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    History
    14.10.15

    Cult hero: René Vietto and the Missing Toe

    From:

    A Tour de France lost through sacrificing a wheel; a toe lost in the mists of time - Max Leonard trawls the bars of Marseille in search of a small piece of history

    Words
    Max Leonard
    Photographs
    Offside/L'Equipe
cyclist on massage table, topless man massaging left leg

October 1988. A crowd of 500 people waits on the 1,002m Col de Braus as Jean Vietto, only son of one of the best grimpeurs of all time, rides a yellow René Vietto-branded bike to the top. This remote col outside Nice was where René sealed his first ever victory and it was his wish that his ashes be scattered up here. Jean arrives and takes his bidon from the cage on his frame. He walks to a small patch of wild flowers by the road, unscrews the lid with ceremony and the contents come billowing out. A photographer standing downwind is covered in grey powder. 

Apart from the bit about the photographer, the corporeal remains of René Vietto had been disposed of according to the great man’s wishes. All but one tiny part.

During the 1947 Tour de France, or so the story goes, one of René’s toes went septic. Since the Tour stopped in Nice, close to his home, he arranged for his doctor to come and cut it off on the rest day. Then he got on his bike the next day and continued.

In other words, instead of abandoning the race, he abandoned the toe. He’d lugged it through the Alps but jettisoned the excess ballast ahead of the Pyrenees.

Further: René then coerced his protégé and domestique, Apô Lazaridès to cut off his own toe, the better to understand the suffering a rider must endure to win the Tour de France.

René’s toe was preserved in formaldehyde and kept in a jar behind a bar in Marseille, where it outlasted its owner, and, according to legend, remains to this day.

This isn’t what René is best known for, however. It is a footnote (no pun intended) in a book or two, a piece of baseless trivia in Tour compendiums that are long in tall tales and generally shorter in facts. These days René is mainly to be found inhabiting the story of the 1934 Tour, as the 20-year-old climbing prodigy who sacrificed his own chances of winning the yellow jersey to help his team leader. When Antonin Magne buckled his wheel on a Pyrenean descent, Vietto gave him his, then sat on a wall to wait for the support car and sobbed. A photo was taken; Jacques Goddet, assistant Tour director and chief writer for L’Auto, immediately spotted its propaganda potential and it went in the following day’s paper.

That sacrifice, not the toe, was what ensured René’s entry into the realm of myth.

With a nod to Donald Rumsfeld, there are at least three categories of truth that pertain to the Tour de France:

1. True truths (things that are – Eddy Merckx won five Tours)

2. Untrue untruths (things that are false – Floyd Landis’s 2006 performance was fuelled by whisky alone)

3. True untruths (myths that are probably untrue but carry the weight of truth – Jacques Anquetil used to put his bidon in his jersey pocket while climbing, to save carrying the weight on his bike)

For a long time I felt that René Vietto’s toe was one of the latter. This is a story about myths and relics: about what we leave behind and what survives.

René was a child of the sun, born in 1914 in Cannet-Rocheville, a village in the hills above (and now subsumed into) Cannes. His father, Jean Vietto (the other Jean Vietto’s grandfather) was a cart driver; his mother collected flowers in the hills. During the First World War, Jean was billeted to Alsace and was interned by the Germans, and René’s mother took him with her to Bergerac in the Dordogne, where she worked in a gunpowder factory.

After the war, back in Cannes, life was hard. His mother went back to collecting jasmine for the perfume industry. René left school early and worked in a garage from the age of 12, though his mother complained that his meagre wages didn’t pay for the soap to clean his clothes, which she washed by hand every night. Through a friend he got a job as a bellboy at the Majestic Hotel on the Croisette, then graduated to usher at the Palm Beach Casino, fetching and carrying for the likes of the Aga Khan, the Prince of Wales and the Russian aristocracy who in those days frequented the Côte d’Azur.

He saved his tips, bought a fixed-wheel bicycle and learned to ride.

