The Original Rapha

St Raphael jersey

Say “Rapha” and many cyclists will associate this with a London-based company producing semi-retro styled cycle clothing. But this start-up 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.

rapha original jersey
The original from 1960

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 as pictured at the top.

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 Coppi died from malaria.

The son of Italian immigrants who opened a bike shop in central France, Géminiani is 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 and its mountains competition too, he 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.

19 thoughts on “The Original Rapha”

  1. Thanks for putting this all together. I knew where the Rapha brand came from but wasn’t aware of all of Géminiani’s shenanigans and his connection to the Africa trip with Coppi. Great story telling.

  2. Great story but even more intriguing for me, was after following the link to Géminiani’s wiki page was the link too and the story of Hugo Koblet, what an interesting story his is!

  3. It should probably be pointed out that Rapha (the modern brand) did get permission to use the name when they were setting up – I recall reading that from an interview with the founder a while ago.

  4. Apologies for being picky Inner, but the film you refer to actually has the English title of “The Sorrow and The Pity”, Woody Allen takes Diane Keaton to see it on a date in “Annie Hall”!

    Great shot of Anquetil, his expression is pure disdain.

  5. I do not believe it is appropriate to talk about Africa as if it were one country. If you are going to reference it, be specific about which region or nation you are referring to. To generalize the entirety of the world’s second largest continent is to fall into the lexical trap of neo-colonialism. You’re better than that.
    Good read otherwise.

    • A good point on “Africa” but the country in question was the Republic of Upper Volta which has since changed into Burkina Faso. I did think about mentioning the countries and the name changes but I thought the piece was long enough without adding info on French colonialism. He got a tropical disease so I left the place at that.

  6. Speaking of kits, how is it legal for Zabriskie to ride in the Captain America kit? Not only should Marvel Comics sue, but it seems a arbitrary exception to make for a novel, albeit somewhat funny, statement.

    Thanks for all of your great writing. I appreciate it.

  7. I don’t have a pedantic comment to add, I’m not learned enough to even try that. I really enjoyed the mention of Raphael Geminiani and some of his antics in this INRNG post. There is a very enjoyable historical account in a documentary film available from World Cycling Productions entitled, The Fausto Coppi Story, that features Geminiani. The interviews with the professional cyclists and journalists of the Coppi era are wonderful. I counted no less than 18 different persons that contributed to the film!

    Alfredo Martini
    Dino Negri
    Mario Fossati
    Gino Bartali
    Antonio Maspes
    Raphael Geminiani
    Indro Montanelli
    Mario Ricci
    Ettore Milano
    Fiorenzo Magni
    Ferdy Kubler
    Angelo Conterno
    Nino Defilippis
    Adrian De Zan
    Ercole Baldini
    Piero Bassano
    Giancarlo Astrua
    Gianpaolo Ormezzano

  8. I would love to get hold of the Unibet “?” kit. Nothing says unrepeatable things about the UCI quite as well as that kit – provided of course you know the story behind it. I have always loved it (even though it’s kinda ugly) but sadly it will remain elusive, I’m sure…

  9. Ironic about Coppi dying from malaria (derived from Italian) as the doctors didn’t recognize the symptoms. Italy was one of the few European countries that marlaria was always present in until the early 1960s (last known case was 1962) when it was eradicated from Italy. Before that Italy lost huge numbers to the disease, it is surprising that the doctors didn’t know the symptoms, but maybe as he died in the north they might not have been as familiar with the disease as those in the south.

    • I think it was a rare form. Geminiani was lucky to survive. He and Coppi both spoke on the phone about being ill. The next day the Frenchman was rushed to hospital in central France and by chance a hospital doctor was an expert in tropical medicine who’d left the French army to take up a job in France and he was able to diagnose and cure him.

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