He's the most interesting man in the world...of cycling

Gem on the Ventoux, with Charly Gaul in 1955.
They'd duel there again 3 years later for the Tour.
Road cycling's 'greatest generation' only has a few old-soldiers still standing.  One is the Swiss legend Ferdi Kubler, winner of the 1950 Tour and 1951 world champion.  Another is a larger-than-life guy, the last living bridge to the good old days of cycling.   He's now a retired gentleman who cites his love of nature as his secret for longevity, and yoga as his secret weapon for his climbing power on the bike.

Imagine for a minute sitting in Seillans in the south of France, tending your garden in your old age. The cold mistral starts blowing, so you retreat inside for a glass of wine.  In this melange of turbulence and serenity, much like your nearly 90 years, you gaze out over the pays and reflect on your life.
  • You were born a son of Italian immigrants who fled Italy for Clermont Ferrand, France, with next to nothing after Mussolini's facist thugs had burned down his bicycle factory.
  • Your father left a job at Michelin to start a cycle shop.  He raised you and your siblings virtually solo as your mom passed away when you were young.
"Raphael?
But that's my name
  • You learned to ride in the mountains of the Auvergne, winning the national junior championship of France in the middle of World War II, during Nazi occupation.   Avenging your older brother, a favorite who'd missed his chance to win due to a toothache several years before.  Your father had always thought your brother was the cyclist in the family, saying your legs were too skinny, and that you were better off in the shop building wheels in the back of his shop.  
  • You survived a month in prison in a major round up at the end of the war, thinking any day you'd be shot.  Released, you returned to your dad's shop and your sporting dreams.   
  • You were taught le metier by the Tour stars of the 1930's.   Names like Pellissier, Vietto.   Guys who rode 400 km stages with single speed bikes on dirt roads.
  • You were a multiple national road champion, the winner of more than 60 professional races over a fifteen year professional career..   
  •  You were a star of the French national selection at time when the Tour was for national teams.   
  • You competed with the likes of Bobet, Robic, Koblet, Bartali, Magni, Kubler, Van Steenbergen, Gaul, Ockers, Schotte, Bahamontes, Darrigade, Anquetil....  You trained, traveled, argued, fought, ate, drank, laughed and pulled pranks on all of them.   You really knew them all, witnessing their best and worst moments.     
  • You wore the Maillot Jaune, and came tantalizingly close to winning the Tour.  Twice - managing a 2nd, and a 3rd.  
  • You were the King of the Mountains in the Tour de France.   
  • You were the first to ride, and finish, all three grand tours in one year.  Spain.  Italy.  France.    Not only did you ride them, you finished each in the top 10.  
  • You had a brand of bicycles produced under your name.  
  • You were the first to bring in an extra-sportif sponsorships to underwrite a French pro cycling team.   When challenged by the Tour brass, you said that the aperitif brand name on your jersey was not an advertisement, but simply 'my own name'. 
  • You were a teammate and one of the closest friends of Fausto Coppi, coming within a whisker of sharing the same early demise from malaria, caught on a fateful hunting trip to Africa.
  • After retiring, you became Directeur Sportif to Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Stephen Roche and Lucho Herrera... among others. 
Gem in Jaune, in the "Judas' Tour of 1958.  Bobet marks him
well.  Despite his sacrificed to help Bobet win three Tours,
Gem was double crossed by the T'ricolores' on the
 rainy road to Aix Les Bains. 
Imagine this guy is also a bon-viveur, and a raconteur.  A man of a thousand quotes, and a million stories.   A celebrity who in retirement, owned a sought after restaurant in your home city, where you'd transcend sport to mingle with stars of politics, stage and screen like Alain Delon, the French James Dean,   the singer Jacques Brel, the filmaker Claude Lelouche.

It's debatable whether the 'big gun' nickname referred to his attacking style, his long roman nose, or his shooting off at the mouth.  Probably all three.   It's a great nickname though.

One thing is for sure.  He's a man who's forgotten more about cycling than you'll ever know.

I'm talking about le grand fusil -  the big gun:  Raphael Geminiani.  Gem.

The most interesting man in the world... of cycling.

I've been reading some of the French language books Gem's authored over the past few months.    They go beyond the stats to his attitudes and some of the great stories around those days.   A character, yes.  But one of true character.

