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Chairman Bill's History of the Tour de France:
the 1940s

How a Newspaper Promotion Became the World's Greatest Sporting Event

Index: origins and early years | 1910s | 1920s | 1930s | 1940s | 1950s | 1960s | 1970s | 1980s | 1990s | 2000s

The story of the Tour and its sponsoring organization during and just after the war is affected by the fierce politics and partisanship generated by the conflict and the occupation.

In August of 1939, shortly after that year's Tour ended, L'Auto announced the basic framework of the 1940 Tour. But with the September 1939 German invasion of Poland and the May 1940 invasion of Holland, Belgium and France, there could be no Tour. By the end of June, northern France was conquered, occupied and ruled by Germany. As part of the surrender agreement southern France remained unoccupied and was ruled by a collaborationist French government called "Vichy". The great French World War One hero, Philippe Pétain, headed the Vichy government. The divided system for ruling France remained in place until 1942. When the Allies invaded North Africa, Hitler decided that he needed to occupy southern France to protect his flank. He voided the 1940 agreement and sent his soldiers into the south. They remained in place until France was freed when the Allies advanced in 1944 and 1945.

Racing continued in a hit and miss way all over Europe throughout much of the war. The Giro d'Italia was run in 1940, but was then discontinued until 1946. The Tour of Switzerland was suspended for 1943, 1944 and 1945. The Tour of Spain missed 1943 and 1944. Paris–Roubaix skipped 1941, 1942 and 1943. Italy's Tour of Lombardy was held without interruption except for 1943 and 1944.

The Germans wanted "normalcy" in their occupied territories. France without the Tour wasn't normal. They asked Jacques Goddet to restart the Tour de France, offering to open the border between German-occupied France and Vichy France. With Tour founder Henri Desgrange's health failing, Goddet had taken over both the post of editor of L'Auto—which owned and ran the Tour de France—and the job of running the Tour. Henri Desgrange, the father of the Tour de France, had held both of those jobs.

Throughout the German occupation Jacques Goddet refused to run the Tour de France. There were several truncated stage races and a race omnium series held during that period, the Circuit de France and the Grand Prix du Tour de France being the most notable. Goddet ran the latter race but he made it clear that it wasn't the Tour de France. Goddet walked a tightrope. He thought Pétain was doing the best possible thing for France by cooperating with the Germans, saving France needless destruction from a protracted battle with the Germans that she could not win. So he wrote editorials praising Pétain, and put on races, but denied the Germans the greatest of all cycling competitions.

When Paris was liberated in 1944, the authorities shuttered L'Auto because it had continued publishing during the occupation.

Jacques Goddet was not going to be stopped that easily. He went across the street and founded L'Equipe in 1946. With this new tool he was able to work on re-launching the Tour de France. Since L'Auto no longer existed, the ownership of the Tour de France was up in the air. The French cycling federation decided to have a race shoot-out between the organizations applying to take over the Tour. The other newspaper competing for the right to run the Tour, Sports, combined with another Parisian paper, Miroir Sprint, to put on the 5-day Ronde de France to try to win federation approval.

Goddet's test race was the Monaco–Paris or La Course du Tour de France and it had 5 stages. Goddet got help from another publication, Le Parisien Libéré as well as the Parc des Princes velodrome. The success of his test race, and the politics of Goddet's association with newspaper owner and resistance fighter Emilien Amaury tipped the balance in Goddet's favor. He won the right to put on the Tour de France.

Things were very tight in those early post-war years. During a time of rationing, a calorie-gobbling, gasoline-burning bicycle race presented problems. Race fans sent food to their favorite racers, something far more valuable than mere money. The government had given its approval to the races in those hard times hoping to improve French morale.

Among the other terrible losses of World War Two, the entire cache of the official Tour de France records and photos was lost. They were shipped out of the L'Auto offices in 1939 for safekeeping in southern France. They disappeared in transit and no one knows what happened to them.

1947. 1947 Tour de France results

Buoyed by their 1946 test-race success, L'Equipe announced the 1947 Tour. It was to be full-blown affair with 21 stages covering 4,640 kilometers with 5 rest days. There would be no days with split stages. National teams were still used but Germany was not invited and wouldn't be for another decade. The Italian team was made up of Franco-Italians living in France. The war wounds were still too raw to bring in a real Italian national team or consider inviting a German team.