In the Esterel, the wild red hills to the west of Cannes, there was a goat who, when Vietto was out training, would greet him from the side of the road. For years it would bleat a welcome as the Cannois passed through just after midnight on his regular 350km there-and-back to Marseille. When Vietto retired, the goat died.

January 2015. I read this account of animal-human hero worship in the covered terrace of a bar on the old port in Marseille. The locals are wrapped in dark coats, long scarves and gloves, but there are tourists walking around in shirt sleeves. The winter sun angles fierce and low through the cross streets, streams through the masts moving gently on the water and filters through my carafe of rosé, casting an appealing colour on the Formica table.

It’s not the right bar. That much was obvious before I went in. There is no toe-in-a-jar next to the Pernod. But it’s a start. If nothing else, I am getting into the swing of things. I have joined the old men, in their caps, jackets and wire-rimmed dark glasses, in drinking wine in the morning.

To be clear: there are many things more important than an old toe. And whether these stories are true or not matters very little to anyone. Mostly. But the toe’s truth status had continued to bother me. If existent, it was a tangible link to the heroic age of riding and the key to all these mythologies that grow around the race; if illusory, a way of sorting fact from fiction even as the sands of time threatened to bury the distinction between the two. There were enough mentions of it to make me think there was something to the story. Real or not, I was sure it could tell us something essential about the Tour, and the heroes we choose. I thought someone ought to open the box on Schrödinger’s digit.

Eventually, I just thought, fuck it, and went to France to find out.

 

In Vietto’s time, as now, many pros made the Côte d’Azur their home or, taking advantage of the mild weather and challenging training roads, overwintered there. As an amateur, René joined French pros, including Raoul Lesueur and future Tour winner Georges Speicher, on training rides, and he started to clean up in local races even against strong competition. Vietto was of Italian heritage (Nice had only been ceded to France by the Savoy family within living memory, in 1860) and his opponents were mostly dirt-poor French-Italians like him. Fermo Camellini, the first man over the Col du Glandon in Tour history, lived up the road, but there was a smattering of more glamorous locals, like Igor Troubetzkoy, the Russian prince who would become the first man to race Formula 1 for Ferrari.

For Vietto, training meant riding a 42/16 fixed wheel at least 100km further than the race to come. At the height of his career, he would organise Côte d’Azur training camps for his team-mates in which he would ride them into the ground without mercy: puncture and you’ll be dropped; stop to pee and you’ll be dropped; eat and you’ll be dropped. If it wasn’t a midnight sortie to Marseille and back, he would head north, over the Col d’Allos and the Col de Vars to the Izoard: gigantic distances and huge climbs. He would deliberately go out in terrible conditions and every man was expected to finish the ride, even if that meant hundreds of solo kilometres after bonking.

“René practised a very hard training regime,” said Apô Lazaridès, in a TV interview as an old man, with Vietto by his side. “I mean, he did a lot of kilometres, and he didn’t allow eating. His discipline was something else. I remember putting in the kilometres with him once and I said, ‘René, I’m hungry, I can’t go on.’ ‘Eat grass,’ he told me. And I ate grass that whole day.”

Jean Vietto, René’s son, confirmed this: “There was one time with Apô when he just threw away their bag of food and their bidons, and both of them suffered,” Jean wrote. Jean lives in Nice and, like his grandfather, is a cart driver – or rather, the modern equivalent, long-distance HGVs – and is rarely at home, so our conversations happen via email. “Once, he punished himself by putting the bike on his bed and sleeping on the floor himself,” Jean continued. “Maybe he was exaggerating, but the idea definitely occurred to him.”

“For me,” René said, in that TV interview with Apô in the ‘70s, “sleeping is dying and eating is poisoning yourself. Voilà. Go to bed at 2am, get up at 4 and leave at 5, whatever the weather.”

Apô laughs at this, but nervously, and has the look of a man who is glad he now runs a mini-golf resort next to the sparkling Med and always sleeps soundly until at least sunrise.

