Cycling book reviews: Raincoats are for tourists, by Isabel Best

Title: Raincoats are for tourists – The running secrets of Raphaël Géminiani
Author: Isabel Best (with a foreword by Simon Mottram and illustrations by Ste Johnson)
Editor: Rapha Editions in association with Blue Train Publishing
Year: 2020
Pages: 225
Order: Rapha
What it is: What it says on the box – 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 seem like a way for him not to reveal too much

“Raincoats are for Tourists” by Isabel Best is artfully illustrated by Ste Johnson
Rapha Publishing / Blue Train Publishing

What does a raincoat do for you? Nothing at all, raincoats are for tourists. If you’re wearing a raincoat, you’ll be drenched in sweat and fall because your skin can’t breathe. So you have to accept getting wet.
~ Raphael Geminiani

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

I let everyone pass, the officials, everyone. I took off my bib and climbed into a cherry tree, and ate cherries. […] I didn’t want to be dumped, so I gave up. And I never ran again. It happened like this. I left with my team hoping to do well, and then… it wasn’t the same. It wasn’t worth it.

If there’s one thing most of us know about Raphaël Géminiani it’s probably something to do with the Dauphiné, it’s probably 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 this thin, worn story. As a pilot, 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 arrival. I had the yellow jersey in the Tour and I was beaten by Gaul. In the Vuelta, I finished third. At the Giro, I finished fourth and had the pink jersey.

Géminiani rode through the 1950s – his riding career spanned from 1946 to 1960 – and the 1950s picked up pretty much where the 1930s left off, almost as if the war had just been a long break for tea and sandwiches. The golden age that began with matinee idol riders looks like Charles Pélissier and André Leducq, which continued with the style-conscious Fausto Coppi and culminated with the arrival of Hugo Koblet. There was barely a duff year throughout the decade – and it was a long decade, starting in the forties and ending in the sixties – and each year delivered moments for the ages. Meet Isabel Best:

Name any famous moment from that golden age and Géminiani was there: Gino Bartali winning seven stages and overall in the 1948 Tour de France, a decade and a world war after his first victory; Fausto Coppi, putting so much time on his 1952 Tour de France rivals that race organizers doubled the prize money for second place; Hugo Koblet covered 135 kilometers alone while the best riders in the peloton tried but failed to bring him back; Federico Bahamontes, the greatest climber and the worst descender, reaching the top of the Col de Romeyère 14 minutes ahead of his rivals, then stopping for an ice cream; Charly Gaul again, winning the Giro in the snow, conditions so terrible that 57 riders gave up. Two years later, at the Tour de France, he will strike again, in horrible weather. This time he was 16 minutes behind Géminiani, who was wearing the yellow jersey with only one mountain stage to go. In the pouring rain, he reduced his deficit by 14 minutes and destroyed Géminiani’s best and last chance to win the Tour.

Raincoats are for tourists falls somewhere between Paul Jones I love Alfa and Herbie Sykes The Giro 100, two books that are underrated masterpieces. As with Alf Engers’ book, you get lessons from the life of a rider who was a character, larger than life. As with the Giro Book, you can listen and disconnect a rider’s memories. As in both books, you get the story of a man who understands what true happiness is:

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

I had good luck and bad luck. I was lucky to live with them, but I was also unlucky that my career coincided with theirs. That’s what made the race beautiful.

Such introspection is not as common as it should be in the books that appear on the Café Library.

It’s not all about the inside, it’s more about legendary – sometimes even mythical – stories of bravery. Here is a story worth telling in full:

The penultimate stage of the Giro d'Italia 1952, setting for one of Raphaël Géminiani's racing secrets

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

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

Bartali was at the top of the mountain leaderboard and people were just cheering him on.

Coppi couldn’t stand it: here he was winning the Giro and the crowd was just cheering Bartali on.

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

Coppi thought shit, he’s going to win the mountain jersey and everyone talks about him more than me.

I said to Fausto: “What is this pass we are going to climb?

“It’s the Semlon.

‘What does it look like?’

“Oh my God, it’s really hard at first.”

“Okay,” I said. “Listen, let me try something.”

And on the Semplon, from the foot of the mountain, I went on the attack: bang! I pulverized the peloton, and Bartali was among the pulverized. I drove to the top of Semplon and Bartali had something like 25and. I won the mountain prize and Bartali was only third.

That night, Coppi said, “How did you do that? Why did you attack there?

“Have you ever noticed how Bartali struggles to keep up the pace when he’s at the bottom of a climb, but when he’s at the top he’s unbeatable?

Coppi said: “It never crossed my mind to attack from the bottom. I never thought of that.’

Coppi was still leading the pack, but I noticed that Bartali was still attacking the mountains from behind and had difficulty at the start of the climbs. He was still panting. He was a smoker and at the foot of a climb he was always out of breath. I realized that Coppi, who was always in front, had never realized it. But I did.

Géminiani being such a larger than life character, I wonder how true this story really is. It was the penultimate stage of the Giro 52 and while it is true that Bartali was first on the St Bernard, I don’t think he was leading the mountain classification, even with the points won there. And while it’s true that Gem lit up the Semplon, Bartali was just 40 seconds behind at the top. But Gem won the mountain classification (with 31 points) and Bartali finished third (with 23 points), with Coppi separating the two (28 points). As for Coppi not having noticed that Bartali, at this stage of his career, was huffing and puffing in the first parts of a mountain: maybe it’s true, or maybe it’s as if Anquetil was putting his bid on in his back pocket when climbing.

True or not, in some ways it doesn’t matter here. If someone else told this story, it should be fact-checked. But if Gem tells it…well, that’s how Géminiani remembers it, and the bigger parts of the story hold up: Bartali got the cheers from the St Bernard, Coppi probably got the bump with that, Gem beat them all on the Semplon. And he ends the whole story with a moral. What more do you want, cherries?

This ability to read a race, read a driver – the belief that he could read a race, read a driver – is part of why Géminiani was such a good DS, whether with Anquetil, Luis Ocaña, Stephen Roche , or even the Colombians in the 80s. The tragedy of Gem’s career as a DS, however, was that outside of the Anquetil years, his bosses – the sponsors – weren’t supporting him as much as they should. But the successes of the Anquetil years largely compensate for the setbacks suffered in the following years.

What made Gem such a great DS? “I was an uncompromising sports director. I knew cycling too well. So the mistakes I made, I didn’t want my riders to make. If he had been as good as Koblet and Kübler, Van Steenbergen, Van Looy, Coppi, Bartali, Gaul, Gem would not have been such a good team leader. Things would have been too easy for him and he wouldn’t have had to think about it. And that was a lesson learned when I was a kid:

“I learned on my own. There was my father but he couldn’t give me so much advice because he was from another generation and he didn’t know French cycling. […] You have to learn to know yourself, notice the weaknesses of your opponents, recognize your own limits and abilities and 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 Raphaël Géminiani has to teach you today is that you have to teach yourself. And under the careful guidance of Isabel Best, he does so by Raincoats are for tourists with the kind of wit and wisdom that is too often lacking in the books that appear on the Café Library.

“Raincoats are for tourists – The racing secrets of Raphaël Géminiani” by Isabel Best (2020, 225 pages) is published by Rapha Editions in association with Blue Train Publishing

Alycia R. Lindley