A belated happy birthday to Raphaël Géminiani, who was born on June 12, 1925.
The Italian ex-patriot is best known for his six podium finishes in the Grand Tour events.
Géminiani’s professional career ran from 1946 to 1960, wherein he won the mountains competition in the 1951 Tour de France after placing second to Hugo Koblet.
During that period, he won seven stages in the Tour de France between 1949 and 1955, and wore the yellow jersey as leader of the general classification for four days.
Additionally, Géminiani won the mountains competition in the 1951 Giro d’Italia, along with a third place finish in the 1955 Vuelta a España.
That same year, he finished in the top 10 of all three Grand Tours, a feat only equalled by Gastone Nencini in 1957, earning him the nickname of Le Grand Fusil, which translates roughly as the “Top Gun”.
Géminiani was born in Clermont-Ferrand, France, after his father moved the family there in 1920 to escape fascism in Italy.
Géminiani Sr. previously ran a bicycle factory in Lugo, Italy, before it burned down. He later established a bike shop in Clermont-Ferrand, and insisted that his family speak French from then on.
The young Géminiani’s first exposure to cycling occurred when he left school to work in his father’s bike shop building wheels. He was later encouraged by his older brother, Angelo, who was already regarded as a good local, amateur racer to start racing.
However, according to Géminiani, his father was quite skeptical of his desire to follow in his brother’s foot steps, who’s words were later quoted by the French cycling journalist, René de Latour, who wrote,“look at yourself in the mirror, son, and tell me if you ever saw a coureur with legs as skinny as yours. I’m sorry, but bike racing is Angelo’s business, not yours.’
Nevertheless, at age 16, Géminiani won the first round of the Premier Pas Dunlop in 1943, which was widely regarded as the equivalent of the French Junior Championships.
After finishing third overall, he qualified for the finals later that year, which was held at Montluçon.
Géminiani was quoted as saying, “my father knew my very marked penchant for attacking and gave me several words of advice. Among other things, to attack on a hill he had seen 15km from the finish. During the race, I followed my father’s advice. When the hill came, I put in a big attack. The gap grew quickly to 20 seconds. I’d done it! The peloton didn’t see me again. I crossed the line as the winner. And sign of destiny – who came sixth? A certain Louison Bobet, whose destiny was to be so closely linked to mine in the years that followed.”
From there, Géminiani began racing in mixed amateur-professional races after the war, first locally and then nationally.
He received a professional contract in 1946 to race for the Métropole team from its manager, Romain Bellenger, and rode his first Tour de France in 1947.
However, his debut in the French Grand Tour proved to be a disaster.
The first stage from Paris to Lille not only took place during one of the hottest summers on record, it also involved roads that were still in poor condition from the war, and those that had been resurfaced were often cobbled. As a result, Géminiani finished 20 minutes behind the leaders.
The next day, the route went to Brussels, where Géminiani, along with eight other riders managed to escape for 100 kilometers. But, by the time he had reached the Belgian capital, he was 30 minutes behind. Things got worse.
The stage from Brussels to Luxembourg was initially announced as being 365 kilometers, but in actuality it turned out to be more than 400, causing the riders to plunder wayside cafés for food and drink, while others fought each other for a spot at nearest drinking fountain. It’s also rumored that firemen were instructed to spray water over the riders as they approached Luxembourg.
Géminiani ultimately finished 50 minutes down on the leaders, and was too exhausted to eat after the race. The next day, Géminiani’s face was so bloated and blistered that he could no longer see clearly during the stage to Strasbourg.
“It was so hot that the tar was melting under our roads. I was completely dehydrated. I ended up stopping beside a farm and I lapped up the dirty water from a cattle trough. And that’s how I got foot-and-mouth disease. It’s usually only cows that get that!”, remarked Géminiani.
Completely depleted and almost blind, Géminiani abandoned the race the next morning, and was admitted to the hospital. It subsequently took him two days to make his way back Flermont-Ferrand, and another six to recover.
This episode brought criticism when Géminiani was later chosen for the Southwest-Centre team. It was strongest in his region, the Auvergne, where rumors had spread that he had previously ridden the race only because his father had bribed the officials. Moreover, there was astonishment when he was picked for the national team to ride in the 1948 Tour de France.
Four stages into the Tour, Géminiani found himself in sixth place in the overall standings. He later lost ground over the mountains, but managed to stay on terms with stronger riders such as Jean Robic, Louison Bobet and Gino Bartali.
But, by the time the race had reached Cannes, he had fallen to fourteenth place. A succession of flat tires along the stage to Briançon resulted in more lost time for him.
However, Géminiani still managed to finish in fifteenth place, while also riding in support of Guy Lapébie, which helped his teammate achieve a spot on the final podium.
As a result, the tone in Clermont changed dramatically toward him, as Géminiani could be seen being driven through the city in an open car by fans, as others walked behind waving French flags.