(As an aside, René really didn’t seem to like sleeping or eating. After he retired, he planned to undertake a week-long, 3,500km solo tour of France powered only by a single musette full of vitamin biscuits, to prove that food wasn’t necessary for nutrition. The attempt never took place.)

 

Vietto’s first proper win was in the Boucle de Sospel in 1931, a race from Cannes towards Italy and into the Alps, looping around the little mountain village of Sospel. There’s a point on the Col de Braus, the first real climb of the Boucle, about a kilometre from the top where the road reaches the top of a deep gorge, and for a moment ramps up to 15 per cent or more, then opens into an amazing view over the squiggle of stacked hairpins just climbed. Gradient and landscape combine to make it a particularly tempting place to stop – for a photo, you understand, not to catch your breath – and I like to think it was here that Vietto made his move, leaving his rivals in his wake, before rolling over the top, down to Sospel and then back via the Col de Castillon to the long coast road to victory.

It was his preferred riding style: always attack, always ride your opponents off your wheel, do not wait for them. La course en tête, and in style.

René Bertrand still has Vietto’s winning dossard from that day way back in 1931. He shows it to me in his first-floor apartment, one of two he keeps in the same building in Marseille. On the second floor are his living quarters; on the first lives the memorabilia collected over more than 60 years’ involvement in cycling. René may be René’s biggest fan. But that’s jumping ahead.

My gameplan in Marseille was devastatingly simple: first, go to a bar. That accomplished, I would go to another, and so on. Somewhere in the middle I would visit René Bertrand. Then perhaps another bar. Check the shelves for jars. Tick another one off the list. It would not be without purpose: it was in the service of finding one of cycling's lost relics (and getting drunk is always purposeful, however gratuitous), but I confess that at a certain point, even pre-rosé, I was risking losing focus on the toe. The sun. The boats. The ferris wheel rising above the quay. Enough dilly-dallying. It was time to go to see Bertrand.

After Vietto’s first Boucle de Sospel came wins in the Nice-Mont Agel, Nice-Puget Théniers-Nice and other races in the local mountains, as well as the Circuit du Mont Blanc and the Critérium des Pyrénées, further afield. “He negotiated the steepest gradients with a perfectly harmonious pedal stroke, without his chest rocking from side to side an inch,” wrote the famous Tour historian Pierre Chany. “This young champion would become an artist of cycling.” Vietto idolised Alfredo Binda, the almost-French Italian who had grown up in Nice, and he was making his mark, like Binda, as a stylish, thoroughbred climber who could also race on the flats. As Bertrand put it to me: “First and foremost, an attacking rider. He was a super climber, and he liked to be in the breaks, on the flat or in the mountains.”

Only two years after his first professional win, Vietto was invited to the Giro d’Italia – the same Giro in which Gino Bartali would make his debut – racing against his hero, Binda. René fell more than 20 times but he finished 19th, while Binda won. Seeing his promise, several Italian manufacturers, including Campagnolo, offered him sponsorship. The price demanded of him for these contracts was becoming a naturalised Italian. Vietto refused.

René won the GP Wolber in 1934, a 1,000km, five-stage affair for individual racers, and a popular selection ground for the Tour. So he lined up for the French national Tour de France team aged 20. For the first few stages he was quiet, as Antonin Magne, his team leader, took the yellow jersey, and Giuseppe Martano, an Italian who’d come third the previous year, emerged as his main challenger. On stage 7, René followed the Spaniard Federico Ezquerra over the Galibier, overhauled him on the flat and won. He also won stage 9, over the southern Alps to Digne – basically his home roads – and then the stage from Nice to Cannes, which took in the Boucle de Sospel, leading from the Col de Braus onwards.

At the finish line there were riots. His supporters – the whole crowd – lifted him off his bike, pummelled him, manhandled him in joy. Jacques Goddet tried to intervene but one burly guy took exception to this nobody’s interference, hit him, knocked him out, and René was safely carried to his hotel.

