Shooting From The Hip: Raphaël Géminiani at 94
From issue 88 • Words by James Startt, with Images by James Startt & The Horton Collection
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He is probably the greatest rider never to have won the Tour de France—even though he was wearing the yellow jersey on the final mountain stage in 1958 when Luxembourg climber Charly Gaul overcame a quarter-hour deficit to win the Tour. Sure, there is Raymond Poulidor, Mister Second Place. But while Raphaël Géminiani finished on the Tour podium only twice in his career, he was the quintessential playmaker. Teammates to icons such as Fausto Coppi, Louison Bobet, Roger Rivière and Jacques Anquetil, he then became sports director to Anquetil, Lucien Aimar and Eddy Merckx.
Perhaps Géminiani’s greatest managerial feat came in 1965 when he orchestrated Anquetil’s unprecedented double: winning the weeklong Critérium du Dauphiné on a Saturday evening, flying across the country to Bordeaux, getting a couple of hours sleep, starting the 567-kilometer Bordeaux–Paris at 2 a.m.—and winning the French classic 15 hours later in a late solo breakaway. Anquetil wanted to quit in the earlymorning hours, but Géminiani persuaded his rider to continue by telling him: “Do you want to be known as a quitter?”
Géminiani has never been one to hide his opinions, and he held nothing back when Peloton went to his lifelong hometown of Clermont-Ferrand in central France to visit with the 94-year-old French legend. Over a three-hour lunch, the war stories flowed freely from the surprisingly soft-spoken character that the French call Le Grand Fusil: “The Big Gun.”
Raphaël, you are one of the true living legends of our sport. You raced against so many greats—Bartali, Coppi, Koblet, Kübler, Bobet, Rivière, Anquetil—not to mention twice finishing on the podium of the Tour de France and winning the best climber competition in the Giro d’Italia and the Tour.
Well, it has been said that I have seen it all.
You were born in France just a couple of years after your parents were forced to flee Fascist Italy. But cycling was always part of your life and your family’s life, right?
Exactly. My father grew up only about 15 kilometers from where Mussolini lived and had a bike shop. He fought World War I against the Austrians. What is interesting is that both my father and Mussolini at the time were members of the Socialist Party. Don’t forget, Mussolini started out as a Socialist. But when he became a Fascist, he put pressure on a lot of Socialists to switch to Fascism. My father, however, didn’t want anything to do with the Fascist Party. They were very aggressive and violent and really came after those that didn’t join them. First the Fascists burned my father’s house and then they burned down his bike shop. Things happened very quickly, but it became clear that they had to leave Italy, and so the family fled to France and settled here in Clermont-Ferrand.
This is the home of the Michelin tire factory, which was just huge at the time, and there was plenty of work, so both my mom and my dad went to work for Michelin. There were something like 30,000 workers and we lived in the Cité Michelin, a residence for the workers. Everything in Clermont was run by Michelin—the supermarket, the school, the medical center and even the swimming pool. Everything was connected to Michelin. Life was good with Michelin. I have a lot of good memories from those years.
And your father managed to open a bike shop again after a few years?
Yeah, my father opened the shop in 1936, before the outbreak of World War II. And pretty soon I started working in the bike shop and riding. I started cycling as a teenager during the war. It was an easy choice because cycling was one of the only things we could do!
But at one point I was arrested by the Milice [the French arm of the Gestapo] and sent to prison for a month for being suspected of aiding the Résistance. After all, my family fled Fascism, so we were definitely sympathetic to the Résistance. I was only in prison for a month but it was at a critical moment, because the Germans were losing fast and they really increased the executions. Fortunately, the war came to an end shortly after I was arrested and if I had stayed another month in prison I may well have never gotten out. It is definitely a moment I will never forget and our family was even awarded a diploma after the war recognizing our position during the occupation.
Anyway, after the war, my dad continued with the shop. I learned everything about a bike there. I learned to detect the different sounds a bike makes and I learned what noise might be dangerous and what others were not. My brother was already racing and he got me into it.
Well, you moved up quickly in the ranks and turned professional in 1946, where you had great results. In 1951, you even finished second in the Tour de France, beaten only by Hugo Koblet.
Yeah, I won’t ever forget that one. You know Koblet only did three Tours de France. And he abandoned two! But that year he was unstoppable, just unstoppable. I’ll never forget the stage from Brive to Agen. He rode over 100 kilometers alone off the front. Behind, there was Kübler, Bartali, Bobet, Coppi, myself, the French national team, the Italians, we were all just riding flat out and at the finish he had a two-minute lead. There was just nothing to do. I remember thinking that if there were two riders like Koblet, I’d quit. It was just amazing. He was unbeatable.
It’s funny though, because I got my revenge the next year when Fausto Coppi asked me to ride for him on the Bianchi team. We won the Giro d’Italia and then, in the Tour, Coppi won the stages to L’Alpe d’Huez, Sestriere, the Puy-de-Dôme. It was just amazing.
What was it like riding with a legend like Fausto Coppi?
