by Italian riders for the overall (foreshadowing Tours to come).

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Great racing from Bordeaux to Grenoble.

Lazaridès won the Course with Vietto in second with a stage win between Digne and Briancon over the Col d’Izoard. Vietto had two other wins that year and a host of other top placings (including fourth in the Tour of Switzerland, won by Gino Bartali). He was reportedly confident of French chances at the 1947 Tour, particularly his own: “We will be unbeatable next year. And if the Tour escapes us, I’ll start pedalling a sewing machine.”

Of the 100 riders that started the 1947 Tour, only 12 had ridden the race before and there were no previous winners, despite many of the riders of the 1930s having survived the war (Sylvère Maes had just retired and Romain Maes was now following the race as a journalist). France had plenty of favourites, including the young Breton, Jean Robic. But Robic was a prickly character and, despite his fine showing in the Course du Tour de France, was relegated to the France-West team. Leading the France team would be the dashing Louison Bobet, just 22 years old and in his first year as a professional having scored six major race wins before the Tour.

Vietto was undoubtedly in good form, but had evolved into a disagreeable racer seemingly determined to continue his pre-war difficulties with race authorities (complaining about the food, for example). His age and stature had earned him the moniker King René and he seemed determined to lord it over all others when possible, which included slapping a rider who tried to escape across the face. But Vietto had a good measure of public support as an indomitable rider from the pre-war years and perhaps a gallant hero to start the new era of the Tour with a glorious French performance.

The 1947 Tour

The French were reportedly ecstatic to have their Tour back and keen to put the war years behind them. But there were somber reminders, too, with the race run on a shoe-string of reduced supplies, and passing through some of the most devastated parts of the northern country (with the race organizers paying special homage to the bombed-out city of Caen).

The race was to be mostly a French affair, with six French teams. Italy, Belgium, Holland fielded full teams, with a combined Swiss/Luxembourg team rounding out the field. Various machinations kept one star of old, Gino Bartali, and a rising one, Fausto Coppi, away from the race. For Vietto, having raced through the war years, it was a golden opportunity.

The weather was a factor in 1947, with an exceptionally hot summer. But Vietto took the initiative from other members of his team, Louison Bobet (who abandoned on stage 9), and Edoard Fachleitner, by winning the second stage over the rough roads from Lille to Brussels and taking the yellow jersey from the Swiss rider Ferdi Kubler. He would hold it all the way to Lyon as the Alps beckoned.

Through the Alps, Vietto lost the race lead to Italian Aldo Ronconi, but then regained it after a brilliant stage win – aided by the faithful Apo Lazaridès – heading south from Briancon to Digne this time, with a margin over the rest of the field of over 4 minutes. It seemed the Vietto was still able to hold his own in the mountains.

But Jean Robic, the tiny, 5-foot Breton, with seemingly as many nicknames as there were translations for them, was clearly to be watched in the mountains. He had little team support from his France-Ouest teammates, with whom he had very poor relations, and most of them apparently favoured Vietto to win.

By the time the race reached the Pyrenees, Vietto was looking fragile. On the first stage, with two major climbs, including the Portet d’Aspet, he finished 22 minutes down on the winner. “I need an old-fashioned Tour,” he reportedly said. “With long stages.” Not that he had done much better in the pre-war Tours, of course, and was in the best position of his career to win the race. And the two stages through the Pyrenees seemed tough enough – 253 and 195 kilometres.

The second of these, over the Peyresourde, Aspin, Tourmalet, and Aubisque foreshadowed the result of the whole race. Robic was on fire and Vietto, despite the help of Lazaridès, could only hold on for second place, some 10 minutes down (although he did have some luck and narrowly avoided the crash of L’Equipe’s spotter plane). His yellow jersey was safe but under pressure.

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Vietto looks to a fan as he avoids the plane crash.

The longest time trial in the Tour, some 139 kilometres, was to be Vietto’s undoing. He had always been weak against the clock, despite sacrificing some of his climbing prowess during his career to improve his performances in the race of truth. He lost 15 minutes to the winner and dropped to 5th place, while Robic had an incredible ride to place second and move within 3 minutes of the two Italians ahead of him, Ronconi and Pierre Brambilla.

Vietto had reclaimed the support of the French public and his downfall in this Tour would be remembered as a tragedy. But perhaps there have been few comparable cases where the hype of The King so failed to be realized. Robic claimed a sensational victory for France by gaining enough time in the final stage into the Parc des Princes to win the Tour without ever wearing the yellow jersey (which he would only do once in his whole career, for one stage in 1953).

Undoubtedly much to his chagrin, he was the Tour winner and the prince of Paris, but was overshadowed by Vietto. “The Tour says thank you to René Vietto,” L’Equipe noted, and lamented the attitude showed by his teammate Fachleitner, which justified the team switching allegiance to, “a brilliant champion, passionate about the Tour.” Vietto’s rehabilitation was complete, but victory had still eluded him.

Postscript

The Tour of 1947 was cast as a powerful symbol of renewal. “Yet again, words are meaningless when confronted with the welcome that the people of France extended to the Tour”, according to L’Equipe. “Desgrange’s dream for the Tour had been magnified: to entertain and to demonstrate through the example of a sincere sporting battle that man can endure anything, and overcome any obstacle, to attain his goal.” Powerful stuff indeed!

Despite a strong showing in the race, Vietto was on the wrong side of history. Tours in the following years, starting with 1948, would belong to Italians and Swiss, and then to the ascendency of Louison Bobet. Although he continued to race with some good placings in smaller races, in the 1948 Tour Vietto could only manage 17th (Robic was 16th). In 1949 he was 28th, in what was to be his last Tour. He retired to his pig farm in the Pyrenees and lived until 1988, aged 74.

Lazaridès continued to race until 1955. He had placed second in the mountains competition in 1947. He continued to do well in the mountains: second overall in the 1950 Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré, for example. But he did not deliver the victories as his master might have hoped.

René Vietto never lived up to the myths that surrounded him. But as we have seen over the course of these accounts, history has remembered the sometimes disagreeable rider favourably. Whatever we are to make of his personality, he fought back against the limitations of his situation to promote himself successfully into the hearts of his fans, falling low and then pulling himself back up again. And he gained some impressive victories along the way.

Whether he ended up pedalling a sewing machine, however, is not recorded.

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Now on film, the Golden Age begins with Vietto’s last Tour.

2 thoughts on “René Vietto – Part 3: the return of the king

  1. Great articles. Your site is fantastic.
    Can you refer me to any sites about the 42 circuit de france or nazi propaganda involving French cycling during WWII

    thanks,
    Richard

  2. I greatly enjoy reading your articles. Will you be writing more about the races held during the war? I know Bartali and Coppi did not race but were involved in the war effort.

    How were the racers that competed during the war treated after war? As collaborators? Traitors? Or just cyclists that did what cyclists do?

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