5 of the 10 teams entered were French regional squads. Of foreign nationalities, only Belgium, France and the ersatz Italian team were composed of riders of just those countries. Holland's team had 2 Italians living in France, including Fermo Camellini. Switzerland had to combine with Luxembourg to make up its team.

René Vietto, the favorite for 1947, led the French team. The last year the Tour had been run, 1939, Vietto had come in second. He was no longer the hot yet inexperienced young rider who famously gave up his wheel to Antonin Magne in 1934. He was now an accomplished veteran of 33 who had been the subject of 3 knee operations. The war had taken his best years as it did to so many other men and women. For all the years and wear and tear he was still a superb athlete. He had worn the Yellow Jersey in previous Tours, but never as far as to Paris. He deeply yearned to achieve that elusive goal.

The France-West regional team had a strange, talented, difficult and some say foul-mouthed man, Jean Robic. Utterly sure of his abilities, he was furious at being left off the French national team. Robic usually raced with a thick leather helmet because he had fractured his skull in Paris–Roubaix. Being very short with big ears, and possessing a difficult temperament, the helmet added to an appearance that invited nicknames. "Old Leatherhead" was used often, as was "Biquet" which means, contrary to Robic's acerbic personality, "Sonny" or "Sweetie".

The first postwar Tour stage started at Paris' Palais Royale. Future Tour winner Ferdy Kubler won almost 7 hours later in Lille.

Vietto captured the Yellow Jersey after a long breakaway on the second stage, 182 kilometers from Lille to Brussels. He had a 3 minute, 28 second lead in the overall standings on second place Raymond Impanis.

Robic made his way to the higher rankings in the General Classification with a solo win in stage 4. Vietto's lead was now about a minute and a half over Italian Aldo Ronconi. Robic was sitting in sixth place at 15 minutes.

Ferdy Kubler wins stage 5 in Besançon in front of Vincenzo Rossello and Robert Bonnaventure. None of them finished the 1947 Tour.

Going into stage 7, the first Alpine stage, the rankings were unchanged. This stage had 4 big climbs culminating in the 1,326 meter high Col de Porte. Robic was first over the final 2 climbs and won the stage with a 4½ minute lead over Italian rider Pierre Brambilla. Vietto came in 8 minutes, 24 seconds after Robic and almost 3 minutes after Aldo Ronconi who had been sitting in second place in the General Classification. Vietto lost his lead and Robic had cut his deficit in half.

The General Classification after stage 7:

1. Aldo Ronconi
2. René Vietto @ 1 minute 29 seconds
3. Pierre Brambilla @ 4 minutes 12 seconds
4. Jean Robic @ 7 minutes 14 seconds

Stage 8 was another day in the high Alps with the Glandon, Croix de Fer, Télégraphe and Galibier. The Glandon and Croix de Fer climbs, both now mainstays in the Tour's catalog of mountains, were new this year to the Tour. Fermo Camellini blazed away for a solo win, being first over the last 3 major mountains. Brambilla came in 8 minutes later for second place. Vietto and Ronconi followed after another 2½ minutes. Robic had a bad day, finishing over 16 minutes after Camellini.

Stage 9 had the Izoard, Allos and Vars mountains. Robic was first over the Izoard. Vietto matched him by cresting the Allos first and then Robic led over the Col de Vars. On the descent Robic flatted and was badly delayed. Vietto won the stage and regained the Yellow Jersey. Robic came in over 6 minutes later, and was now in fifth place in the General Classification, over 18 minutes behind Vietto.

Jean Robic (wearing leather hairnet) in action in the mountains.

The next day Vietto faltered in the final Alpine stage. Fermo Camellini won it with Vietto over 6 minutes behind. Robic was seventeenth, over 13 minutes off the pace.

So, the General Classification after the Alps:

1. René Vietto
2. Fermo Camellini @ 2 minutes 11 seconds
3. Pierre Brambilla @ 3 minutes 4 seconds
4. Aldo Ronconi @ 3 minutes 25 seconds
5. Jean Robic @ 25 minutes 5 seconds

The situation stayed unchanged as the Tour went across southern France. Even after the first Pyreneen stage, nothing was altered in the top ranks of the General Classification, except Edouard Fachleitner’s solo win in stage 11 which moved him into fifth place.