Well, firstly, it was an honor, because I just had so much admiration for him. There were just two riders in my life that I truly admired. And there were not three. The first was Gino Bartali. He won the Tour before World War II and after it. How many races would he have won without the war? And the second was Coppi. Fausto just had a way of racing bikes like I’ve never seen. He could ride with such ease. He could climb with such ease. The number of races he won solo was just amazing. He won Milan–San Remo with a 14-minute lead! He won Paris–Roubaix with a five-minute lead. He won the world championships in Lugano with a five-minute lead. So you see, it wasn’t just he won a lot, but the way he won.
When I think back on Fausto, what I remember most is simply the beauty of a champion. He climbed like a gazelle. There was a lightness to the way he raced. I’ll never forget my first Tour back in 1949. On the stage to Sestriere, we could hear over the radio along the roadside that Coppi had won the stage with a six-minute gap on Bartali. But us? We still had 20 kilometers to go!
Yeah, I remember that you even said that, in your opinion, Coppi was the greatest cyclist ever!
Ah…hmm…well, yes that is true, even if Eddy Merckx has often reminded me of just that, ha-ha! Eddy always tells me how I preferred Coppi to him. He says, “Raphaël, I have won every race!” But I always tell him, “No, Eddy, there are some races you never won because you never wanted to do them.” Coppi, you see, did something that Merckx never dared to do. He was also world pursuit champion on the track. Can you imagine that today? The winner of the Giro d’Italia, the Tour de France, Milan–San Remo and so many other great races on the road getting on the track and beating the best track riders of the day. Amazing! But the two biggest names in the sport are definitely Coppi and Merckx.
In many ways, Coppi was ahead of his time. He was one of the first riders, for example, to really focus on his diet. Oh là là! He even discouraged me! During meals, he would be at the table 12 minutes maximum. He would never, ever hang out at mealtime. And in training, if he said he was going to ride 150 kilometers, he would never cut it short and just ride 145 kilometers. He never drank wine. He never drank alcohol, not this and not that. I couldn’t live like that. I spent one season with him in 1952 and understood that I just couldn’t live like that!
But another rider, Louison Bobet, was able to live like that and he went on to great success. He knew Coppi less than I did, but he understood his training methods. Me, I never won a grand tour, although I did wear the leader’s jersey in the Giro, the Vuelta and the Tour. I beat Charly Gaul and Fausto Coppi in the Grand Prix de la Montagne competition. I finished in the top 10 in all three national tours in 1955. But I was missing a little something when it came to winning. But I had a long career and always raced the way I wanted to race.
It’s interesting, because in the 1951 Tour de France, you finished second behind Koblet, well ahead of fellow French rider Bobet. But in 1953 you readily accepted riding for Bobet and you became a key teammate to him during his three consecutive Tour victories from 1953 to 1955. Did you ever feel like you cut yourself short?
Well, I remember the start of the 1953 Tour well. The French team had not won the Tour since Jean Robic in 1947 and there was a lot of pressure on us. Questions were mounting. At the start of the Tour, our team director said, “Okay, which one of you wants to be the leader? Which one of you can win?” Well, I had just raced the Giro and the Dauphiné and felt like I was coming down with a cold. And Louison said simply, “If you guys ride for me, I’ll win.” And that was that. We all helped Bobet and he won his first Tour.
Without the cold, you might have won the Tour yourself. Wasn’t that frustrating?
You know, as road captain, I was relaxed. I could race the way I wanted to race. If I had been the leader of the French team there would be all kinds of pressure. And I liked being tranquil. You know, the great champions always seem to be afraid. The great champions are afraid to walk 100 meters. The great champions are afraid to drink a glass of wine. They lead an impossible life. Me, I preferred to lead my life. Yes, I preferred to lead my life and from time to time show them that I was better. All of the great champions would say, “You know, with Géminiani, it is better to be his friend than his enemy.” Bobet didn’t have that much natural talent to be honest, but he had incredible courage and an incredible will to win. He just lived for cycling. I didn’t. Cycling wasn’t everything to me. For Bobet, cycling was his life. For me, cycling was a passage in life.
You retired in 1960, not long after your trip to Africa, but very quickly, you became sports director for Jacques Anquetil, accompanying him through his best years.
Yes, at first Anquetil was against me coming on board, mostly because there had been a lot of leadership tensions back in the 1958 Tour. But we soon became great friends and worked well together. I had confidence in him and he had confidence in me.
We talked about how Coppi was ahead of his time in training and diet, but Anquetil was ahead of his time when it came to time trialing.
Oh, for sure. Firstly, of course, he was immensely talented when it came to time trialing. But we were definitely ahead of our time when it came to the race against the clock. We really broke it down. We studied position. We studied weight. We studied the wind and weather conditions, everything. We put helium in his tires instead of air. Why? Helium is lighter. It’s as simple as that. We started with the first skinsuits made of silk. I would go out on the race circuit before with newspapers and burn them at certain spots to see just where the wind was coming from. And Jacques loved that. But you had to earn Jacques’ confidence. And you had to be psychological with him.
