Victor Cosson – Tour Legend!
A tale of bikes, friendships, brothels, photographs, race tactics and threats - “I can make a dead loss a champion but also a champion a dead loss!"………
1938 Tour third place winner Victor Cosson,
88 years old, premier
of the RAGT-Semences-MR Rover team. Courtesy
Every picture tells a story…
The old man you see at the RAGT-Semences-MR Rover team presentation is Victor Cosson.
Third in the Tour in 1938, he was one of the charismatic figures of that cycling era.
The housewives' choice, the Richard Virenque of his day, "Totor" as he was nicknamed, was the darling of the pre war French fans.
He raced his first Tour de France in 1937.
"I was selected to ride for the team of individuals (independent riders loosely gathered together to form a team) thanks to some good results. Notably my seventh place in the Grand Prix Wolber, a stage race, and also my victory in the Grand Prix de Montrouge. There were about thirty riders in this “team”. There were Belgians, Swiss, Italians… we didn’t have a directeur sportif just a car and a mechanic. It wasn’t very easy.
"What’s more, I crashed in Aravis at the exit from a tunnel. My bike was smashed, fortunately another rider crashed and since he was unable to continue, I took his wheel and battled on. I finished 17th in my first Tour.
"The following year I finished third, but that cased a lot of trouble for me with M. Desgrange (the Tour organiser). In the later stages he was urging me to attack but the Belgian, Félicien Vervaecke, had promised me “Hell” if I challenged his second place, so I really had little choice. My French team had only 5 or 6 riders left and the Belgian team was complete. Desgrange, the owner of the Tour, who was thinking about newspaper sales of his “Velo” and was annoyed I had not attacked.
"As soon as the Tour was over Desgrange wanted me to leave my manager at Mercier, Gaston Degy. He thought that he was responsible for my actions in the Tour, once again I refused. Desgrange warned me - 'Be wary young man, I will break you,' then he pointed out, 'I can make a dead loss a champion but also a champion a dead loss!'
"In the winter that followed he carried out his threat. Although third in the Tour, I did not receive any invitation to ride at the velodromes of Vél'd'Hiv or the Parc des Princes, both owned by Henri Desgrange.
“Even so that year I had won 85 000 francs. Third place in the Tour was worth 45 000 francs, but after paying my teammates and retinues (riders were charged 100 francs per day for food and accommodation) I was left with about 21 000 francs. Mind you a workman received about 700 francs per month, and you could get a great meal for around 3,50 F. It was a tidy sum of money."
The winner of the 1938 Tour was the Italian Gino Bartali and he and Cosson became good friends. “On the evening of the last stage of the Tour in 1938, the Italian, found himself without accommodation and agreed to stop at my apartment in Boulogne."
"Later, while visiting I took him to a brothel, he put his hands over his eyes so as not too see!” laughs Victor. “During the war Gino did not sympathise with the fascists, quite the contrary”.
In 1939 Victor was once again selected to ride for the French team in the Tour, thanks to the support of Jean Leulliot. Considered a favourite, things went badly wrong on stage six in Royan where he was given a dodgy drink. "I had dysentery until the end, and ended up in 25th position."
Then just a few months later war was declared.
Had the Second World War not interrupted things, Victor Cosson, would undoubtedly have known a completely different career. As it was he managed to reach the free zone and carry on cycling in a limited way.
He won the Quatre Jours de la Route in 1942, (the forerunner of the Dauphiné), and in 1943 the Grand Prix de Camembert. After the war he continued won the prestigious cyclo-cross de Montmartre. He rode the Tour in 1947, and was selected to ride in 1949, but a crash finally finished his career, he was thirty-three years old.
"I bought a motor bike from Jean Robic and soon found myself working for the press covering races for l'Humanité, France-Soir, and with Georges Briquet, for the Miroir du Cyclisme. He soon got his first “scoop,” when in 1950, his old friend Gino Bartali called him to his hotel room to announce his retirement from the race.
Victor also became a notable photographer, particularly during his spell with the Miroir, his most famous photograph, which won the Prix Martini is of Merckx alone, at the front of the race (where else) at the top of the Tourmalet, in 1969.
In 1976, Victor Cosson covered his last Tour.
Every picture tells a story….
Merckx alone on the Tourmalet, 1969. Courtesy J.M. Salas
Sources -l'Humanité, France-Soir, Miroir du Cyclisme.