They say a picture speaks a thousand words. I say 500 is a more accurate figure.
The picture above is from 1934 and the well-versed will recognise the hunched figure as Rene Vietto. It’s not the grainy face that reveals his identity, but the picture in its entirety. Vietto is the “the wall guy”. A darling of French cycling and an early influence on the code of the domestique. Vietto was responsible for the boldest and most valiant displays of cycling sacrifice. Let’s get started.
Cycling before the second World War is accessed through myths and legends. The few photos we have provide confirmation of events that actually happened. In this photo we see a 20-year old Vietto sitting on a wall next to the number 38 bike cruelly parted from its front wheel. Vietto had just seen his own wheels disappear into the Pyrenees under the control of a teammate.
With no helmet, no sponsorship, and a loose-cut jersey, Vietto could be confused for a son sent into the village to collect fresh groceries. He was, in fact, the standout climber of the 1934 Tour de France. Little had been made of his inclusion in the loaded French selection and many were bemused by the relative unknown.
Vietto was superb in the Alps and won three stages. After outsprinting Italian Giuseppe Martano for victory on stage 11, he moved into third on the General Classification. Martano held second and was sandwiched between Vietto and his teammate, 1931 winner Antonin Magne.
The photo can be placed to one of two days in the Pyrenees; the fog of cycling legend clouds the exact date. The tale often told reveals that on stage 16 Vietto launched an attack and gained plenty of road from his rivals. On the descent of the Porter d’Aspet, Magne crashed behind and required a new bike. Vietto was informed and promptly turned and cycled back up to meet his leader. Simple deduction indicates Vietto would have climbed the reversed stretch of road against handfuls of descending riders. After aiding Magne he sat slumped on the wall. Vietto had exchanged his own success for a period of lonely wheel-less reflection at the side of the road.
Some glorify the day’s racing by suggesting Vietto was riding away to overall victory. However, he would have needed sizeable gains on Magne and the whereabouts of Martano are not specified. Magne would ultimately join up with Georges Speicher and finish alongside Martano. He was crowned champion in Paris after dominating the first ever time-trial.
An alternative tale states the photo is from Stage 15 where Vietto had volunteered his front wheel to Magne in similar – but less spectacular – circumstances on the Col de Puymorens.
The legacy of Vietto is unquestionable even without fine details. The breakout star of French cycling made a huge sacrifice for his captain with no ego and no hesitation. Sources say Vietto wept whilst perched on the wall, but he should have felt a swell of pride for his perfectly executed job. The photo shows a figure lost in contemplation. Though Vietto was battling a cocktail of emotions, he looks devoid of anger. There is no evidence of a tantrum or bike throw. The 20-year old was fulfilling his dreams of riding the Tour and did what he had to do.
Vietto sadly died in 1988 and his personal recollection was never documented. He was a wonderful climber who was instrumental to Magne’s second Tour victory. He wound up finishing in fifth place but celebrated with a grateful Magne in Paris.