Then, in the Pyrenees, the great sacrifice.

In later years, Vietto was reluctant to talk about it, and when he did, often contradicted himself. “People always bring up the 1934 affair,” he once complained. “They talk about it as if I’d been at Verdun. They make a martyr of me. I only did my duty – like a mother suckling a baby.” And another time: “I didn’t give that wheel. They took it from me. It was a hold-up. I should have told the police!”

 

July 1934. Magne takes Vietto’s wheel. Vietto sits on the wall.

A bit further down the hill, Speicher also gives his wheel, because Vietto’s doesn’t fit properly. Magne keeps hold of yellow, but Vietto loses a lot of time.

It’s often thought that Vietto otherwise would have ridden himself into the yellow jersey if he hadn’t sacrificed his own chances, but we’ll never know: the time gaps are both big enough and small enough to make it uncertain. But despite the problems, Vietto is still sitting pretty for the Tour’s first ever King of the Mountains award. The next day he goes off hunting points on the Col de Portet d’Aspet. Afterwards, he is descending slowly, waiting for Magne to help him on the day’s final climb, when word reaches him that Magne has again suffered a misfortune. One version of the story has it that a German rider overtaking him shouts “Magne kaput!” and that Vietto, who had picked up a bit of German from his prisoner-of-war father, understood this to mean that Magne has died. Panicked, he turns and cycles uphill, to find that Magne’s chain has broken, destroying his back wheel. This time, he gives his bike. Magne chases back to Martano. Again the yellow jersey is saved. The papers the next day christen him ‘Le Roi René’: King René.

“Don’t write that I lost my chance by saving Tonin [Magne],” said René, towards the end of his life, to Louis Nucéra, a French writer and Vietto obsessive. “We’ve no right to diminish his performance. And anyway, it would be false. In reality I lost that Tour in one of the northern stages, following four punctures, one after the other. [Raffaele] Di Paco helped me out by giving me a tub… without him, I’d still be on the side of the road.”

René Bertrand meets me on the landing outside the first floor apartment, a spritely 80-something-year-old with his tracksuit bottoms pulled up high. For years Bertrand owned a bike shop in Marseille and, with Antonin Magne, was a DS for Mercier in the 1960s, the era of Raymond Poulidor and Barry Hoban. Whenever the big cycling stars came to Marseille, they usually passed by his shop.

Bertrand was born on the same day as Vietto, 14 years later.

“I was a fanatic,” he says. “In 1934, I was six and my father took me to see the Tour in Marseille. I lived in the Rue d’Aubagne, a hundred metres from the start. Magne was in yellow, but I wanted to see Vietto. Magne, I saw him afterwards, but I wanted to see Vietto. It all started there.”

Later, the men became friends. Bertrand became a dealer of Vietto’s bikes. When Vietto came to Bertrand’s daughter’s wedding in Marseille, Bertrand drove him home, all the way to Cannes. Now, he is the guardian of many of the remaining artifacts of Vietto’s life – his dossards, his contracts, the last ever bike he raced competitively. Pictures line the walls of Vietto at all stages of his career, plus private snapshots of Poulidor, Bartali, Magne and Marcel Cerdan, the boxer, another friend.

We talk about Vietto’s successes: Paris-Nice in 1935, his most prestigious overall win (he always liked to perform on his home roads), and his year as national champion (of the Free French at least) in 1941. But big victories were, for Vietto, hard to come by. “Vietto and Poulidor were the two least lucky guys in the Tour,” Bertrand says.

In the years after 1935, Vietto earned a lot of money on criterium contracts and didn’t do much real racing. He bought a big motorcar and drove it around the town where he was once a bellboy. He struggled for motivation and fitness. In 1938, he entered the Tour as an independent, but abandoned on the second day. Somewhere in those lost years, too, were three knee operations.

