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Tales from the peloton, August 4, 2007

Ferdy and Géminiani play 'telephone'

One of the beautiful things about cycling is all the outrageous stories that get passed down through the generations. Sometimes the sagas are embellished a bit along the way, and keep growing like a big childhood game of 'telephone'. Cyclingnews' Les Woodland recounts another tale from the distant past.

Ferdinand Kübler (R)
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Isn't it a shame when a good yarn dies? There's this lovely story about Ferdy Kübler, for instance. It says that in 1955 he was riding Mont Ventoux for the first time in the Tour de France when, characteristically, he went into a frantic attack from the start. Astonished and no doubt hoping not to have to retaliate, Raphaël Géminiani turned to him, told him to calm down, and said: "The Ventoux isn't a mountain like any other."

To which Kübler replied in his characteristic way: "Ferdy also not racer like others; Ferdy grand champion win at Avignon." After which he attacked again 10km from the top, began foaming at the mouth, started weaving about the road and became delirious. On the way into Avignon where he thought he'd win, having been passed by Géminiani and by Louison Bobet, he ran into a bar. When he re-emerged and got on his bike and prepared to go off the wrong way, a startled drinker grabbed him and pointed him in the right direction.

Kübler then stared at him and shouted: "Stand back! Ferdy's going to explode!"

As stories go, it's hard to beat, isn't? The trouble is that the bit about "Ferdy also not racer like others" isn't true. Not according to Kübler, anyway. I can't speak for the café incident but in a recent interview in the French magazine Vélo, Kübler says: "It's not true. I never said that. Géminiani is a great storyteller. In the peloton his nickname was Telephone. We're good friends but this story, it isn't true."

"Ferdy attack now. France ready?"

-Ferdinand 'Ferdy' Kübler was a spirited and impulsive rider with questionable French

What certainly is true, though, is that Kübler decided at the end of that day that he wasn't going to ride any further. He announced that he was giving up racing, went to his room covered with plasters and bandages from his crashes on the way down the Ventoux, had a bad night's sleep and pulled out of the Tour next morning with the words "He is too old, Ferdy, he is too sick. Ferdy killed himself on the Ventoux."

He walked out of the Tour and never rode it again. Instead, he bought a flower shop in Zürich, the city near which he still lives and where he is the oldest living winner of the Tour de France.

Switzerland has a number of official languages and French is one of them. But Kübler comes from the German-speaking region and to this day he is still too shy about his talent in French to speak it very often.

Raphaël Geminiani in the team car
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Géminiani used to make a lot of Kübler's eccentric French and his equally eccentric nature. When Gem hung his bike on the hook, he took up not the flower business but a seat in a team car. And there, he said, Kübler would drop back to talk to him and to other managers, warning them "Ferdy attack soon. You ready?" And then, having let the message sink in, he'd drop back again to underline it, "Ferdy big horse. Ferdy attack. Your boys ready?"

Géminiani has never been a patient man. He is not erudite or overeducated. He is not especially tolerant. And so when Kübler repeated his warnings a third time - "Ferdy attack now. France ready?" - Géminiani leaned out of his car window and replied in mocking and deliberately bad French, "Ferdy shut up now or Ferdy get head knocked in."

Raphaël Geminiani
Photo ©: AFP Photo
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Or at any rate, that's what Géminiani says he said. I rather hope he really did. Sometimes stories are just too good not to be true. As John Steinbeck once observed, just because something isn't true doesn't mean it never happened.

Kübler these days is a lean and sprightly man approaching 90. Another couple of years, that's all, and to look at him there's every chance he'll make that and more. In 1983, the Swiss voted him their greatest sportsman of the previous 50 years. During July he was most likely following the Tour on television as usual.

Ferdinand Kübler
Photo ©: AFP Photo
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He's not one of those old-timers who insists it was better in the olden days. In fact he's insistent that it's much better now - not least for the riders. Kübler remembers: "In those days we had to change our own tyres when we punctured. I got a flat once and my domestique, Emilio Croci-Torti, helped me. I saw him, when it was cold, tearing a tubular off the rim with his teeth. Word of honour. It was unbelievable.

"And we had to ride with a spare tyre wrapped round our shoulders. My speciality was to put them round my shoulders just so, with the valve just where it ought to go. You had to, because if you crashed, the valve could cut into your back. And then, with the spectators, 'Hup Ferdy!', a little tap on the shoulder and the valve stuck into you. But they could tap me as I passed because there was no risk. That wasn't the case with everyone.

"And every morning at the start, we got a card with the name of the hotel we'd be staying at that night. We had to get there on our bikes after the finish, which often wasn't easy. And showers! They'd be a real luxury. On the Tour, you'd often get to a hotel where they'd be just one room set up as a bathroom for everybody, with a single bath. It was full of water but it was never emptied. You had to share it with your team-mates, so you can imagine the colour at the end of it. And the toilets, they were the same. I once even ended up with the handle of the chain in my hands.

"One night, I couldn't find the bathroom so I went to reception to ask. And they gave me a bowl of water. Imagine that after 270 kilometres and four cols!"

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