1947 – 1950: You Want Drama? We’ve Got Drama


1947 tour de france

It started – and ended – with drama. And an aeroplane – covering the race for Equipe for the first time – fell out of the skies in the Pyrenees…

1947 – the Tour of Liberation – was surely the year of the ‘Roi Rene‘. Vietto pulled off a veritable exploit in winning stage 2, the 182 km from Lille – Brussels, escaping with 180km to race and riding the last 130km alone. He held the Maillot Jaune for virtually the rest of the race after staging an admirable defence in the mountains. He was home free, just the little matter of a 139km TT through Brittany to deal with…

And he cracked. He lost the Jersey to Brambilla who had ridden strongly through the mountains – he took the meilleur grimpeur prize – and it looked like Brambilla would win the race without ever winning a stage…until Jean Robic ‘tall as 3 apples’ chanced his arm on the final stage from Caen-Paris and made his own slice of Tour history by winning the race on the final stage, having never worn the Yellow Jersey before he stood on the podium in Paris.

On the great Pyreneean stage – Peyresourde, Aspin, Tourmalet, Aubisque – Robic won every climb and the stage to keep his hopes alive. The time bonuses he snaffled would make a huge difference to the final result, too – the 2nd man on the podium, Edouard Fachleitner, was actually faster over the 4,642km race.

Robic was the archetypal Breton (though he was born in the Ardennes ‘by mistake’ as he always claimed) – like Hinault after him he was tetu: stubborn and proud. The little Breton, the ‘hobgoblin’, ‘tete de cuir‘ (after breaking his skull riding Paris-Roubaix he always wore a leather skullcap), ‘le nain jaune‘ (not meant kindly) was “an ugly man who won that most beautiful of Tours – the Tour of liberation” (J.P. Olivier). And in the most incredible fashion – not content to let the Maillot Jaune have a ceremonial entry into Paris, Robic attacked fiercely on the col de Bonsecours, 140km from the finish. Fachleitner countered and Brambilla couldn’t stick on the wheel. The Tour was won – with one last twist…

Robic offered Fachleitner 100,000 francs to help him win the Tour.

And Fach agreed – after all, like Robic, he had nothing to lose and everything to gain. After all, if Robic cracked the race was his. But Robic didn’t crack and won his only Yellow Jersey as a wedding present for his wife – it ended up in the Basilica of Saint Ann d’Auray. The 100,000 francs was shared out among the French team. To the end of his days, Vietto scolded Fachleitner for accepting too little.

As for Robic, he ended his life in a car crash on the N3. His friends said “Robic est mort comme il a vécu : en teigneux”


Where to start? With a 34 year old winning his second Tour ten years after his first, a never repeated feat? With the rise of a new French star? With a phone call from the Italian premier? With a trio of epic stages in the Alps?

Let’s begin at the beginning – Gino Bartali pulled on the Yellow Jersey at the start and end of the 1948 Tour de France.

What happened in between cemented 2 legends – Bartali’s and Bobet’s – and provided Italy with a spectacle that helped to avoid a civil war.

It happened like this: Bobet, the young gun, full of panache, dominated the first half of the race. By the time the race reached Cannes, Bartali was 20″ down. And then the phone rang – Alcide de Gasperi, the Italian Prime Minister was calling:

de Gasperi: “Italy needs you”

Bartali: “What can I do? I’m riding the Tour de France”

de Gasperi: “You could do a lot by winning some stages, create a diversion”

Bartali: “I’ll do better than that – I’ll win the Tour”

The implacable Tuscan was as good as his word. Cannes-Briancon; Briancon-Aix-les-Bains; Aix-les-Bains-Lausanne: he proves himself indifferent to the glacial rain that falls relentlessly on the Izoard, where Robic meets a terrible defaillance.  He’s stronger than snow or ice or the Siberian cold that freezes the riders eyelids shut as they climb the Galibier, then the Croix de Fer, then the col de Porte, the Coucheron and the Granier. It’s less a road race more like cyclo cross as they mount the Croix de Fer on unmade roads and Lazarides snaps a chandelier of icicles off his chin. Of Bartali’s exceptional performance Goddet was moved to write “From snowstorm, water, ice, Bartali arose majestically like an angel covered in mud, wearing under his soaked jersey the precious soul of an exceptional champion. It took this day of apocalypse to express the total quality of this Italian champion”.

Afterwards, Bartali had this to say about his rival Bobet: “I doubted him but today I say he’s a rider of great class, many qualities – he rides, sprints, climbs and he has heart. He’s probably lost his Jersey but I have to say how well he’s defended it – what a fighter! I saw him alongside me, grimacing, gritting his teeth but never giving up…when he’s had a little more experience, he will be a very, very great Champion. He’ll win the Tour, I’m absolutely certain”. The great Alfredo Binda, DS of the Italian team, was moved to comment “If I’d been in charge of him, he would have won the 1948 Tour!”