Yogi Berra has nothing on Gem when it comes to memorable quotes.

Like this one on Gino Bartali:  “Every morning Bartali went to confession.  He was a fanatical churchgoer.  But if you need to go to confession every morning, then you must be a bastard all day long.  Otherwise, why would you need to go to confession every morning, if you’re not doing anything wrong?”

Or this one after breaking convention to spend the Tour rest day (and night) in Nice with his wife in 1950.   "Bobet wasn't happy, he said, 'Raphael you should go riding.'  Sure Louison, I'm riding all right, believe me, I'm riding.  The next day from Nice to Gap I was supercharged, getting away on the Col de Sentinelle, winning in Gap by 22 seconds.  Next day, I was 11th.  Then another stage win the day after in St. Etienne.   Bobet said "It's just not possible after what you did during the rest day."   I looked at him and replied, "Louison, a guy who has empty balls always climbs faster than a guy whose balls are full."


I don't often drink an aperitif.  
But when I do, I drink St. Raphael.
Stay thirsty my friends.
Stephen Roche thought he knew Gem when he was suddenly installed without consultation to take over his La Redoute team in 1985, but discovered him to be the ideal directeur as he wrote about Gem in his autobiography, 'The Agony and the Ecstasy".

"Before meeting him, I felt Raphael Geminiani was not my kind of man.  From what I heard and read, I did not like him.  He was a talker, he did not seem proper.  My image of him was of a man who stayed up late every night, talking and talking.    At the Tour of the Mediteranean at dinner, Gemininani was sitting directly across from me.  He complained that I was ignoring him.  He didn't know what I thought of him, but said that we were going have to work together.  So I told him everything I thought of him.  It was not very complimentary.  We argued for an hour and a half.  He put me in my place, I put him in his.  And that was it.  After that, we got on fine...  


He was a very nice gentle man, good to be with.  Very good for me."

Gem was an born attacker, a man with a penchant for the audacious attack, the exploit.  He'd done plenty himself.   Like wailing up the Ventoux in 1951, the first time it was used in the Tour challenging eventual Tour winner Hugo Koblet.   And doing it again in a furnace of a day in 1955, going with the suicidal attack of Ferdi Kubler, warning his adversary, "Careful Ferdi, Le Ventoux is not like any other climb..."

The appetite for the exploit carried over into his role as a team director.  It was Gem who convinced Jacques Anquetil he could win the Dauphine and then fly directly to Bordeaux without sleep and win Bordeaux-Paris.  And like Muhammed Ali or Babe Ruth, he called Stephen Roche solo stage win on the Aubisque in the '85 Tour months in advance, yet once that one was in the bag, he still wanted something even more audacious.  Stephen later said "Geminiani being the man he is, wanted me to do the same in the afternoon stage which went over the Aubique again before dropping into Pau.  But it was much hotter in the afternoon, and I was not interested in suicide missions"   

He wasn't asking anything he hadn't asked of himself in his glory days though.  After Gem won a Tour stage after a long raid to Mulhouse over the Ballon d'Alsace. in the 1952 Tour, Jacques Goddet, wrote, on the front page of L'Equipe, a short homage to Gem's attacking, generous, 5-plus minute winning gap exploit under the headline. "J'Aime Gem".  

J'Aime Gem.  I like Gem.    It was a play on words, un jeu de mot in that same summer of '52 when Eisenhower was running for the US presidency under the "I Like Ike" slogan.  


The more I read, the more I like Gem too.  For me, he's 'the most interesting man in cycling'.  A guy I'd put top of of my list of the 'people I'd most like to share a meal with'.   There'd be drinking too.  Count on it.

Comments

  1. Funny you should write about him. The one guy who you could tell the entire history of cycling through. So often on the cycling documentaries you see on Youtube. With his wild hand gestures he often comes across as some kind of comedian's satire of a Frenchman (which he is not by birth, as you say). I am told his father never spoke Italian again after his factory incident - not even at home. Completely non PC though. Often would call riders "homosexuals" if they ever gave up. Even Jacques Anquetil who gave up at one stage during his famous (and totally overrated) "double." Bordeaux–Paris was a very dodgy race. You could be towed for hours early in the race. Never mind the brown envelopes. Didn't work either - made JA less popular with the French public!

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