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Meet Julio Jiménez: You think Bahamontes was Spain’s greatest climber? Think again

Julio Jiménez was one of the best pure climbers in the golden age in the 1960s and his career overlapped with Bahamontes, Anquetil and Merckx.

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ÁVILA, Spain (VN) — Julio Jiménez walks with a cane but his handshake is firm.

At 86, the Spanish cycling legend is still quick on his feet, and the glint in his eye reveals the strong character that made him one of the leading lights in the 1960s.

During his heyday in the mid- to late-1960s, Jiménez raced against the legends of the age, from Federico Bahamontes to Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor to the dawn of the Eddy Merckx era. He dropped, and beat many of them.

And the tightly wound natural-born climber — “I weigh the same now as I did when I raced, 62 kilos” — came away with impressive results in his compact pro career, including King of the Mountains jerseys at the Tour de France and Vuelta a España, as well as stage wins across all three grand tours.

One of the pure climbers of his era, Jiménez never won a grand tour, but was second in the 1967 Tour de France.

“I should have won that Tour,” Jiménez tells us. “That year, the Tour was raced with national teams. The French ganged up on me so I wouldn’t win, but I was the strongest in the race that year.”

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There’s a sparkle in his eye that hints at a sense of joy and mischief he enjoyed during his racing career.

Despite racing and winning against the greats of his time, the 5-foot-5 Jiménez refuses to put himself on the same pedestal as the likes of Anquetil and Merckx.

“I turned pro too late,” he tells us. “It wasn’t easy to turn pro out of Spain in those days, and I didn’t go to my first Tour until I was 29. Within a few seasons, my best years were behind me. I squeezed out what I could.”

Jiménez holds an eyepiece that he used during his days as a watch repairman. (Photo: James Startt)

Jiménez was excited when VeloNews stopped in to visit him last month in his hometown of Ávila. The Vuelta a España would be passing close by this year, with a stage ending in El Barraco just down the road.

“I’ll be traveling with the race that day. Will you be there?” Jiménez asks us with a smile. “I still follow all the races. The young riders today are very strong, but we were stronger in the mountains than they are today.”

Of that, Jiménez is probably right.

Back in the 1960s, Jiménez said bikes could weigh up to 18 kilos, and only included four or five gears. Riders simply had to pack more brawn to muscle their bikes up and down the cols of Europe.

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Jiménez invites us in for coffee in his simple, first-floor apartment in a building just at the edge of Ávila’s ominous medieval walls.

A short and steep road that climbs to the ramparts of the walls is named after Ávila’s most famous namesake: “Cuesta de Julio Jiménez.” Carlos Sastre, who won the Tour in 2008, also lives in Ávila, but grew up in nearby El Barraco, where Sastre’s father started a cycling club that spawned Sastre, David Navas, Paco Mancebo, and José María Jiménez, the famous “Chava” who died of a heart attack in 2003.

“He was a tortured soul,” Jiménez said of the fallen rider, “but he was magical on the bike.”

Julio Jiménez rode for some of Europe’s biggest teams during his short but intense career. (Photo: James Startt)

A visit to Jiménez’s house is like entering a time machine of cycling history. Autographed photos of himself posing with the likes of the King of Spain, Miguel Indurain, Pedro Delgado, and the president of Real Madrid fill his wall.

Trophies crowd out his mantlepiece, but he explains most of them are from his days as a rally driver, a hobby he took very seriously after retiring in 1969. Most of his team jerseys, original bikes, and cycling trophies are gone.

“I loaned them to a movie producer who was making a film about cycling, and he wanted to use all my original jerseys and bikes on the set,” Jiménez explains with a frown. “I never got them back. A few years ago, someone reached out to me to sign one of my jerseys that he said he had purchased online. It’s all gone.”

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Jiménez’s exploits live on, both in his mind and in well-worn notebooks, diaries and photo albums where he guards his most personal moments.

His eyes light up as he flips through the pages, pointing out riders and names with glee.

Jiménez’s road to the top of international cycling wasn’t easy. His father was an ambulance driver during Spain’s Civil War, and later a chofer for a general in the Spanish army. The family grew up in modest means, and young Julio received his first bike as a gift from the general. And like any schoolboy with wheels, he’d explore the region.

“They say a bike opens the world to you. It did for me,” he says. “I started racing locally and I always won in the mountains, but it was never easy to get noticed by the top pro teams. Back then, race organizers would pull together teams of amateurs to fill out the peloton. That’s how I really started to get noticed. I won a stage at the Volta a Catalunya, and that helped me get my first pro contract.”

