Tour de France 2020

Tour Retrospective : A French filmmaker’s search for the real René Vietto

French filmmaker Julien Camy's documentary 'Le Roi Melancolique' captures a career encompassing both flashes of brilliance as well as remarkable tragedy.

The history of bicycle racing is often told through the eyes of its winners. And yet so much of the sport’s legend owes itself to its many losers.

In that category, René Vietto was one of its most eloquent. A rider blessed with promise, Vietto was also full of paradox, and mystery. And with this year’s Tour de France starting in Nice on the French Côte d’Azur, it only fitting to look back on the rise and many tragic collapses of the “Roi René” or King René as he was affectionately called.

Vietto was born in Rocheville au Cannet, and he grew up working as a groom in the many luxury hotels situated here on the French Riviera. But it soon became evident that Vietto was nothing short of a huge talent on a bike. It was here in this region where Vietto signed his first successes, and it was here in the 1934 Tour de France, scored one of his first victories in the Tour—a memorable victory on the stage from Nice to Cannes that raced through the back hills of Nice, much like the opening stages of this year’s Tour.

Vietto’s career, however, would be defined by both his flashes of brilliance as well as remarkable tragedy, and finally, long periods of mediocrity. But his career was anything but forgettable.

And this year Vietto’s legend has been revisited is the subject of a documentary “Le Roi Melancolique,” by a young French filmmaker Julien Camy.

Julien Camy. Photo: James Startt.

“I wrote a book on sport and cinema, and I discovered the incredible story of René Vietto,” Camy said over a quick lunch in Nice’s Old Town before the start of this year’s Tour.

“And what’s more, I discovered that he was born in Rocheville au Cannet, where I am from, and when I went down into my cellar, I found an old trophy ‘Challenge René Vietto’ from one of my first races ever. Suddenly everything came together. But the more I researched his story, the less I understood. He was such an enigma. He managed to create a whole myth around himself. And finding the truth is not easy.”

For Vietto, 1934 was nothing if not his breakout Tour, as he won no less than four stages in his debut effort.

But it was not the stages he won, but rather the misfortune that dogged him through the race. Already on stage two, he lost 33 minutes after flatting no less than eight times. He nevertheless battled back, winning two Alpine stages as well as that to Cannes. His competition, as well as the public, was instantly captivated by his fluid pedal stroke and the fact that, even when climbing the highest mountains in the Tour, his shoulders never seemed to move.

More than one observer said that he could likely climb a mountain with a glass of water on his back, without a spilling a drop. “I sure would have liked to be able to climb like Vietto,” Antonin Rolland — who wore the yellow jersey for 12 days in the 1995 Tour — says in Camy’s film. No, make no doubt about it, Vietto had class.

Image courtesy of Julien Camy.

But all of the class in the world could not win him the Tour de France, for while he may well have been the strongest rider in the Tour, as a neophyte, his role was to support French national team leader Antonin Magne, winner already in 1931.

But when the Tour hit the Pyrenees, Magne struggled. Crashing on the stage to Aix-Les-Thermes, he shattered his wheel, and it was Vietto who had to stop and give Magne his own. Vietto could only sit on a stone wall and wait for assistance. And as he saw his own chances in the Tour evaporate, he cried. But images captured that day, only helped forge Vietto’s image. After all, legends are so often born in tragedy.

The misfortune only continued the following day when Vietto was again off the front, but actually had to stop and climb two kilometers back up the Portet d’Aspet as Magne suffered yet another mechanical. But while he had definitively lost the Tour, he had resoundingly captured the hearts of the fans.

In 1939, the final Tour before WWII, Vietto seemed to finally have put misfortune behind him as he wore the yellow jersey for 11 days. But he finally collapsed on the Col de l’Izoard after struggling with a cold for days. He went on to finish second, but his tenacity continued to increase his reputation.

But his worst defeat came in 1947, the first Tour de France after WWII. In many ways, he seemed destined to win it. He dominated much of the race, taking over the yellow jersey already on stage two and leading the race for no less than 15 days.

But once again it wasn’t to be. Struggling with a toe that he could barely fit it into his shoe, he started to fade. And the final time trial proved to be no less than a crucifixion, as he was simply humiliated by the little know Jean Rubic, who went on to win the Tour and all of the glory that came with being the first post-war winner.

Vietto, so frustrated, actually cut off his toe shortly after the race, and the reasons for his defeat varied over the years, only adding to the mystery.

Photo courtesy of Julien Camy.

“For many, Vietty was the link in the French imagination from before WWII to after,” said Camy. “He had that amazing Tour in 1934 and then again in 1939. And then finally in 1947. All of France really wanted him to win. It was his to win. And he lost.”

Camy insists that Vietto still fascinates people today. “He was just such an enigma. He managed to create a personage consciously or unconsciously. There is a little bit of Marco Pantani in Vietto. There was so much tragedy in his story.”

“He had a different vision of cycling,” Camy continues. “He raced bikes differently. And that really left its mark. He might not have won, but he created history. Again, Pantani had that capacity. And so does Julian Alaphilippe today. Alaphilippe can really push himself to the end, beyond his limits. Look at Milano-Sanremo this year. He just blew the race apart on the Poggio. But he dug too deep. He is one of the best descenders in the world, but on the descent, he completely missed the first three turns. He was just too far in the red. He couldn’t see anything. There are not many racers like that, willing to take such risks to win that they really risk losing too. Vietto was like that.”