Some things were always sacrosanct for Julio Jiménez.
After he retired from racing in 1969, guests and visiting journalists would invariably be shown into his wood-paneled, slightly shabby living room on the upper floor of the center of Ávila. King of the Mountains titles – stuffed ibex heads, of all things, as there was no polka-dot jersey – would be proudly pointed out. The studded pennants that he had received for his five Tour stage wins were even more difficult to miss, being sewn into his living room sofas as rather painful head rests. Dusty photos of him triumphing on the Puy de Dôme in the Tour de France and leading the Giro d’Italia for 11 days would be dragged out of cupboard drawers. The maglia rosas themselves were mysteriously lost, but the trophies for his four Giro stage wins were still gleaming in the cabinet opposite.
A few scurrilously-unprintable tales about other Spanish old-time pros would always be woven with ferocious disdain into the general conversation. Himself a lifelong bachelor, after an hour, or three, of non-stop talking about 1950s and 1960s cycling – the decades he spent as an amateur and pro – his aged but spirited mother, Goya, would slowly wheel a cake tray groaning with coffee and cookies across the living room floor. This was as if to say ‘OK, folks, the show is over.’
But it wasn’t. Because invariably after a second black coffee, Jiménez ‘eyes would suddenly twinkle, and he’d ask with an innocent-looking grin:’ Shall we go out and find us a fiesta? ‘
Jiménez and Bahamontes
Killed in a car accident earlier this week at age 87, Jiménez was never one to stop living life at full speed, even when he wasn’t on a bike. That wasn’t just apparent from his love of car rallies, ripping through the mountain roads that crisscross the sierras of Gredos and Madrid near his lifelong home in Ávila.
For years after retiring, he and his arch-frenemy Federico Martín Bahamontes, who won the Tour de France in 1959, would drive across Spain in a huge white Mercedes-Benz, working an apparently never-ending, guest-of-honor circuit at club prize-giving nights, race presentations and bike shop openings.
Through the ship, boozy evenings, the two would constantly spin Bahamontes on a Pyrenean break in the Tour de France in 1964, at least according to Bahamontes. Or how Bahamontes was such a bad breakaway companion he blew their chances of joint success on that very same stage, according to Jiménez. Hilariously, he was so cross with Bahamontes he had to stop to buy himself a Coke and sandwich in a roadside bar to calm down.
Yet for all their differences on the bike, Jimenez and Bahamontes, both coming from central Spain and very poor working-class backgrounds, had curiously similar early lives. Bahamontes only got his first bike because he was a young marketeer of fruits and vegetables, while Jiménez ‘road to two wheels was equally random. His mother was working for a general army who had several bikes, felt sorry for Jiménez and bought him a tricycle. Bahamontes won a basketball shirt while Jim was first in the Avila football shirt that you could barely read the letters.
Road to glory
Their paths differ, of course, when the watchmaker in his cousin’s shop in Ávila (hence the nickname). Back then his nervous energy was so great he used to constantly pedal his legs up and down under the watchmaking workbench and he’d later say those were his first ever training rides. After a brief spell as an electrician, he moved from virtual cycling under the head to the real sport as a teenager. But he still turned pro comparatively late, at 27 – similar to Bahamontes who turned pro at 25 – when he rode half-way across Spain to a battered Vespa, borrowed somebody’s bike and made his way to the start-line. That simple, that complicated.
After years of freelancing for different sponsors, when Jiménez finally netted his first full-time professional contract in 1964 with KAS, the legendary Spanish team, success came quickly. That year he secured his first Tour de France stage win thanks to the attack on the approach roads to the Envalira and caught the international press attention, too. He was memorably described by Britain’s Geoffrey Nicholson in The Great Bike Race for his “small bird-like figure … he was also balding and he never looked particularly sloppy if he had springs in his calves.”
But it didn’t take the riding style over the years to prove that it was so successful in six years, that it took five tour stages in Paris, three King of the Mountains wins in both the Vuelta a España and the Tour de France, four stages in the Giro d’Italia and an overall win in the Critérium du Dauphiné.
“Had Jiménez won a Grand Tour, he would have actually got the credit for such a successful career,” Pedro Delgado, winner of the 1988 Tour de France and himself from nearby Segovia, told Cyclingnews on Tuesday. “But his greatest achievements were overshadowed by Bahamontes, basically because Bahamontes won a Tour and he didn’t.”
In defense of “The Eagle of Toledo”, when their careers are two leading climbers of their generations overlapped, it was fair to say that Jiménez did not often get the better of Bahamontes. The most high-profile occasion Jiménez did it undoubtedly when Jiménez outsourced Bahamontes on the Puy De Dôme in the 1964 Tour. But on that day the Anquetil-Poulidor duel behind them – which decided the outcome of the Tour de France and made the resulting images which came to symbolize a whole generation of Tour racing – overshadowed everything.
It didn’t matter if Jiménez, Bahamontes or anyone else was racing or not. The Bahamontes-Jiménez rivalry raged on for years afterwards, to the point where six years later, when Jiménez was asked for a last-season racing with the Bahamontes-running team, La Casera. He received, through the intermediary, a flat ‘no’. Then at a joint autograph and post-card signing session, Bahamontes wrote on one card, “To Julio, friend and domestique.” Considering the two never rode in the same team, that was quite a put-down.
From one of Anquetil’s closest friends, Jiménez enjoyed a late spell of success as his teammate and domestique in the top French BIC squad. However, in 1967, he finished on the Tour de France podium, which was unfortunate enough to be racing with the Spanish National Selection that July. That year, the Spanish selection was, as he once told El Paiss, “a chaos of egos,” and as a Frenchman Roger Pingeon launched a race-winning attack, Jiménez did not have the necessary support to fight back to win. Two years later, he had retired.
Finally on film
Yet, his career as a cyclist has not been distinguished enough, Jiménez’s influence and importance in sport in central Spain in the years that followed was huge, too.
“Julio was the true source of inspiration for cycling all over the region of Ávila in the 1960s,” Pedro Delgado said. “I do not want to go racing, but you have to do it automatically” – the father of 2008 Tour winner Carlos in the village El Barraco, where racers like José María Jimenez would cut their teeth – “turned pro thanks to Julio, too.”
While there is a traffic accident in central Avila, Julius Jiménez ‘life, by total coincidence, it will be at least soon to be celebrated on the big screen for the first time. That’s because a film has just been made from an early story in Jiménez ‘professional life, when taking an enthusiastic part in a village festival, mid-way through the fiestas, Jiménez took on the whole KAS squad at a Spanish Mountain National Championships in 1962 and beat them.
The real Jiménez – who, despite his age and the film the actor a loaf of bread.
The movie which is directed by Delgado’s movie-maker son, who is also called Pedro, will at least act as a reminder of Jiménez life as a pro racer.
“But it’s also worth pointing out again,” says Pedro Delgado senior, “how charming and special Julio was as a person. Everybody who met him said that.
Julio Jiménez: born Ávila, Spain, October 10th, 1934; died Ávila, Spain, June 7th, 2022