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Gathering Intelligence

Road racing has always been as much about sleights of hand as coups de pédale, as Raphaël Geminiani knows only too well. To mark the launch of Rapha Editions’ latest publication, author Isabel Best spills some of Geminiani’s secrets.

Rapha Editions - Gathering Intelligence: The Racing Secrets of Raphael Geminiani. Road Cycling Book 2020

Good riders, Raphaël Geminiani will tell you, need to keep a sharp eye on their rivals. That doesn’t just mean knowing where they’re sitting in the peloton, but paying close attention to every detail of how they race, from their individual quirks to what’s in their pockets. Here are three tales about the importance of staying alert.

© Ste Johnson

How Geminiani beat Gino Bartali in the mountains
‘In 1952 I was in the Giro riding for Bianchi and Fausto [Coppi, the Bianchi team leader] 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 Col du 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 Simplon.”
“What’s it like?”
“Oh goodness, it’s really tough at the beginning.”
“OK,” I said. “Listen, let me try something.”

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

‘That evening Coppi said: “How did you do that? Why did you attack there?” “Have you never 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. Coppi, who was always up ahead, never noticed. But I did.’

© Ste Johnson

Ferdi Kübler’s ill-fated attack
In 1955 Geminiani was at the Tour de France, riding in support of Louison Bobet, who was planning to make history with a third consecutive victory.

‘Before the start [of the stage], I had a look around to see what was going on... the bikes...what riders were putting in their jersey pockets... And I noticed that Kübler had put on extremely thin, lightweight tyres. That also meant he was taking a big risk of puncturing, because in those days the tyres we used [had to be much more robust]: it wasn’t like you could replace your wheels during a race. So if a guy puts on thin tyres, it’s a sign he’s got plans. So I went to see Bobet.

“Louison, watch out, there’s going to be Kübler today, he’s put on thin tyres.”
"Oh là là! Oh là là! You deal with him!”
“Well, you’re the one who’s got to win the Tour, remember.”
“Just take care of him!”

‘So I kept an eye on him, and everything came to pass as predicted. Which is to say that well ahead of the Ventoux Kübler attacks – Bing! Bang! – and I jump on his wheel. He attacks the Ventoux in a frenzy. And I say to him,
“Ferdi, watch out: the Ventoux is not like the other mountains.”
But he says,
“Ferdi, too, is not like other riders.”

‘Except that four or five kilometres later, his cap was askew. He’d started talking to himself in German and he was zigzagging across the road so that I had difficulty getting past. Louison took care of [Charly] Gaul, and I rode the Ventoux for Louison to help him get a lead on the others. But Ferdi, he got dropped. He was just wiped out. Six, seven kilometres from the finish he went into a bar to have a beer. Then he got back on his bike and set off in the opposite direction. So people ran after him shouting: “Ferdi! Avignon’s that way!” He no longer knew where he was. When he reached his hotel, he had his bath and then called a press conference, and he said,
“Gentlemen, you’ll no longer see me in the Tour de France. I am abandoning the Tour and I am never riding it again.”
And he never did ride the Tour again.’

© Ste Johnson

How Coppi and Fiorenzo Magni stole Gem’s Giro
Of course, being able to spot trouble ahead doesn’t necessarily mean you can do much about it.

Geminiani and Coppi were friends who greatly admired and respected each other, however they were more often rivals than teammates. It was in the natural order of things, therefore, if Coppi took advantage of a little Italian chicanery at his friend’s expense.

The same year that Kübler self-destructed on Mont Ventoux, Geminiani spent three days in the leader’s jersey at the Giro. Though he was of Italian origin – his parents had emigrated to France in the 1920s – in 1955 he was riding on the French national team. He was not, therefore, a suitable victor as far as Italian fans were concerned.

‘In Italy I hit people in the jaw, because they pushed [Italian riders] too much. There were some riders who got to freewheel up the climbs. And us in our red, white and blue jerseys – we had to pedal.

‘Once they covered a kilometre of the road with spiky stones. Pierre Chany [the chief cycling correspondent at L’Équipe] counted 95 punctures over the course of this one kilometre.’

Gem’s first inklings that something was afoot came before the stage start.

‘I said to Coppi: “How come you’ve got tyres like that?”
“Ah, we’re testing a new variety…”
‘They’d taken especially thick tyres and when they reached the bad section of road, Coppi and Magni set off full gas. And I jump on their wheels but less than 200 metres later I puncture. If I hadn’t punctured I would have won that Giro.’

RAINCOATS ARE FOR TOURISTS

From the unpaved roads and unending stages of the postwar period to the emergence of clipless pedals and disc wheels in the 80s, the latest publication from Rapha Editions, Raincoats are for Tourists, plots the life and times of living cycling icon - Raphaël Geminiani.

Available now in the UK and EU. Coming soon for customers in other regions.

Buy now

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