Say “Rapha” and many cyclists will associate this with a London-based company producing semi-retro styled cycle clothing. But this business has appropriated a slice of history as it tries to evoke tales of epic rides and hardened riders for its brand. Here’s an explanation of where the name comes from.
If you didn’t know, that’s the original Rapha jersey pictured above, albeit long before the founders of the London brand were born.
Rapha was short for Saint Raphaël, the brand name of a drink that was part tonic, part apéritif. It was first created in 1830 when a doctor was trying to make a herbal tonic but found his eyesight fading at the same time. He recalled a biblical tale of Archangel Raphael who cured Tobias of his blindness. The medic finalised the recipe for his drink, his eyesight returned and lo, Saint Raphaël was created. Like many pharmaceutical concoctions in the mid nineteenth century – mineral water, Coca Cola – it became a commercial success. This was helped in part because it used by-products from the wine business to which herbs including Quina bark which contains quinine.
Why the abbreviated Rapha instead of St Raphaël, the drink’s full name? Back in the 1950s the Tour de France organisers refused to allow openly commercial teams, only bike industry sponsors were allowed. So the Rapha-Géminiani tried to pretend there was no commercial link, that the team was simply named after the team’s directeur sportif, Raphaël Géminiani. But this was a ruse, the directeur sportif‘s first name just coincided with the sponsor and in fact the funding was coming from the company behind the beverage.
This might sound familiar, it’s a bit like recent sponsorship deals with Formula 1 and Moto GP where tobacco sponsors back the team but weren’t allowed to display their full name, for example Valentino Rossi’s motorbike was covered in exclamation marks. Cycling fans might remember Unibet, a gaming company, backing a team despite a ban against this in France, at one point the team turned up in kit marked only with a cryptic question mark. Back to St Raphaël and in time the Tour organisers relented, Jacques Anquetil rode with the brand’s colourful logos.
By tragic coincidence Géminiani owes his life to quinine, not in the drink but stronger doses. The Frenchman was a top cyclist in the 1950s and was invited to a celebration of independence of a new African state from French colonial rule in 1959. Louison Bobet pulled out at the last minute and “Gem” called Italian rider Fausto Coppi. They travelled to Africa and during their time both raced and went on safari. Upon their return to Europe they spoke on the phone and both spoke of feeling unwell. By chance Géminiani was admitted to a hospital where a doctor with experience of tropical diseases was working and malaria was diagnosed. Given quinine, he lived. But Fausto Coppi died from malaria.
The son of Italian immigrants who opened a bike shop in central France, Géminiani is perhaps someone who made more of a name for himself as a manager than as a rider. His father looked at his scrawny legs and declared he wouldn’t make it as a cyclist. But Raphaël went on to win seven stages of the Tour de France, won the mountains competition too and also took the points competition in the Giro d’Italia. He rode under the nickname of “Grand Fusil”, the Big Gun. But he succeeded even more as a manager, winning the Tour de France from the wheel of the team car, later known as “Gem”.
Later Géminiani did public relations work and ran a bar. He ended up being filmed in a documentary about the Nazi occupation of France called “The Sorry and The Pity”. The film was banned for a long time in France as it dealt with the subject of collaboration between the French and the Nazis. Géminiani himself is quoted in the film saying he never saw the Nazis in his home city of Clermont. But the filmmaker suggests this is wild denial given the large number of troops garrisoned there, as well as Gestapo police. “Gem” doesn’t look very good.
So that’s the story of Rapha’s name, you can read lots more on the internet, for example Wikipedia’s page on Géminiani is great. And like a lot of history, it’s never as clear cut as it seems: the real Raphaël “Rapha” Géminiani had a furious temper and described doping controls as a “cancer”. An aspect a modern clothing brand probably won’t embrace.