French cycling in the 1950’s was the strongest it had been in decades, with Bobet able to triumph in both the Grand Tours and one-day races, while Géminiani proved himself to be a formidable rider in multi-stage races as well. But, patriotism soon devolved into a rivalry between the two.
While Géminiani rejoiced in his second place finish in the 1951 Tour de France behind Hugo Koblet, Bobet finished a disappointing twentieth. The two riders clashed again in the 1953 Tour de France, when the national team attacked one of its rivals, Jean Robic, on the stage from Albi to Béziers.
The battling went on all day before ending in a sprint finish on the cinder track at Sauclière, where Nello Lauredi won and Géminiani came second, denying Bobet the time bonus he needed to win the stage.
According to historians, that led to a confrontation between the two riders during dinner at the French team’s hotel. Géminiani reportedly became so annoyed at Bobet’s accusations, legend has it that he dumped his plate of food on Bobet’s head, causing him to burst into tears.
Géminiani’s quick temper was later the source of another confrontation that occurred during the following season’s Tour de France, when Robic held a press conference after the stage in Namur, Belgium, wherein he overheard his French rival telling reporters, “I was the crafty one today. I played dead so that I didn’t have to do any of the work. And now I’ve got plenty of chances whereas Gem ought to be in mourning for his Tour.”
Upon hearing this, Géminiani allegedly pushed his way past the journalists and proceeded hold Robic’s head under the water fountain three times. Team director, Marcel Bidot, was said to have witnessed the commotion, and alongside the team’s soigneaur, Raymond Le Bert, pulled the men apart.
“If you fight like that, nobody will benefit but the opposition. Work together instead of bitching all the time (au lieu de vous manger le nez). You’ll use less energy and you can both win”, Le Bert was reported to have said.
Bidot said 20 years later, “there was another outcome to Le Bert’s sensible argument, a little push towards destiny. Louison and Raphaël had bedrooms which faced each other. They opened their doors at the same moment, the following morning. They each planned to congratulate the other, which had an outcome we’d never have expected. ” Géminiani warmed to Bobet and took to guiding him through races. “He tele-commanded his victories and drew up his battle plans,” said the journalist Olivier Dazat. “He was at Bobet’s side through his three winning Tour de France.
Géminiani’s temper showed again during the 1958 Tour, when he lashed out a spectator whom he claimed had punched him.
“While one of them would be pushing you [on a climb], two others would in fact be punching me in the back. Well, enough of that: I took of my pump and, v’lan, v’lan, I caught the guy on the right in the gums. Five teeth, he lost! He cried like a baby that he was bleeding so much.”
Differences between Géminiani and Bobet surfaced again during that year’s Tour de France.
Géminiani was leading the race when Charly Gaul of Luxembourg, considered to be the most talented climber of his generation, attacked in a rainstorm on the 21st stage. He crossed three cols alone in the Chartreuse and moved up from being 15 minutes behind Géminiani to displacing him when the race finished in Aix-les-Bains.
He later ridiculed the French national team, Bobet in particular, accusing them of being “Judas”. Tensions were also heightened due to the fact that both men were riding for different teams.
Bobet was riding for the French national team and Géminiani for Centre-Midi. Despite being rivals, Géminiani insisted that one Frenchman should help the other rather than see a foreigner win.
Géminiani was additionally bitter at being excluded from Bobet’s team, a result of politics he said. “Every time I have worn the French jersey, I have honored it. It’s happened often: nine times in the Tour de France, three times in the Giro, twice in the Vuelta. And now I’m thrown out just like that.”
This was further animated when a fan gave Géminiani a donkey at the start of the race in Brussels. He told reporters he would call it “Marcel”, after Marcel Bidot, whom he felt had kept him off of the team.
“Certainly, Jacques Anquetil was the winner the previous year and he had a promising future. Louison Bobet was there as well and he had to make a choice between Louison, who had already won the Tour three times, and me. But Marcel Bidot should never have dealt with me the way he did. At the start, therefore, I found myself a rival to Jacques and Louison but, paradoxically, Charly Gaul wasn’t my direct rival that year,” he said. “I didn’t win that Tour of ’58, which is a matter of regret to me, but the French team didn’t win either. I settled my accounts with all those who wanted to stop my wearing the French national jersey.”
The next season, Burkina Faso was celebrating its first year of independence. Until then it had been the French colony of Haute Volta. The president, Maurice Yaméogo, invited Fausto Coppi, Géminiani, Anquetil, Bobet, Roger Hassenforder and Henry Anglade to compete against local riders in a “goodwill race”.
Géminiani remembered, “I slept in the same room as Coppi in a house infested by mosquitos. I’d got used to them but Coppi hadn’t. Well, when I say we ‘slept’, that’s an overstatement. It was like the safari had been brought forward several hours, except that for the moment we were hunting mosquitos. Coppi was swiping at them with a towel. Right then, of course, I had no clue of what the tragic consequences of that night would be. Ten times, twenty times, I told Fausto ‘Do what I’m doing and get your head under the sheets; they can’t bite you there.”