Stage 15 from Luchon to Pau was a classic day in the Pyrenees. The riders had to face the Peyresourde, the Aspin, the Tourmalet and the Aubisque. Almost from the gun Robic attacked. On the Peyresourde Robic was away, at first with Vietto, Brambilla, Apo Lazaridès and Primo Volpi. Robic kept the pressure on his companions and before long Robic was riding away alone. He continued his escape and ended up riding almost 190 of the day's 195 kilometers on his own. He beat Vietto, Brambilla and Ronconi by 10 minutes, 43 seconds. Because of the time bonuses given for being the first over the 4 big passes, Robic gained a total of 15 minutes, 13 seconds.

The new General Classification:

1. René Vietto
2. Pierre Brambilla @ 1 minute 34 seconds
3. Aldo Ronconi @ 3 minutes 55 seconds
4. Edouard Fachleitner @ 6 minutes 46 seconds
5. Jean Robic @ 8 minutes 8 seconds

After the Pyrenees the situation remained stable for a while. Vietto held his lead until stage 18, nursing his 94-second lead in the General Classification. In stage 19 he ran into the longest individual time trial in Tour history. The 139-kilometer brute cost Vietto 15 minutes. He was never to wear Yellow in Paris. Italian Pierre Brambilla, after doing well in the time trial, was now in Yellow. The little Breton Robic, coming in second in the time trial, had moved up to third. Brambilla probably felt that with 2 stages to go, the Tour was his.

Here was the General Classification after the time trial:

1. Pierre Brambilla
2. Aldo Ronconi @ 53 seconds
3. Jean Robic @ 2 minutes 58 seconds
4. René Vietto @ 5 minutes 6 seconds
5. Edouard Fachleitner @ 6 minutes 56 seconds

In the final stage, a mostly (and that word mostly is important) flat run from Caen to Paris, the peloton was subjected to a series of tough, hard attacks. On the Bonsecours hill, as the race was leaving the city of Rouen, Jean Robic managed to get away from Brambilla. Brambilla didn't or couldn't react at first, being boxed in by other riders. He did manage to get just near Robic when Fachleitner counter-attacked. Robic dug deeply into his reserves and made contact with Fachleitner. Brambilla chased, but could not close the gap to the pair. He knew he was watching his Tour de France ride away.

Fachleitner wanted to drop Robic and get up to riders further up the road, thereby gaining enough time to surpass Robic and possibly win the Tour. Robic is famously to have said to him, "You can't win the Tour, Fach, because I'm not going to let you go. Work with me and I'll pay you 100,000 francs." The deal was made. Robic and Fachleitner powered away from Brambilla. Robic rode into the Yellow Jersey. Belgian Brik Schotte won the stage but Robic beat Brambilla, Ronconi, Vietto and Camellini by over 13 minutes. Robic became the first man to gain the final General Classification victory on the final day. The only time he had possession of the Yellow Jersey in the 1947 Tour was when he donned it on the final podium. It wasn't done again until Jan Janssen won the Tour in the final time trial in 1968.

Robic was a difficult man. He was not well liked by his fellow racers or the Tour organizers. He felt that being left off the French national team for the 1947 Tour and having to race on a regional French team was a slur on his abilities. He was married shortly before the Tour started and had promised his new bride a victory in the Tour as a dowry. Even under those idyllic circumstances, he started the race with a chip on his shoulder. It might have been his promise to his wife or just his disagreeable nature that caused him to attack the Yellow Jersey in that final run-in to Paris. But Jean Robic never lacked for courage or audacity. He was only 5 feet tall but he had a complete arsenal of abilities. In addition to being a superb road racer he was both French and World cyclo-cross champion. To commemorate his Tour victory there is a monument with his likeness on the Bonsecours hill.

We'll meet Old Leatherhead again.

Final 1947 Tour de France General Classification:

1. Jean Robic (France-West) 148 hours 11 minutes 25 seconds
2. Edouard Fachleitner (France) @ 3 minutes 58 seconds
3. Pierre Brambilla (Italy) @ 10 minutes 7 seconds
4. Aldo Ronconi (Italy) @ 11 minutes
5. René Vietto (France) @ 15 minutes 23 seconds

Climber's Competition:

1. Pierre Brambilla: 98 points
2. Apo Lazaridès: 89 points
3. Jean Robic: 70 points

1948. The Story of the 1949 Tour de France has been moved to the 1948 Tour results page.

1949. The Story of the 1949 Tour de France has been moved to the 1949 Tour results page.

<--the 1930s | the 1950s-->

Bibliography | Glossary