Raphael Geminiani is perhaps 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 1955. But he preferred the role of playmaker, and his ability to blow a race apart earned him the moniker, “Le Grand Fusil,” or Big Gun.
With the Tour de France returning to le Puy de Dôme, Geminiani remains the region’s most acclaimed champion. The son of Italian immigrants that fled Fascist Italy, Geminiani started racing bikes in his native Clermont-Ferrand during World War II. “Riding your bike was one of the only things you could do under Nazi occupation,” the 98-year-old says with his patented hearty laugh. 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.”
Geminiani was born and raised in Clermont-Ferrand, literally under the shadows of the famed Puy de Dôme. And like his parents, he could have gone to work in the Michelin factory that still dominates this city. Instead, he became one of the biggest players in the sport, first as a rider and then as a team director.
But while he was teammates with many of the biggest names, Fausto Coppi remains for him the greatest champion. “Fausto just had the ability to ride away from the pack. I’ll never forget that famous stage to Briançon in the 1949 Tour de France when Coppi and Bartali raced away from everyone early in the stage. At one point we heard that Fausto won over Gino by more than five minutes. And we still had 20 kilometers to go!”
Geminiani also roomed with Coppi on the fated trip to Africa where he contracted malaria and eventually died. “I’ll never forget, we roomed together one night and just got eaten alive by mosquitoes. I called Fausto after we returned to Europe and he said he wasn’t feeling so good. That night I got up to go to the bathroom and just collapsed. And I fell into a coma. When I finally came out of it, I understood that Fausto had died. I was fortunate because there was a doctor here in Clermont that had studied tropical diseases and he immediately gave me chloroquine, but Fausto didn’t get the same treatment.”
But while Geminiani adored Coppi, he is probably most associated with French champion Jacques Anquetil, first as his teammate and then as his director sportif.
Geminiani had a front-row seat to one of the greatest duels ever in the history of cycling, as he was driving the team car behind Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor on the day of their epic showdown on the Puy de Dôme in the 1964 Tour de France. “That day I let one of the mechanics drive because I was going to need to see everything and speak. Julio Jimenez was the first to attack at the foot of the climb, but Jacques didn’t move because Julio wasn’t dangerous on the GC. His job was to stay with Poulidor,” Geminiani recalled. Jacques Anquetil, with his coach, Raphael Geminiani, 1955. (Photo by Roger Viollet via Getty Images)
“The two really marked each other and I can tell you they were not going fast. At one point I even thought that they might fall over. They probably rode three kilometres like that, but time was on our side. Poulidor had to drop Anquetil, and with the finish of the race only three days away, le Puy de Dôme represented one of his last opportunities. Poulidor didn’t make a move. I thought it was strange, but then perhaps he simply couldn’t. And when he finally did drop Anquetil, there were only 900 meters remaining. Poulidor was out of his saddle, but I wasn’t worried at that point. Behind him, Jacques was a metronome. I knew he still had something left.”
At the finish Anquetil lost 42 seconds to Poulidor, but he still had a 14-second advantage, and a fifth Tour victory was essentially in his pocket.
On stage nine of this year's Tour de France, the race will return to le Puy de Dôme for the first time in 35 years, a stage that actually starts in Poulidor’s home of Saint-Léonard-de-Noblat, before finishing in Geminiani’s back yard. And while Geminiani won’t be on hand at the race, he promises to follow the race closely.
And who knows, maybe we will witness another epic showdown. After all, this year’s Tour is not even at its halfway mark, but Tadej Pogačar and Jonas Vinegegaard are already locked in a true battle for Tour glory. Needless to say, the Puy de Dôme, with its relentlessly steep pitches, offer another unique opportunity to gain a crucial advantage in the race for the yellow jersey.