I’ll never forget the Critérium National in 1968. It was held in Anquetil’s hometown of Rouen that year and it was during the height of the Anquetil-Poulidor rivalry. But Jacques was sick. I remember some teammates stopped by his house the day before and saw that he was really sick, but I told them not to worry. He would win the next day. They were stunned; but I told them not to worry, the only thing they needed to do was to cover every breakaway and not let anything develop. Then I went over to Jacques’ house that night. He was coughing, definitely not on form, but we had a drink, and then some Champagne, and then some oysters and wine. And Jacques started coming around. We played cards until late into the night and finally Jacques said, “So how are you going to win tomorrow?” And I told him simply, “You are going to win!”
He couldn’t believe it but his wife Janine really backed me up saying, “If Raphaël says you are going to win then you are going to win.” So I told him our plan. He was to sit at the back all day. His teammates would make sure that no breakaways developed and he could just spin out his little sickness at the back of the pack for the first 200 kilometers. Which is exactly what happened. He just stayed at the back all day, until the last climb, before dropping everyone, including Poulidor. But Anquetil was like that. He was incredible. He had incredible resources. But he was also full of doubts. So many big champions are like that. They always lack confidence. They are always worried before a big event, until they are in the action that is, and then they are the masters.
It’s true that Raymond Poulidor was his big rival for years, and continued many years after Jacques retired. But Poulidor never won the Tour de France and never even managed to wear the yellow jersey. Why?
Because he was always on the wheels. He never attacked. He spent five years riding the wheel of Jacques and the Saint-Raphaël team and five years riding on the wheels of Merckx and his team.
He rode the Tours in between without winning either. There was that crazy Tour in 1966 where you managed to have Lucien Aimar win rather than Anquetil.
Oh yeah! Jacques didn’t even want to ride the Tour that year, but I told him that the team was much stronger with him because he held the attention of the rivals, who would focus on him. And we had Aimar. Nobody knew him really, but he was a good little rider. He was a very good climber up until about 1,500 meters [altitude]. Aimar was a bit like Julian Alaphilippe is today. So I told him to get in some early breaks and pick up some time in the flatter stages, which he did perfectly. So we hit the Alps in really good position. On the stage to Torino, Jan Janssen was in the yellow jersey, but I told Lucien not to focus on him and instead he should focus on Franco Bitossi, an Italian rider who I knew wanted to win in Italy. And that is what happened. Bitossi attacked on the descent with Aimar on his wheel and they finished in Torino with a five-minute gap. Bitossi won the stage but Aimar got the yellow jersey. Two days later Anquetil dropped out. But he stayed in the race to take the focus off of Aimar, and Lucien went on to win the Tour.
Years later you also directed a certain Eddy Merckx.
Yes, briefly, with the Fiat team in 1977. I even directed him to his last victory at the Tour Med. You know I wanted to work with Eddy when he was still a teenager, and when I was directing the Bic team in 1968 I really wanted to hire Eddy, because we needed a rider to replace Jacques Anquetil. I told the management that we had to hire Eddy because it was clear to me that he was going to be the next great. He had already won Paris–Roubaix and was just so talented. But my management refused to come up with the money so he signed with Faema. A year later the Tour came through my home here in Clermont-Ferrand and I went up to the commercial director of the team and said simply, “You see who is winning Le Tour? Eddy Merckx, the guy I told you to hire just last year. Here, take the keys to my team car. I quit! I don’t work with idiots!” I would love to have worked with Eddy early in his career because I knew he was going to be great. But I was happy to work with Eddy at the end of his career, even though he was clearly not at his best. No, by the time I got to work with him, he was all used up. It’s interesting but that’s the way it is for so many of the greats. They finished used up. They don’t understand that they can’t dominate like they once did, but they keep trying until they are used up.
That’s fascinating. Your career as a director, however, wasn’t finished. In 1986, you were even the team director for the Café de Colombia team.
Oh yeah, that was quite an adventure. But they had one exceptional rider, Luis Herrera—what I climber he was! He reminded me of Coppi. He was just a gazelle and it was just amazing to see him climb.
Who is the rider that impresses you the most today?
Well, I am a big fan of Julian Alaphilippe. When you see the races he wins, and the way in which he wins, it’s just amazing. He is the rider that impresses me the most today. He is just amazing. And I think he can win the Tour one day. But for the moment, he isn’t ready for the high mountains. He can handle climbs up to 1,500 meters high. But a 2,000-meter is a different climb and it takes time to adapt to that kind of climbing. But depending on the Tour route, he can definitely win the Tour one day, especially if like Walkowiak or Aimar he manages to get some time in the flatter stages.
Well, clearly, you still have your eye on the sport.
Yes, I’m not through yet. I even have a plan to break the hour record when I am 100!
Really, so you are training again?
No, no. It’s much too early for that. I’m only 94!
This interview originally appeared in issue 88.
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