 

In 1939, after a good off season, he was back, and back at the Tour, where he held the lead for 11 days straight, but then cracked on the Izoard and the Belgian Sylvère Maes won. It was that year and 1947 (when he wore yellow for 15 days) which would earn him the honour of being, until Fabian Cancellara overtook him in 2012, the man to hold the yellow jersey for the most days without actually winning the Tour.

During the war, besides racing his favourite local races, Vietto opened a bike shop in Cannes where he gave tubs to the local kids, even though they were hard to come by and there was a big black market for them. He took on an assistant in the workshop, a boy of 15, even skinnier and smaller than he was, of Greek descent, called Apô. He began torturing him with training, and a partnership was born.

Like many of his generation, Vietto had had the best years of his career taken away from him by the war, and in the 1947 Tour, as the only pre-war star to line up, was favourite to win. In the pan-flat second stage he soloed away from the break to win in Brussels, to show his form was good and that he’d worked on his flatland riding. Later, he won in Digne and defended his yellow jersey through the mountains, only to lose it after 15 days to Pierre Brambilla, in a disastrous 139km-long time-trial.

“He did 180km on his own, on the pavé,” Bertrand tells me. “That was hard work. He shouldn’t have made that break to Brussels, he paid for it later.”

The Tour was won by Jean Robic, a relative unknown, after the Breton attacked and dropped Brambilla on the penultimate stage.

Did Vietto regret never winning the Tour?

“Oh yes, he never admitted it, but it was something he missed,” Bertrand says. “But he didn’t make excuses, he didn’t say, ‘Oh, this or that happened.’” Jean Vietto, meanwhile, wrote: “People often asked him the question. The war really destroyed everything for him. He’d thought he’d have more time to try and win other, later Tours.”

But what about the toe?

Jean again takes up the story: “In those days, toe clips were made of iron, and in Paris-Roubaix, passing over a pavement, one of his clips cut through his shoe and his little toe was [eventually] amputated,” he wrote. “Years later, he gave it to M. Pierre Gueydon (a friend of the Bertrand brothers).”

If René had been suffering with his toe since Roubaix, months before, perhaps the injury was inflamed by his second passage on the pavé in the Tour. What’s sure is that it wasn’t amputated in Nice: instead, on the rest day, his doctor pumped him full of penicillin and sent him off again to win. The toe was taken off after Vietto lost – we can only guess how a septic toe, septic to the bone, might have affected his performance – and it was indeed preserved. For a while at least, a friend of his from military service kept it at his bar, ‘Chez Siciliano’.

“I always liked being operated on,” Vietto said in a TV interview towards the end of his life. “When the surgeon took something off, I used to tell myself: ‘You’ll be lighter on the bike. You’ll climb better.’”

Why is it that we love some riders more for their failures than we do others for their successes? A sprinter who does not win casts a sorry figure; but when a rider takes flight on a lone break, into the thin air of the high mountains, it seems beautiful regardless of whether he achieves anything or not. There is something intrinsically alluring and self-justifying about what climbers do, and René, by many accounts, was the most beautiful of them all.

Trawl through the French cycling forums and it’s clear that le Roi Réne – a king without a crown – is still revered. Mainly by cyclists of a certain age: les tontons – which translates to something like ‘old duffers’ – adore him. More than Poulidor, more than Jacques Anquetil, definitely more than Raphaël Géminiani; more, I think, than Laurent Fignon and Bernard Hinault, who, as the patterns of light and shade shift and their epoch recedes into the middle distance, are in the process of having their own mythologies constructed like sarcophagi around their careers.

Hinault, here, is important. There is a kind of sacrifice industry in French cycling, among the tontons at least, one that is perhaps connected to the loss of face occasioned by the 30 years that have passed since Hinault, the last French winner of the Tour. If we can’t win, we will lose, and lose well, because that means something more than winning. It’s an industry from which the current youthful generation of winners – Thibaut Pinot, Nacer Bouhanni and Julian Alaphillipe at the forefront, with Romain Bardet, Arnaud Demare, Alexis Vuillermoz and Tony Gallopin close behind – are only just emerging.