Both caught malaria and fell ill when they got home. Géminiani said, “my temperature got to 41.6… I was delirious and I couldn’t stop talking. I imagined or maybe saw people all round but I didn’t recognize anyone. The doctor treated me for hepatitis, then for yellow fever, finally for typhoid.”
Geminiani says that the priest at Chamalières gave him the last rites and his obituary was circulated to newspapers. He was diagnosed by the Institut Pasteur as having plasmodium falciparum, a fatal form of malaria.
Géminiani recovered, but Coppi died, his doctors convinced he had a bronchial episode.
Géminiani, who rode for Coppi in 1953 on the Bianchi team said, “a day never passes without thinking of Coppi … “my master – he taught me everything.” … “He invented everything: diet, training, technique, he was 15 years ahead of everyone.”
Géminiani’s career reached its height with the St-Raphaël and Ford-France teams with Jacques Anquetil. As a partnership they won four Tours de France, two editions of the Giro d’Italia, the Dauphiné-Libéré and the Bordeaux–Paris.
“Today, everybody pays him homage. I nearly blow my top. I can still hear the way he was whistled when he rode. I think of the organisers of the Tour, who shortened the time trial to make him lose. His home town of Rouen organizes commemorations but, me, I haven’t forgotten that it was in Antwerp that he made his farewell appearance. More than once, I saw him crying in his hotel room after suffering the spitting and insults of spectators. People said he was cold, a calculator, a dilettante. The truth is that Jacques was a monster of courage. In the mountains, he suffered as though he was damned. He wasn’t a climber. But with bluffing, with guts, he tore them to shreds (il les a tous couillonnés).”
According Géminiani, Anquetil was upset that his rival, Raymond Poulidor, was always more warmly regarded even though he had never won the Tour de France.
In 1965, when Poulidor was perceived to have received more credit for dropping Anquetil the previous year on the Puy-de-Dôme than Anquetil had received for winning the whole Tour, Géminiani persuaded him to ride the Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré, along with the 557 kilometer Bordeaux–Paris the following day, saying it would end any argument as to who was the greater rider.
Anquetil won the Dauphiné, and flew to Bordeaux that night to prepare for the next race.
Despite repeated attacks from Tom Simpson, Anquetil and his teammate, Jean Stablinski, exposed the British rider to a series of counter-attacks, forcing him into a state of exhaustion.
Their strategy worked, as Anquetil triumphed at the Parc des Princes, while Stablinski crossed the finish 57 seconds later ahead of Simpson.
Géminiani dropped out of racing in 1960, capitalizing on the rise of bicycle brands becoming more and more prevalent in the sponsorship of teams. Given his family lineage to the bicycle trade, it was a natural transition for him.
This led to the eventual signing of Anquetil. But, needing more money than the bicycle industry alone could provide, Géminiani later established partnerships with co-sponsors in order to fund his team.
Géminiani eventually sold his team to the St-Raphaël apéritif company, which coincided with the Tour de France opening up the race to commercial teams in 1962.
However, fearing that sponsorships on jerseys might lead to clients opting to instead advertise on team jerseys and no longer in their newspaper, L’Équipe, race officials threatened to suspend teams.
In the case of Géminiani, he argued that “Raphaël” referred not to the company but to himself. This unfolded into a contentious situation that at one point required cycling’s governing body, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), to step in as well.
After a protracted period of negotiations, which saw both supporters and detractors within both camps, the dispute was later resolved after the UCI and race organizers reached a compromise allowing extra-sportif sponsors to be permitted on jerseys. But, not without a series of antics leading up to the agreement, wherein teams would often appear on the starting line wearing blank jerseys, only to remove them not long after the start and don their sponsorship ones.
After St-Raphaël withdrew from sponsorship at the end of 1964, Géminiani sold his team to the French division of Ford, and later to the cigarette lighter and ballpoint pen company, Bic, in 1969.
1967 was perhaps the team’s most memorable year, which included such members as Anquetil, Lucien Aimar, Julio Jiménez, Jean Stablinski, Rolf Wolfshohl, Joaquim Agostinho and later Luis Ocaña.
In 1985, Géminiani became directeur sportif of the La Redoute team and was behind Stephen Roche’s third place finish in the 1985 Tour de France. He’s credited for telling Roche to attack on the 18th stage when he first saw the route of that year’s Tour.
At the end of that year, the La Redoute team folded. But, Roche took Géminiani with him to his new team, Carrera–Inoxpran.
In 1986, Géminiani became manager of Café de Colombia team.
Now at age 95, Géminiani is completely retired from the sport, but he does make an occasional appearance as a race dignitary, while also availing himself to interviews with cycling journalists and historians.
Joyeux anniversaire, buon compleanno Raphaël!
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