Jiménez is a bit like a cycling “Zelig.” Like the character in the Woody Allen movie, Jiménez had a front-row seat to some of the most iconic and historic moments in cycling history. He was often there at the front, but larger events often eclipsed his personal triumphs.

One of his most memorable exploits came during his Tour debut in 1964, but his stage victory is often overshadowed by what happened behind him.

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That year, Jiménez won the now-famous stage up the Puy de Dôme in 1964 where Poulidor and Anquetil battled elbow-to-elbow for the yellow jersey in one of the Tour’s most storied rivalries. The duo squared off for the yellow jersey throughout that Tour, and the Puy de Dôme was a key stage, and Jiménez was up the road chasing glory.

“I didn’t see it, because I was off the front!” Jiménez says with a laugh. “Anquetil was a true gentleman, class from top to bottom. He helped me get my first pro contract. I met him at critériums and he told me I was too good not to have a team, and helped me join Faema [in 1962]. I cannot say enough good things about the man; class on and off the bike.”

And Poulidor? Jiménez stops to collect his thoughts, and said he never felt the pity for the man like so many did in France for the so-called “eternal second.”

“Everyone always said, ‘Poor Poulidor, he never won the Tour,’ but he made a lot of money!” Jiménez says with a shrug of his shoulders. “I didn’t have much time for him. He was always sucking my wheel, and then when it came to a prime, he would run me into the barriers so he could win. He was already on a big salary; that was not right.”

Old grudges die hard, yet the memories burn on.

“Poulidor never won the Tour, but he won the Vuelta,” Jiménez said of the 1964 Spanish grand tour. “A Spanish rider should have won that Vuelta, but the organizer put in some big time trials [note: Poulidor won a 65km time trial in stage 15 to cement the victory]. I never won the Vuelta either, because the organizers would put in long time trials to attract the French. Poulidor, Anquetil, Hinault — they all came to win the Vuelta once, and never gave it much notice after.”

 

A street near his home bears his name in Ávila. (Photo: James Startt)

Another historic moment that Jiménez lived in the front row: Tom Simpson’s tragic death on Mont Ventoux in the 1967 Tour.

“I was first up Ventoux. The conditions that day were horrific — heat, sun, there was no place to hide,” Jiménez recounts as if it were yesterday. “The stage ended that day in Carpentras, and I was caught and beaten. It was only later we heard the news he had died.”

Jiménez said it was not uncommon for riders to collapse from exhaustion and dehydration from the extreme efforts. He recounted how he knew of Portuguese riders who also died from extreme heat exhaustion, and said that cycling was still stuck in the past by officials, and that water bottles were not allowed to be passed up from the team cars.

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Cycling was clawing out of its past and easing into the modern era, a transition that Jiménez lived in real-time across the arc of his career. Bikes were becoming lighter, components were improving, and the sport ever more professional.

“We still had to stop in villages to fill up our water bottles and look for food where we could,” he says, shaking his head at the memory. “I would bring Spanish ‘membrillo’ and ‘queso’ with me because you could digest it fast. They were trying to keep us in the past, like in the 1920s, but cycling had changed. After what happened to Simpson, they changed the rules, and our team cars could pass bidons.

“I was up the road, and I saw him collapse the first time. At first, I thought it was a mechanical issue, and slowed. Then he fell a second time, and I pushed on … ,” Jiménez pauses, tears welling in his eyes.

“We didn’t know what was happening. We didn’t have race radios or anything like that. I was racing for the stage win, and kept racing as you always do,” he said, pausing as he collects his emotions. “Simpson was one of my best friends in the peloton. He always treated me fairly. I was crushed. He was world champion, a big star. Such a horrible loss.”

Jiménez was one of the best climbers in his generation that spanned from Bahamontes to Anquetil to Merckx. (Photo: James Startt)

Jiménez had many nicknames during his relatively short but intense pro career. Rivals called him “la pulga de Ávila” — the flea — because he would bounce around the climbs like a little bug. He titled his autobiography, “Un Abulense Universal,” roughly translating to an international resident of Ávila.

The one that stuck was the “relojero de Ávila” — the watchmaker of Ávila — from his days working in his cousin’s jewelry store. In the early 1950s, Jiménez needed to learn a trade in case cycling didn’t work out. In fact, he never truly expected to race professionally, yet he would squeeze in rides between shifts at the watch shop.