“Papa didn’t regret it, and often said that it was with this ‘sacrifice’ – and the photo that immortalised his choice – that made his name,” Jean wrote. “Pride and sadness all at once.”

This salt-sweet, storybook combination of selflessness and suffering is, more or less, unique to cycling, and one reason we feel it is better, or at least deeper, than other sports.

 

René was the perfect foil for these stories. He was terribly unlucky, always crashing or puncturing or getting tar in his eyes: “He told me that if he opened a baby’s bonnet boutique, babies would be born without heads,” wrote Jean. And Nucéra again: “He carried within himself a universe of catastrophe.”

He was also something of an enigma. Even friends like René Bertrand called him taciturn; others said he was stubborn and bad tempered, though there is also evidence of great sensitivity and kindness. He had been known to dissolve into tears in the arms of his directeur sportif when a commissaire’s decision went against him at the finish line. And as team leader he would look after his team-mates, making sure they were paid and had contracts, often forgetting his own. In retirement, he helped organise a kind of social security system for French riders but, Jean Vietto claims, he was swindled out of any riches by a manager and died poor. “His attitudes and whims … hid shyness and tenderness. He intended to keep a part of himself a mystery,” wrote Tour historian Jacques Augendre.

If we are to judge Vietto by results alone, he was a firework that failed to go off. Yet he was charismatic, a man who seemed naturally to lend himself to legend. Some believe that he didn’t live up to the myths that were built around him, but maybe that’s precisely why they grew. Maybe it’s easier to project our own hopes, fears and desires on to a blank surface, and maybe René knew that.

In 1981, just before the Tour started in Nice, René was knocked over by a car. During the subsequent physio sessions, he was put on a mechanical contraption to strengthen his legs. Immediately, he started pedalling furiously. “Calm down M. Vietto!” said the nurse. “What do you think you are, a Tour rider?”

What about the toe, though?

“Oh putain, the toe,” says Bertrand. He goes into the kitchen, opens a cupboard. Closes it again. Opens another, gets on his knees, roots around as if looking for a jar of gherkins. And then he takes something out.

It’s a glass jar with a toe in it. A shrivelled, brown, desiccated toe. Surprisingly large and with a nail and present up to the knuckle – in other words, with at least half an inch of unexpected exposed bone, which makes it look almost like a finger. It’s the pale bone, more than anything, I notice in that moment. Around the top of the jar is written: ‘Vietto’ and ‘Doigt de pied’, as if you might otherwise mistake it for a cocktail snack, or another ex-rider’s ex-toe you might have lying around.

I take a picture or two, but you’re not seeing them. Like those relics of the saints that are kept in crypts or behind screens, this should, I think, exist in the imagination, not in sight.

I'm back in a bar on the port. The sun is slipping through the masts of the sailboats, between the motor yachts and down, behind the buildings lining the quay. I have a finger of pastis left in my glass.

A toe in French is a doigt de pied, a ‘foot finger’.

By which I mean, I’m still thinking about it. The toe was my marijuana, my gateway drug to the sacrifice industry, and it has been your Rosebud. A McGuffin to keep you entertained while barrelling towards the truths of Vietto’s life: that of a beautiful climber who did not fulfil his potential; who was loved unreasonably and without reservation; who sat on a wall and cried. Who went to his final resting place, a flower-strewn meadow on a beloved mountain, with one less toe than he was born with.

I guess, if anything, it shows that truth is always more complicated than myth. Unless you happen to be looking for an amputated toe in a jar.  

I drain my glass and head off on foot to another bar, for one last drink before the train home.

Originally published in Rouleur issue 56. Max Leonard is the author of Lanterne Rouge: The Last Man in the Tour de France, published by Yellow Jersey Press

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