'There will never be another one like Fausto' - A teammate and friend remembers Coppi

As the Tour continues its stay in Italy and passes through the hometown of the great Fausto Coppi, one of his former teammate recalls his life and impact

Only a day after the Tour de France honoured Marco Pantani with the start of stage two in Cesenatico, the much-celebrated Grand Départ in Italy took time to salute Fausto Coppi, considered by some the greatest cyclist ever. Even greater than Eddy Merckx? Well according to some, yes. And one of his greatest supporters is 99-year-old Raphäel Geminiani, a living legend in his own right.

It is doubtful that this year’s Tour de France cyclists will be considering the relative merits of Coppi’s legacy when they pass through the village of Tortona, 67 kilometres into stage three, but Geminiani remembers Coppi well, and is adamant that it was the Italian and not the Belgian who was the greatest of them all.

“Eddy always reminds of me of that!” the gregarious Geminiani says with his hearty laugh. “How many Tours would Coppi have won if it were not for World War II? Fausto just had a way of racing bikes like I’ve never seen. He could ride with such ease. He could climb with such ease. The number of races he won solo was just amazing. He won Milan-Sanremo with a 14-minute lead! He won Paris-Roubaix with a five-minute lead. He won the World Championships in Lugano with a five-minute lead. So you see, it wasn’t just that he won a lot, but it was the way he won. When I think back on Fausto, what I remember most is simply the beauty of a champion. He climbed like a gazelle. There was a lightness to the way he raced.”

Geminiani is arguably the greatest rider never to win the Tour de France. The son of Italian immigrants who fled Fascist Italy, Geminiani grew up in the industrial town of Clermont-Ferrand during German occupation. “Riding a bike was one of the only things we could do during the war,” he says. Laden with a wealth of brute force Geminiani quickly rose to become one of the most feared and respected riders of his day. But while he only finished on the Tour podium twice, he reveled in his role as a quintessential playmaker, and was a much-coveted teammate to greats like Louison Bobet, Jacques Anquetil and Coppi.

Even at the age of 99, Raphäel Gemiani is a force of nature (Photo: James Startt)

His dream was always to ride with Coppi, his hero, and he finally got his chance in 1952. But things didn’t quite go according to plan. “I had so much admiration for him Coppi, but oh là là he could be discouraging,” Geminiani remembers. “During meals he would be at the table 12 minutes maximum. He would never, ever hang out at mealtime. And in training, if he said he was going to ride 150 kilometres, he would never cut it short and just ride 145 kilometres. He never drank wine. He never drank alcohol, not this and not that. I couldn’t live like that. I spent one season with him in 1952 and understood that I just couldn’t live like that.”

Regardless of their short-lived experience as teammates, the two remained lifelong friends, and Geminiani was with Coppi when he contracted malaria while on an off-season trip to Africa.

“We had both been invited to Burkina Faso late in 1959 to participate in a race that was organized to celebrate the country’s independence. We stayed a few days after the race in the apartment of one of the race sponsors. We had a big apartment to ourselves and we had a great night, but we didn’t have mosquito netting for our beds when we went to sleep, and we both got eaten alive,” Gemiani recalls.

“Then, a couple of days after returning to France I talked with Fausto one night before Christmas. I remember Fausto saying, ‘Oh I don’t feel so well. I’ve got a fever.’ And I remember saying, ‘That’s strange, I don’t feel so well either. I’ve got a fever too.’ That night I woke up sweating. I got up to drink some water and fainted. I fell into a coma for eight days. But my doctor here in Clermont was speaking to a colleague that specialised in tropical diseases. When he discovered I had just been in Africa, he instructed my doctor to do a blood test and send it to the Institut Pasteur in Paris. They immediately discovered that I had contracted a lethal form of malaria. When I finally came around, the house was filled with journalists. Coppi had just died, and they expected that I would soon follow.”

Geminiani’s family called Coppi’s once they learned of the malaria, but Coppi’s doctors had misdiagnosed Coppi’s illness and failed to react. Coppi’s death in Tortona on January 2, 1960, was met with a combination of incomprehension and anger, as he was one of the great heroes of post-war Italy.

It is difficult to imagine the impact of Coppi’s legacy nearly 65 years after his death. But on stage three of this year’s Tour, the race will honor a rider who was so much more than a two time winner. “Coppi was a star, a diva!” says Geminiani. “And yet he was so kind. There will never be another one like Fausto. His death was such a tragedy.”

Cover image by Getty Images

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