As the Tour de France spends two days around the city of Clermont-Ferrand, it also pays tribute to one of the greatest players in the race – Raphaël “Gem” Geminiani.
Gem will most certainly be in the starting village before the start of the stage in his native Clermont. And even at 95, he will most likely steal the spotlight. But Geminiani is like that. He was a giant rider. And he remains a giant of man.
Son of Italian immigrants fleeing fascism, Geminiani was born in Clermont and grew up in the Cité Michelin, the housing project planned for the workers of the huge Michelin factory which dominates this city in the heart of France. “It was a beautiful childhood,” he said VeloNews during a recent visit to his home. “We have all lived together. It was wonderful. ”
It is also here in Clermont-Ferrand and its surroundings that Geminiani started the race. A member of the professional peloton in the 1940s and 1950s, Geminiani only rode with the best because he was a teammate with Fausto Coppi, Louison Bobet and Jacques Anquetil. And after the race he worked with many of the best as a sporting director. But there was one horseman Geminiani couldn’t hire – a certain Eddy Merckx. And when the 1969 Tour de France passed through Clermont-Ferrand close to the race, Geminiani left in frustration.
“Jacques Anquetil was at the end of his career and we needed a driver to replace him. I told management we had to hire Eddy because it was clear to me that he was going to be the next big actor. He had already won Paris-Roubaix. It was just obvious to me that he was so talented. But my management refused to find the money, so he signed with Faema.
Geminiani’s trick of course turned out to be correct. And just two years later, Merckx was on course to win their first Tour de France, and the frustration proved too much for Geminiani.
“Towards the end of the race, the Tour came to me here in Clermont-Ferrand,” continues Geminiani in a story he often tells. “I went to see the team’s commercial director and I just said, ‘You see who wins 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 had the chance to work with Merckx years later in the FIAT team. But at that time, Merckx was little more than a shell of his old self.
“I would have loved working with Eddy early in his career because I knew he was going to be awesome. I wanted to work with him when he was still a teenager. Of course, I was also happy to work with Eddy at the end of his career, although he was clearly not at his best. No, by the time I was working with him, he was completely exhausted. It’s interesting but it’s like that for so many grown-ups. They ended up exhausted. They don’t understand that they can’t dominate like they once did, but they keep trying until they are exhausted.
But while Geminiani loved Merckx, for him the greatest of all time was his former teammate Fausto Coppi.
“Merckx always says, ‘Ah, you always preferred Coppi to me!’ But I tell him it’s that Coppi was so special in the way he won. As many races as he won during long solo breakaways. And how many races would he have won if his career hadn’t been compromised by World War II? This is a question we will never have an answer to! “