1935 – 1939 Les Tricolores d’Autres Sorts


It was over on the first day. 60 kms from the finish in Lille, Romain Maes – ‘the rubber ball’ as Desgrange described him – sprang away from the peloton with all force, energy and willpower he could muster and drove his advantage all the way to the finish line. The 22 year old Belgian Champion pulled on the Maillot Jaune in Lille and never took it off again, winning a stage in the Alps and then the final stage – in Yellow! – to consolidate his victory. Of course, if the level crossing hadn’t closed – causing the 4 chasing riders, including Magne, to lose 43″ – it might have been a different story…

In 1937, the shoe was on the other foot – a level crossing closed as Maes was in hot pursuit of Labepie, the eventual race winner. The Belgians were furious, I’m guessing the French called it karma… Robert Millar lost the 1985 Vuelta due to a level crossing incident (“The Case of the Train That Never Came”). The 2012 Tour saw chaos on stage 1 as a group of breakaway riders were forced to stop and wait at a level crossing (“The Case of the Race That Stopped”). The modern rulebook (Article 19) states the following:

  • If a rider crosses a level crossing when the barrier is down he faces immediate disqualification
  • If a rider or riders are stopped at a level crossing but it opens before they are caught by their pursuers, no action will be taken and this will be treated as a race incident
  • If the advantage is less than 30″ it will be considered a race incident
  • If the advantage is greater than 30″ and the pursuers catch the escapees at the level crossing then the race is neutralised and a new start is given, preserving the original time gap.
  • If the riders at the head of the race cross the level crossing before it closes, holding up their pursuers, no action will be taken and this will be treated as a race incident
  • Any exceptional situations e.g. a broken barrier will be referred to the Comissaires

It was a ‘race incident’ – and a lucky one – for Maes. It was a race of accident and incident – Magne was hit by a car and forced to abandon, Camuso – the great hope of Italian climbing – also dropped out of the race. Would Maes still have won without that run of good luck? The ‘What Ifs’ that litter the history of the Tour are fascinating.

If Maes had good luck then Francisco Cepeda – one of the armada of Spanish climbers of which there were such high hopes that year – had the very worst kind. The 29 year old son of a municipal Judge plunged into a ravine on the descent of the Galibier and died on the way to hospital, his skull fractured. He never regained consciousness. Dieudonne wrote movingly in l’Auto of the ‘Pauvre petit Cepeda’:

“Poor little Cepeda, who met his destiny on the road to Bourg-d’Oisans. Other riders, when they heard of his death, reflected for a moment, thought about all the dangers they faced but, like a driver who slows up when he sees a car with its wheels in the air, they set off again 10 seconds later thinking ‘not me!’. They quickly forget the tragedy because if they thought about it, they would never ride again. Goodbye, little rider without glory but not without merit, your cards were marked and you tried to rebel in vain.”

francisco cepeda

Cepeda wasn’t the first rider to die during the race – that dubious honour belongs to Adolphe Heliere, who drowned whilst swimming on a rest day in the 1910 race – but he was the first rider to die on the road.

If you’re ever in Bourg d’Oisans, or riding the Galibier, take your own 10 seconds to remember ‘Pauvre petit Cepeda


It’s difficult to estimate just how many were out on the roadsides of France that year – and it was a truly miserable summer with most of the race ridden in the pouring rain – but the decision of the Front Populaire to grant workers 2 weeks paid holiday a year led to an unprecedented audience for the 1936 Tour.

Maes won again – Sylvere this time, not Romain (Maes is a common Belgian surname and the two were unrelated). He was from the Magne mould, meticulously prepared, even down to the precaution of buying reinforced boyau (inner tubes). Not for him the punctures that blighted Magne’s campaign and he took a decisive win on the stage from Luchon-Pau – in Magne’s beloved Pyrenees no less – on the 27th July, his 27th birthday.

There were 90 riders in the race – 3 National ‘A’ teams (France, Belgium, Germany), 7 National ‘B’ teams (Spain, Luxemburg, Switzerland, Holland, Yugoslavia, Austria and Romania) and 30 French touristes-routiers (including Vietto). But there was no Italian team – ‘for political reasons’ was the official excuse. There were plans for a team of French based Italians to ride the Tour but that fell through. The Tour would have to wait for its first Italian winner.

Should sport be used to make a political point? The Italian no-show was directly ordered by Mussolin, the fascist leader who had been in power since 1922, presumably expressing his annoyance at France’s election of a left wing Government. Events had been boycotted before – several teams refused to travel to the 1930 World Cup in Uruguay but that was more sour grapes than anything overtly political. 22 Nations would boycott the 1936 Berlin Olympics in August as a protest against fascism and, from the 80s onwards, withdrawing from sporting events would become a powerful weapon for expressing political discontent. A young Irish cyclist, Pat McQuaid  (a player in a later tale) would be banned from the Olympics for life for breaking the sporting boycott against apartheid South Africa.

This was a Tour bracketed by political turmoil and the continued rise of Fascism – Hitler’s Germany had reoccupied the Rhineland in March, Italy had occupied Ethiopia by May, the Spanish Civil War broke out during the race in July. Amidst the uncertainty, the ‘Popular Front Tour’ was a welcome distraction.


