Icons of cycling: Saint Raphaël

The almighty Saint Raphaël team swept all before them during the 1950s and 1960s and their legacy casts a long sartorial shadow today, writes Giles Belbin

Rudi Altig (left) and Jacques Anquetil at the 1962 Tour de France. Photo: Roger Viollet/REX/Shutterstock

The story of the Saint Raphaël cycling team starts late at night in a medical laboratory in 1830’s France. Of course it does. What could be more obvious?

It was there that the Saint Raphaël drink, an aperitif with medicinal qualities, was invented by a Doctor Juppet. The story goes that Juppet’s sight was failing as he was working on a herbal tonic late at night.

Struggling to see clearly, the doctor remembered a story in the Book of Tobit where the archangel Raphaël restored the power of sight to a blind man. When he finished making his tonic, Juppet named his new drink after the archangel.

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Fast forward 120 years or so to the mid-1950s and the Saint Raphaël aperitif was being distributed throughout Europe and the USA.

Meanwhile, in the world of cycling, the French national champion and Tour de France stage winner, Raphaël Géminiani, was looking for sponsors for his cycling team.

Trade secret

Top-level cycle team sponsorship had been the preserve of the cycling industry, mainly bicycle manufacturers, until Fiorenzo Magni blazed a trail and attracted cosmetic firm Nivea as his team’s title sponsor for the 1954 season.

It didn’t take long for Géminiani to follow Magni’s lead. Wary of attracting the wrath of cycling’s governing bodies and race organisers, who were decidedly less than happy with these extra-sportif title sponsors, he struck a deal with Saint Raphaël, happy that if questioned he could claim the team was merely named after himself.

The team would grow into one of cycling’s greatest squads. Their first major win came from an unlikely source — Roger Walkowiak. Walkowiak, a journeyman pro, joined in 1956 and promptly stunned the cycling world by winning the Tour de France.

He was actually riding for the Nord-Est Centre team (the Tour being contested by national and regional teams at the time) but Walkowiak’s yellow jersey carried his trade team’s name.

Just two years into their sponsorship and Saint Raphaël could already lay claim to the biggest prize in cycling.

In subsequent years their riders went on to claim the Tour of Flanders, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the Tour of Lombardy, the World Hour Record and the World Championship road race.

Enter Anquetil...

While British riders Brian Robinson and Tom Simpson both rode for the team during their careers, Jacques Anquetil was Saint Raphaël’s star rider.

Maître Jacques joined in 1962 and claimed successive Tour wins in 1962, 1963 and 1964 while wearing the team’s red, white and blue jersey.

Anquetil became the first rider to record five Tour wins (he’d also won in 1957 and 1961) and also added wins at the Vuelta a España and Giro d'Italia for the team, his exploits doing much to secure Saint Raphaël’s place in cycling history before they finally left the sport after the 1964 season.

The team has since given inspiration for the high-achieving Portsmouth-based VC St Raphael and the Rapha cycle clothing brand.

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