“Back in those days, people were poor, and watches and clocks were valuable items, so they wouldn’t just throw them away when they broke, they would repair them,” Jiménez said. “These were working-man watches, the big pocket watches the farmers would have in their pants. I could take them apart and repair them for a few pesetas each. When you work on watches, you learn to be patient and meticulous. I suppose both of those traits helped me in cycling.”

After retiring, Jiménez considered opening up a jewelry shop, but didn’t want to compete against his cousin’s family, so he opened a nightclub and restaurant instead.

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During his career, Jiménez never made top dollar. In those days, only a few big stars like Anquetil or Poulidor were earning significant incomes.

“My first contract was for 6,000 pesetas a month,” Jiménez said, suggesting it was barely enough to live on. “Anquetil got me on a team that paid me 30,000 pesetas a month. That was more than enough to save a little.”

His first big team was Faema in 1962 and 1963, but despite winning stages at Mont Faron and a stage at the Dauphiné, they didn’t bring him to the Tour de France. He swapped to KAS in 1964, and immediately started to shine, winning two stages each in both the Vuelta and Tour that year.

“Faema didn’t bring me to the Tour because they said I wasn’t good on the flats,” he says with a shrug. “I made a big mistake by signing with Faema, because I would have gone to the Tour earlier. I didn’t race my first Tour until I was 29. By 1969, I was burned out, and my best years were behind me. I opened a restaurant and bar, and later rented it out. I was cheated out of my retirement by the teams. They said they paid my social security, but they never did. After racing, I didn’t have much.”

He raced alongside the rising Merckx in the 1968 and 1969 editions of the Giro. Jiménez won two stages in 1968, but Merckx, who won his first grand tour that year, and kept him out of the climber’s jersey.

“Merckx had class that few have and he kept me from winning the climber’s jersey at the Giro,” Jiménez said. “In 1969, we attacked together but I punctured just when I was going to attack to win. I was on a small Italian team, and I was burned out that year. I was done and Merckx was on the rise.”

Jiménez admires a replica of one of his former jerseys. (Photo: James Startt)

No story about Jiménez is complete without mentioning Bahamontes.

When Jiménez turned pro in the early 1960s, Bahamontes was already Spain’s biggest star. Bahamontes won the 1959 Tour, the first by a Spanish rider, yet the so-called “Eagle of Toledo” made his name and reputation by winning the polka-dot jersey a then-record six times.

“Bahamontes? He’s a little special,” Jiménez says, choosing his words carefully. “It was never easy dealing with him. He was obsessed with the King of the Mountains jersey, even more so than winning the Tour itself. It was always about him — yo, yo, yo [me, me, me]!”

The memories flow out of Jiménez like it was a race last season, not six decades ago.

Instead of being seen as a natural heir to his throne, Bahamontes saw Jiménez as a direct rival for the King of the Mountains prize at the Tour. Jiménez recounts how Bahamontes out-foxed him in the 1964 Tour to win the polka-dot jersey that year, relegating Jiménez to a bitter second place.

“It was my first Tour and I was a bit in awe of Bahamontes,” he remembers. “But we were also rivals for the climber’s jersey. Bahamontes came up to me to say, ‘I am going to attack to try to win the Tour. Do not follow me, because if you do, they will chase us down. Let me win, and I will help you win the climber’s jersey.’ Then he won the climber’s jersey! He cheated me. The next year I attacked him every chance I could.”

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Of course, there are two sides to every story. Today, Bahamontes lives in Toledo, on the other side of the mountains from Ávila. The pair never speak, and Bahamontes, at 93, is the oldest living Tour winner.

Jiménez won the first of his three straight climber’s jerseys at the Tour in 1965, the same season Bahamontes retired.

Jiménez, too, would be retired by 1969. A new generation was coming in, and Jiménez couldn’t find a contract. His racing days were over, but cycling remains an integral part of his soul today.

“Who impressed me most? Anquetil in the time trial was simply the best,” Jiménez remembers as we pack up to leave. “Hinault was a brute who could win everything. Today’s generation? Bernal is pure class, but this Pogačar kid — he’s something special.”

Could you beat him in the mountains, Julio? He just smiles his mischievous grin, and replies, “nunca se sabe!” — you never know.

Today, Jiménez only has replicas of his jerseys after loaning them to a film producer and never getting them back. (Photo: James Startt)