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Raincoats are for Tourists, by Isabel Best

Raphaël Géminiani
Raphaël Géminiani
Ste Johnson / Rapha Editions / Blue Train Publishing

Title: Raincoats are for Tourists – The Racing Secrets of Raphaël Géminiani
Author: Isabel Best (with a foreword by Simon Mottram and illustrations by Ste Johnson)
Publisher: Rapha Editions in association with Blue Train Publishing
Year: 2020
Pages: 225
Order: Rapha
What it is: What it says on the tin – the racing secrets of Raphaël Géminiani, the mastermind behind some of Jacques Anquetil’s most famous exploits
Strengths: We need more cycling books where people like Gem are allowed to tell their stories
Weaknesses: Gem’s stories sometimes feel like a way for him to not reveal too much of himself

Isabel Best’s ‘Raincoats are for Tourists’ is artfully illustrated by Ste Johnson
Isabel Best’s ‘Raincoats are for Tourists’ is artfully illustrated by Ste Johnson
Rapha Editions / Blue Train Publishing

What does a raincoat do for you? Nothing at all, raincoats are for tourists. If you wear a raincoat you’ll get drenched in sweat, and you’ll get dropped, because your skin can’t breathe. So you have to accept getting wet.
~ Raphaël Géminiani

Endings are difficult. Few get them right. Not Raphaël Géminiani, who ended his racing career on the last day of May, 1960, somewhere between Valence and Orange on the opening stage of the Dauphiné Libéré:

I let everyone go past, the officials, everyone else. I took off my race number and I climbed into a cherry tree, and I ate cherries. […] I didn’t want to be dropped, so I abandoned. And I never raced again. It happened just like that. I set off with my team, hoping to do well, and then...it just wasn’t the same. It wasn’t worth it.

If there’s one thing most of us know about Raphaël Géminiani it’s likely to be something to do with the Dauphiné, it’s likely to be his role in Jacques Anquetil winning the Dauphiné in 1965 and then immediately winning Bordeaux-Paris. But there’s so much more to the man than that one worn thin tale. As a rider, Gem could have been a contender.

I should have won the Tour de France. I should have won the Giro. I had all the jerseys. I was always beaten two days before the finish. I had the yellow jersey at the Tour and I was beaten by Gaul. In the Vuelta I came third. In the Giro I finished fourth and I had the pink jersey.

Géminiani rode through the fifties – his riding career ran from 1946 to 1960 – and the fifties pretty much picked up where the thirties had left off, almost as if the war had just been an extended break for tea and sandwiches. The golden age that had begun with riders with matinee idol looks like Charles Pélissier and André Leducq, that had continued with the style-conscious Fausto Coppi and reached its apogee with the arrival of Hugo Koblet. There was barely a duff year throughout the decade – and it was a long decade, beginning in the forties and ending in the sixties – and every year delivered moments for the ages. Here’s Isabel Best:

Name any famous moment from that golden age and Géminiani was there: Gino Bartali winning seven stages and the overall in the 1948 Tour de France, a decade and a world war after his first victory; Fausto Coppi, putting so much time into his rivals in the 1952 Tour de France that the race organisers doubled the prize money for second place; Hugo Koblet riding 135 kilometres in his own while the best riders in the peloton tried yet failed to reel him in; Federico Bahamontes, the greatest climber and worst descender, reaching the summit of the Col de Romeyère with a 14-minute advantage on his rivals, then stopping to eat an ice cream; Charly Gaul again, winning the Giro in the snow, the conditions so terrible that 57 riders abandoned. Two years later at the Tour de France he would strike again, in horrible weather. This time he was 16 minutes behind Géminiani, who was wearing the yellow jersey with only one mountains stage to go. In driving rain he reduced his deficit by 14 minutes and extinguished Géminiani’s best, and last, chance of winning the Tour.

Raincoats are for Tourists falls somewhere between Paul Jones’s I Like Alf and Herbie Sykes’s The Giro 100, two books that are underappreciated masterpieces. As with the Alf Engers book, you get lessons drawn from the life of a rider who was a character, larger than life. As with the Giro book, you get to tune in and out of a rider’s memories. As with both books, you get the story of a man who understands what real happiness is:

the greats were all friends, whether it was Koblet and Kübler, Van Steenbergen, Van Looy, Coppi, Bartali, Gaul... they were all friends. They knew that I had the means, that I could be dangerous when I wanted. I had the recognition of the greats. And that was enough for me.

I was lucky and unlucky. I was lucky to live alongside them, but I was also unlucky that my career coincided with theirs. That’s what made racing beautiful.

Such introspection, it’s not as common as it should be in the books that appear on the Café Bookshelf.

