Ever wondered how Tour de France riders of the Thirties and Forties trained for the epic 300-400km stages that were a common feature of the race back then? CW recalls the story of a can-do young man from Cannes
There hadn’t been a Tour de France since 1939 because of the Second World War, but René Vietto from Cannes was training.
He was fifth in his first Tour in 1934, eighth in 1935, and second in 1939. A couple of versions of the Tour were due to be run in 1946, the Ronde de France and Monaco-Paris; Vietto wanted to be ready.
With his career largely on hold due to the war, Vietto opened a bike shop in Cannes and it did well because its owner was a local hero. There were some races in the South of France, enough for Vietto to keep his legs turning and to fuel the ambition of young riders who dreamed of riding the Tour de France when the war was over.
One of those was a tiny 21-year-old called Apo Lazarides. He trained with his brother Lucien, who was a good racer too, but Lazarides was impatient and wanted to learn from the master. He went to see Vietto and asked him for a job in his shop and also asked if he could train with him.
Vietto wasn’t a big man, but Lazarides weighed 50kg, a fraction under eight stones, and Vietto saw something in him, so he said: “Yes, you can have a job. And I’ll make a rider out of you some day, but you’ll have to work like hell. You need to be a man of steel, and right now you are a kid made of chewing gum.”
So, true to his word, Vietto started training Lazarides, and riding with him before a full day working in the shop. At first that meant getting up at three o’clock in the morning and doing short rides, but soon they were on Vietto’s favourite training route: 120 hilly kilometres going west towards Toulon, then back to Cannes via a different route.
Some days they did 240km before work, with Lazarides hanging on to Vietto’s wheel, crying in pain, knowing that if he was dropped he’d lose both his mentor and his job.
But the training worked. Lazarides won an Alpine stage of the Ronde de France, then the pair rode Monaco-Paris. On the eve of the final stage, Vietto led by 2.5 minutes from Jean Robic, with Lazarides in third.
But Vietto made a mistake: he told Lazarides to go with an early break on the 357-mile stage from Dijon to Paris, and his protégé dutifully obeyed — only the break stayed clear, and Lazarides won the race.