Raphael Geminiani is likely the greatest rider to never win the Tour de France. Teammates to Fausto Coppi, Louison Bobet, Jacques Anquetil, and Roger Riviére, Geminiani was one of the most consistent riders of his generation, and he remains the only rider to finish in the top ten in all three grand tours in the same year after finishing 3rd in the Vuelta a España, 4th in the Giro d’Italia, and 6th in the Tour de France in 1965. Meanwhile, his ability to blow a race apart earned him the moniker, “Le Grand Fusil,” or “The Big Gun”.
A giant of a man, Gem then went on to direct greats like Anquetil, Luis Ocaña, and Eddy Merckx, while his equally immense personality reigned over the sport for nearly half a century.
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But even though he has long retired from the scene, as the 2020 Tour de France finally rolls out of Nice today, Geminiani will be watching with particular interest.
The son of Italian immigrants that fled Fascist Italy, Geminiani started racing bikes in his native Clermont-Ferrand during World War II. Moving quickly up through the ranks, he then participated in the first post-war Tour in 1947, which proved to be nothing less than a transformative experience.
“The roads were just covered, simply covered, with a sea of people,” Geminiani remembers vividly. “It was a party. It was a celebration. And we were truly the giants of the road. The Tour really helped us forget the war.”
And today, he sees certain comparisons to this year’s race, as it is the first major sporting event to be held since COVID-19 shut much of the world down.
“The Tour helped us forget the war,” Geminiani said in an interview with the French sports daily L’Equipe earlier this year, while France was still in lockdown. “And today the Tour can help. It can give us stability and re-launch our lives.”
Geminiani is eager for the racing to begin, and while his sentimental favorite is Julian Alaphilippe, he says that Egan Bernal and Primož Roglič are clearly above the rest. “You know, France no longer has Anquetil or Hinault, Italy no longer has Coppi or Bartali, Belgium no longer has Merckx, and Luxembourg no longer has Charly Gaul. It’s a very different sport with so many riders from so many nations.”
But while Geminiani is excited about the racing, he is cautious to make too many comparisons to the post-war years. “The coronavirus crisis is not a war. There are no bombardments. In war, we know the enemy. Here we don’t know anything. It’s impossible to analyze, and the virus is circulating all around the country. Everybody is implicated. People are scared, scared of everything. They are even scared of their shadow and afraid to cross the street. It’s a paradox, but we had more liberty during the war. There were occupied zones and free zones.”
Furthermore, Geminiani is worried about the alternate dates. “September will be bizarre. People will be back in school, back at work. I fear the worst. I am really worried about the public. A Tour without a public won’t give a good image of cycling! The start is behind closed doors. I have never seen anything like that! And many of the climbs will be closed. It’s going to be really sensative.”
“It can still be a great Tour,” he said over the telephone on the eve of the Tour start. “But that will depend on the riders. We just have to wait and see. A rider’s reputation is made in the Tour. So there are plenty of riders that need to build their reputation here. But the success of the Tour is built on the public. Don’t get me wrong. Everybody wishes the best for the Tour. Who doesn’t want the Tour to be a success?”
One thing is certain, as the race finally starts, “Big Gun” will be watching. Today the gregarious Geminiani lives quietly in a retirement home outside of Clermont-Ferrand. On the walls, hang memories of his days with Coppi and other greats. And as summer comes to a close, Geminiani is hoping for one thing: a great Tour de France. “We will see at the end of the race. But I hope it is a great success!”