It’s not all inward looking, more of it is legendary – sometimes even mythical – tales of derring-do. Here’s one story that’s worth telling in whole:

The penultimate stage of the 1952 Giro d’Italia, the setting for one of Raphaël Géminiani’s racing secrets
The penultimate stage of the 1952 Giro d’Italia, St Vincent to Verbania, the setting for one of Raphaël Géminiani’s racing secrets
La Stampa

In 1952 I was in the Giro riding for Bianchi and Fausto [Coppi] had the pink jersey.

Bartali was leading the mountains classification and people were only cheering for him.

Coppi couldn’t stand it: here he was winning the Giro and the crowds were only cheering for Bartali.

On the Grand-Saint-Bernard, Coppi and I attacked but 150m from the summit Bartali left us standing.

Coppi was thinking shit, he’s going to win the mountains jersey and everyone’s talking about him more than me.

I said to Fausto: ‘What’s this col we’ve got coming up?’

‘It’s the Semplon.’

‘What’s it like?’

‘Oh goodness, it’s really tough at the beginning.’

‘OK,’ I said. ‘Listen, let me try something.’

And on the Semplon, right from the foot of the mountain, I went on the attack: bang! I pulverised the peloton, and Bartali was among the pulverised. I led over the top of the Semplon and Bartali was something like 25th. I won the mountains prize, and Bartali was only third.

That evening, Coppi said: ‘How did you do that? Why did you attack there?’

‘Have you ever noticed how Bartali has difficulty keeping the pace when he’s at the foot of a climb, but when he’s at the top he’s unbeatable?’

Coppi said: ‘It never occurred to me to attack down below. I never thought of that.’

Coppi was always at the head of the peloton, but I noticed that Bartali always attacked the mountains from behind and that he had difficulties at the start of climbs. He was always panting. He was a smoker and at the foot of a climb he was always short of breath. I realised that Coppi, who was always up ahead, never noticed. But I did.

Géminiani being such a larger than life character, I do wonder how much of that story is really true. This was the penultimate stage of the ‘52 Giro and while it’s true that Bartali was first over the St Bernard I don’t think he was leading the mountains classification, even with the points gained there. And while it’s true that Gem lit up the Semplon, Bartali was only 40 seconds behind at the top. But Gem did win the mountains classification (with 31 points) and Bartali did finish third (with 23 points), with Coppi separating the two (28 points). As for Coppi not noticing that Bartali by that stage of his career huffed and puffed in the early parts of a mountain: maybe it’s true, or maybe it’s like Anquetil putting his bidon in his back pocket when climbing.

True or not, in some ways it doesn’t matter here. If anybody else told that story, it’d need to be fact checked. But if Gem’s telling it … well it’s how Géminiani remembers it, and the larger parts of the story do hold water: Bartali got the cheers on the St Bernard, Coppi probably got the hump with that, Gem beat them all up on the Semplon. And he ends the whole tale with a moral. What more do you want, cherries?

That ability to read a race, to read a rider – the self belief that he could read a race, read a rider – that’s partly why Géminiani was such a good DS, whether it was with Anquetil, Luis Ocaña, Stephen Roche, or even the Colombians in the 80s. The tragedy of Gem’s career as a DS, though, was that apart from the Anquetil years his bosses – the sponsors – didn’t back him as much as they should. But the successes of the Anquetil years more than make up for the set-backs endured in the later years.

What made Gem such a good DS? “I was an uncompromising directeur sportif. I knew cycling too well. So the mistakes I made – I didn’t want my riders making them.” Had he been as good as Koblet and Kübler, Van Steenbergen, Van Looy, Coppi, Bartali, Gaul, Gem wouldn’t have been as good a team boss. Things would have come too easy to him and he wouldn’t have had to think about them. And that was a lesson learned as a kid:

“I taught myself. There was my father but he couldn’t give me that much advice because he was of a different generation and he didn’t know French cycling. […] You have to get to know yourself, to notice your rivals’ weaknesses, to recognise your own limits and capabilities and to work on all this over the years. That’s how you build a long career, because if you want to last, you have to know yourself. If you don’t, you’ll make mistakes and you won’t last long.”

The most important thing that Raphaël Géminiani has to teach you today is that you have to teach yourself. And with Isabel Best’s careful direction he does that in Raincoats are for Tourists with the kind of wit and wisdom that is too often lacking in the books that appear on the Café Bookshelf.

Isabel Best’s ‘Raincoats are for Tourists – The Racing Secrets of Raphaël Géminiani’ (2020, 225 pages) is published by Rapha Editions in association with Blue Train Publishing
Isabel Best’s ‘Raincoats are for Tourists – The Racing Secrets of Raphaël Géminiani’ (2020, 225 pages) is published by Rapha Editions in association with Blue Train Publishing