Another rider deserves his tale: Guy Labepie, brother of 1937 winner Roger, gave up 200,000 francs worth of contracts on the track to ride the Tour. And the pistard proved himself a real routier taking a stage and ending up 3rd on GC. It was a risk that paid off, but it would be a few years before another pistard would climb to the top of the podium.

On 25 July 1948 Bartali pulled on the last Maillot Jaune of the race – he’d won a famous victory and saved his country. What more could a great champion do?


Alfredo Binda needed all his powers of diplomacy. Coppi v Bartali. Le Campianissimo le Piou. In the end, he made them sit down and sign a peace pact, stipulating the terms of their cohabitation on the team.

It had started in 1940 when the outrageously talented Coppi joined Bartali’sLegano team as his domestique. Coppi was having none of it and humiliated his older teammate in the 1940 Giro. Bartali was so incensed that he ordered his teammates to ride Coppi down at every opportunity. The seeds were sown for one of the most bitter rivalries in sport.

And so began Coppi’s first Tour. It was dogged by calamity – he crashed on stage 5 between Rouen and St. Malo. Binda couldn’t get up the road to his rider. Demoralised, wiped out by the heat of a France sweltering under la canicule, Coppi was on the point of walking out: “In these conditions I’d prefer to go home”. He’d finished the stage over half an hour down on the surprise of the Tour, Frenchman Jacques Marinelli.

Coppi wasn’t known as the Campianissimo for nothing. 2 days later he won the long TT from les Sables d’Olonne to La Rochelle and the game was on. The 2 Italians launched an offensive on the Izoard and were soon alone at the head of the race. Coppi took the longer relays, eyes bulging, mouth open, slowing down whenever Bartali couldn’t hold the wheel, playing fair, not breaking the pact. Perhaps for once winning the Tour at his first attempt – and becoming the first rider in history to complete a Giro-Tour double – meamt more to Coppi than the overwhelming rivalry with Bartali. Whatever the motive, the pact held.

Then Bartali spoke: “Let’s finish together – today’s my 35th birthday. Tomorrow you’ll win the Tour”

Fast forward 24 hours. The descent of the Petit-Saint-Bernard. Bartali punctures. Coppi freewheels. A gendarme tells him the news. The road to victory opens up before Coppi’s eyes. He attacks and finishes 5″ ahead of the rest. There are riots in Aoste at the finish line. Neo-fascists seeking to worsen relationships between France and Italy. The relationship between Coppi and Bartali hits rock bottom.

Coppi won the 1949 Tour and achieved the first ever Giro-Tour double – he was King of the Mountains, too. The Italian team won the team classification. Bartali was runner up. The domination was total.

And the feud would rumble on into the 1950 Tour – the feud between the Italians and the French that had boiled over in Aoste.


The tale in a nutshell? Bartali crashed – with Robic and Bobet – and pulled both Italian teams out of the race. He claimed he was menaced by a French spectator with a knife – tensions were still high following the riots in Aoste the previous year – and that the Italians had been booed and spat at. Equipe said, sure he had a knife – and a sausage in the other hand…”I’m not risking my life for an idiot! We should be free to ride in our national jersey. We’re sportsmen not soldiers. Tomorrow we’re all taking the train home to Italy!” cried Bartali and the Italians went back to Italy. Feel sorry for poor Fiorenzo Magni who had, that very afternoon, pulled on the Yellow Jersey in Saint-Gaudens…

It fell to Ferdi Kubler who stamped his authority on the race by winning both the contre la montre. And a new style of winning the race was born…

But the real tale of the 1950 Tour takes place on a sweltering day in Nice. The day the peloton went on strike and decided to go for a paddle instead. It was Robic that started it – suddenly ‘Biquet’ is off his bike and has parked his cul on a rock and is splashing his face with seawater. Others follow, splashing each other in the shallows, diving, doing the backstroke, plunging into the waters of the gulf of Saint-Tropez for all the world like silly schoolkids. All that’s missing are the inflatables and the ‘Kiss Me Quick’ hats. A moment of pure, unalloyed joy in the toughest sport in the world.

But spare a thought for Abdelkadar Zaaf who missed all the fun – he was riding a criterium in Switzerland after abandoning the race. Riding for the North African team, Zaaf got sun stroke during the torrid Perpignan-Nimes stage and was pictured slumped against a tree, eyes closed in pain, body slumped, feet splayed, immobile. To revive him, passing spectators plied him with wine. Zaaf came round, remounted his bike and set off the wrong way…and so was born the legend of the rider who’d had a few and had absolutely no idea where he was going….

And on that merry note, possibly to a mellow jazzy soundtrack, the Tour rode on into the 50s and it’s golden age.


4 thoughts on “1947 – 1950: You Want Drama? We’ve Got Drama

  1. Reblogged this on Hill fitness? Don’t make me laugh! and commented:
    A while ago on a podcast I had the pleasure to have a long chat with @festinairl pleasure The Twitter. Her constant questioning has led folk to brand her a shallow single issue troublemaker re doping. Hell, even I’ve lost my patience with her from time to time. 😉
    Off mic what came over was a different person. A three dimensional, passionate, informed fan of the sport I love. That comes across here. Great stuff.

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