In 1934, a 20 year-old kid named René Vietto was racing the Tour de France for the first time with the French National team. At the time, participants rode either as individuals or as members of national teams. Vietto flatted the first two stages and lost considerable time in the General Classification. While his team leader, Antonin Magne, was winning overall, Vietto won stages 7, 9 and 11–all mountain stages–to climb to 3rd place overall.
In stage 16, Vietto led the charge up the largest climb of the day, Col de Puymorens. He was followed by Magne, his team leader and an Italian rider, Giuseppe Martano, in 2nd place. On the descent, Magne hit a pothole and broke his front wheel. Vietto had no knowledge of the crash and kept riding. When a race official informed him of what happened, Vietto turned around and climbed back up the Puymorens to give Magne his front wheel. A photographer snapped a photo of Vietto sitting on a rock wall with his bike weeping as the peloton raced past.
Vietto eventually got another wheel, finished the stage and ultimately came in 5th overall and won the Mountain Classification. Vietto raced for years, never winning the Tour. His highest finish was 2nd in 1939. In 1947, Vietto lost a toe to sepsis and kept racing.
Like few other sports–golf, comes to mind–cycling is not just about competing against your opponents. It is equally, if not more so, about competing against the road, the mountains, the elements, and one’s own mind. It’s stories like Vietto’s that make cycling, and sports in general, come to life and amaze and inspire us. Or maybe, it’s because as cyclists, we revel in that suffering. A modern day self-flagellation, wherein we hope to derive some wisdom or clarity in the process. Whether it’s in the incessant cold drizzle of January or a long, steady climb in June, we spin our way through the discomfort and pain to find some greater understanding about ourselves or about the world. I don’t know anyone who loves riding a bike who does it because it’s easy. Most of us want it to be difficult–need it to be painful. Greg Lemond famously said that it doesn’t get easier, you just get faster.
You bet your ass.