Roger Lapebie:

“Allow me to tell you quickly about the events that happened on the rest day in Pau. I really wanted to abandon because I felt the penalties I incurred were unfair (Labepie was penalised for taking pushes from spectators on the stage). Sure, I was pushed several times..but the commissaires saw me hitting out at those who were pushing me. Someone gave me a drink from an unknown bidon – was that my fault? Maes accepted some cans and shared some bidons with me. All I’ll say is that I went to find M. Desgrange that evening to tell him that, with the agreement of my teammates, we’d carry on regardless of the severity of my penalisation. We would carry on…with the hope of winning. We were about thirty kilometres from Bordeaux when someone told me that Sylvere Maes, the Yellow Jersey, had punctured. I called on my teammates and the chase was on. That night at the dinner table, the team were singing at the tops of their voices – the victory was so close. When I went to sign on the next morning all the officials rushed towards me: “You know the Belgian team have abandoned?” “Because of their penalties?” “Yes…” I was stunned. I must confess my first thoughts were joy which quickly turned to anger – Sylvere was going to diminish my victory!”

The Belgians did not attack Labepie when he broke his frame on the road to Luchon – did they think he was too strong? Or that they weren’t strong enough? Or was it simply fair play? The Belgian team abandoned because they felt that race officials were conspiring to let Labepie win.

Ironically, had Desgrange still been in charge it seems sure that the Frenchman would have sat out the race as he had the previous year – there was no love lost between Labepie and the autocratic race director. But ill health had forced Desgrange to relinquish control – the task passed to Jacques Goddet and Labepie was at the start line, despite surgery for a lumbar hernia following Bordeaux-Paris. That race ended on May 30th and the Tour started exactly a month later. It was something of a miracle that he was on the start line at all. More of a miracle that he could utilise the newly allowed derailleur to push some enormous gears on the Soulor, where he was in danger of losing the race once and for all.

At the Parc, Labepie presented his winner’s bouquet to the Belgian fans – their reaction is not recorded…

Somewhat lost in all the recriminations was the outstanding performance of Mario Vicini who would record the best ever finish by an ‘individual’ rider (the next year the Tour would move definitively to an all teams format). Bravo Mario!

A young Italian climber, fresh from winning the Giro and Italian Championships was a hot favourite for the win that year. He was forced to abandon after a crash landed him in a river. His name was Gino Bartali and he would become one of the the true giants of the sport.


He slept with a picture of the Virgin Mary by his bed. He was driven on by his God, St Theresa, the spirit of his brother Guilio who had died in a racing accident. When he married, he received a blessing from the Pope.  He had the words “Don’t worry’ written on his visor. He was a smoker. He wore the number 13 as Lambot had in 1922 – it was lucky for them.  His performance on stage 14 of the 38 Tour has passed into the annals of history – it was the day he won the Maillot Jaune. He climbed like an angel, descended like a devil and by the end of the day was declared a god. He took the King of the Mountains as well as the GC, the first time the feat was achieved. He wouldn’t win the Tour again until 1948, a feat never equalled.

OK, I confess: had I been an Italian tifosi in that glorious age of those two great riders I’d have been a Campianissiomo kind of girl – Coppi was dangerous, strangely sexy, all angles and elegance and glamour whereas Bartali, Gino the piou was bult like a builder with a boxers nose. And he had that nickname, ‘the Pious’, with its whiff of the offputtingly religious. Yet in many ways Gino was the greater champion – the man who carried messages to the Italian resistance in his top tube, who hauled a trailer with a Jewish family hidden inside  past the Nazis and claimed he was simply out on a training run. The story of his courage helping Jews in wartime Italy is an extraordinary one yet his only comment was “One does these things and then that’s that”. I’d have been a Campianissimo kind of girl, but I’m a Bartali woman.

Fiercely private, fiercely proud, and, yes, fiercely religious, Gino Bartali was truly one of the most extraordinary men to stand atop the podium of the Tour de France.


Maes wanted his revenge on the Tour for the events of 1937 and in 1939, with Europe on the brink of war, and with Germany, Italy and Spain absent (again for ‘raisons politique’), he got it.

The race that year flirted with a ‘devil take the hindmost’ format, with the last rider on GC being eliminated. Due to start on stage 2, it was discreetly abandoned when it turned out that the potential eliminee would be the Maillot Jaune…

Alas for ‘le roi Rene‘ – Vietto would hold the Maillot Jaune for over half the race until he was undone by le bronchite, le fringale and the first (and definitely not last) mountain time trial. He caught bronchitis in the Pyrenees that were ridden in torrential rain and freezing fog. Then, in his beloved Alps, ridden conversely in blazing heat, the Cannois was hit by that most dreaded of all cycling malaises – le fringale, the hunger knock, the bonk, call it what you will. Vietto was running on empty over the fearsome Izzoard and Maes crossed the Casse Deserte alone and went on to finish the stage 17 minutes ahead of the Maillot Jaune. Vietto lost another 10 minutes to the Belgian on the 64.5km individual hill climb up the Iseran and his challenge was over.

But Vietto was still a young man – in Tour terms he was a rider entering his prime. Next year he would surely wear the Yellow Jersey into the Parc des Princes.

That race never came. By the time the Tour resumed – in 1947 – his career would be over. He became a directeur sportif and then a pig farmer. On 22nd October 1988 his son rode up the col de Brousse as his father had requested and scattered his ashes on the clear mountain air.


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