As the Tour de France spends two days around the city of Clermont-Ferrand, it also pays homage to one of the race’s greatest actors — Raphaël “Gem” Geminiani.
Gem will most certainly be in the start village prior to the stage start in his native Clermont. And even at 95, he will most likely steal the show. But Geminiani is like that. He was a giant of a rider. And he remains a giant of a man.
- Tour de France retrospective: Raphael Geminiani remembers post-war Tour and compares it to today
- Tour de France retrospective: Thomas Voeckler looks back on legendary ride over the Puy Mary
- Tour de France retrospective: André Darrigade, sprint star of the 50s and 60s
The son of Italian immigrants who fled fascism, Geminiani was born in Clermont and raised in the Cité Michelin, the housing project provided for workers in the massive Michelin factory that dominates this town in the heart of France. “It was a great childhood,” he told VeloNews in during a recent visit to his home. “We all lived together. It was wonderful.”
It was also here in and around Clermont-Ferrand where Geminiani started racing. A fixture of the professional peloton in the 1940s and 50s, Geminiani only rode with the best as he was teammates with Fausto Coppi, Louison Bobet, and Jacques Anquetil. And after racing, he worked with many of the best as a director sportif. But there was one rider that Geminiani couldn’t hire—a certain Eddy Merckx. And when the 1969 Tour de France passed through Clermont-Ferrand near the race, Geminiani quit out of frustration.
“Jacques Anquetil was at the end of his career and we needed a rider to replace him. I told the management that we had to hire Eddy because it was clear to me that he was going to be the next big thing. He had already won Paris-Roubaix. It was just obvious to me that he was so talented. But my management refused to come up with the money so he signed with Faema.”
Geminiani’s tip of course proved correct. And barely two years later, Merckx was on his way to winning his first Tour de France, and the frustration proved too much for Geminiani.
“Near the end of the race, the Tour came through my home here in Clermont-Ferrand,” Geminiani continues in a story he often tells. “I went up to the commercial director of the team and said simply, ‘You see who is winning the Tour? Eddy Merckx, the guy I told you to hire. Here, take the keys to my team car. I quit! I don’t work with idiots!’”
Geminiani finally got his chance to work with Merckx years later, on the FIAT team. But by this time, Merckx was little more than a shell of his former self.
“I would love to have worked with Eddy early in his career because I knew he was going to be great. I wanted to work with him when he was still a teenager. Of course, I was happy to work with Eddy at the end of his career too, 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.”
But while Geminiani loved Merckx, for him, the all-time greatest was his one-time teammate Fausto Coppi.
“Merckx always says, ‘Ah you always preferred Coppi to me!’ But I tell him it was that Coppi was just so special in the manner in which he won. So many races he won in long solo breakaways. And how many races would he have won if his career wasn’t compromised by WWII? That’s a question we’ll never have an answer to!”