The Watchmaker of Ávila: Julio Jiménez
Legend of the Tour de France
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The Tour de France—indeed the whole world of bike racing—was very different in the 1960s, the decade bookended by the Tour victories of Jacques Anquetil and Eddy Merckx. Those two superstars grabbed most of the fame and the headlines but there were other riders who personified what pro cycling was truly like in that era. One of them was Julio Jiménez, a skinny Spanish climber who had to battle for years to even become a professional cyclist; to make enough money to race a bike, he worked for his cousin repairing watches—even in his mid-20s.
Words: John Wilcockson
Images: Horton Collection
That was a situation I could identify with, because the ’60s happened to be the decade when I discovered cycling. My first trip out of the country was to ride around France to watch the Tour, witnessing a first mountain stage on the Col du Tourmalet. The sun was high in the sky on a baking-hot afternoon. They didn’t wear sunglasses or helmets in those days, so when the leaders arrived, I could look into the blue eyes of Anquetil. He was wearing the distinctive red-white-and-blue Saint-Raphaël team jersey. On his wheel was Raymond Poulidor in the purple-and-yellow of Mercier-BP, followed by three Spaniards: Federico Bahamontes in the white-and-blue of Margnat-Paloma and, both in the plain pink of the Ferry’s team, José Pérez-Francés and Esteban Martin. Jiménez was good enough to be with them—but he had yet to ride the Tour. In fact, at 28 years of age, Jiménez was wondering whether he would ever make it as a top professional.
His story began in Ávila, a historic walled city to the west of Madrid. He was 5 years old when World War II began and didn’t acquire his first bike until it ended. Cycling soon came his passion. He had little interest in education, left school early and went to work as an apprentice with his cousin Angel Nuñez, who owned a small business repairing watches and alarm clocks. The meager wage helped the teenage Jiménez buy parts for his heavy bike, on which he started some local races, wearing the only sports outfit he had: the soccer kit of Atlético Madrid.
While learning his craft as a watchmaker, Jiménez grew close to cousin Angel, who allowed him to report late for work after early-morning training rides. Despite poor equipment that constantly let him down, he managed to win a small local junior race at age 17. Weighing less than 120 pounds, Jiménez soon saw that he was pretty good on the climbs, but his equipment remained rudimentary. When he was 19, his cousin “sponsored” him so he could race in a jersey with “Casa Angel” on the chest.
Tour de France
King of the Mountains: 1965, 1966 and 1967; 5 stage wins
4 stage wins
Vuelta a España
King of the Mountains: 1963, 1964 and 1965; 3 stage wins
National Road Champion: 1964
His potential was seen when he won the first stage of the 1954 amateur Vuelta a Salamanca; but it was another two years, when he 21, before he achieved what he called “my first important victory.” This was a regional amateur stage race, the Vuelta a Ávila, in which Jiménez won three stages, the KOM competition and the overall title. “That confirmed for me that I had to continue to fight to live from cycling,” he told his biographer.
That goal still seemed a long way off when he had to complete his military service in 1957 for the army of Spain’s dictator, Generalisimo Franco, followed by two seasons in which he raced with other ex-soldiers in a cycling team run by the Guardia de Franco paramilitary group. He won a handful of circuit races for that team—but none of his results indicated that he was ready for a pro career. But when he was on a small regional team in1960, Jiménez scored a couple of significant victories—one of them a 7.2-kilometer uphill time trial at the Basque Country town of Elgueta, where he defeated veteran pro Jesús Loroño, who won the 1957 Vuelta a España. That result earned Jiménez a spot on a semi-pro team, Lambretta-Catigene, for that September’s Volta a Catalunya. And after winning one of the stages and placing 11th overall, he signed a contract with Catigene for 1961.
That didn’t mean that he’d made it into the big time. To supplement his team salary, Jiménez was still repairing watches for his cousin—even though he competed in that year’s Vuelta a España, finishing 36th overall and placing second in the KOM competition. It was a promising result for Jiménez, and he confirmed his growing confidence when he was selected for a four-man Spanish national team to ride the Vuelta a Colombia—a race almost always dominated by the home riders in the high-altitude terrain of the Andes. That was again the case. But remarkably, Jiménez won four of the 10 stages, placed second in the KOM contest and finished fourth overall—the only non-Colombian in the top 10.
Jiménez’s performance in South America was barely reported in Europe but his success did have some resonance, because after his Catigene team was shut down at year’s end he clinched his first contract with a mainstream pro team: the Spanish branch of the FAEMA squad. He did well enough to be picked for the Vuelta a España in April, this time placing third in the KOM competition. More importantly, by finishing the Vuelta stronger than he started it, he obtained his team selection for the major Tour de France warm-up race, the Critérium du Dauphiné in the French Alps.
The weeklong stage race boasted the toughest field that Jiménez had ever faced, with superstars Anquetil, Bahamontes and Poulidor all competing. The 194-kilometer stage 4, crossing a trio of high passes in the Chartreuse, was the first of the week’s mountain stages. Jiménez was sensational. On the opening climb, the Col de Porte, he went with 1959 Tour winner Bahamontes to chase after a breakaway rider, fellow Spaniard Fernando Manzaneque; he caught him on the second climb, the Cucheron; and then dropped him on the last one, the Granier, to descend to the finish in Chambéry and win the stage by 1:39 over Bahamontes. A small group with Anquetil and Poulidor was almost four minutes back.
That performance should have been enough to earn Jiménez a spot on the FAEMA team for the Tour de France, but the sponsor focused on the Belgian branch of the squad, with none of its Spanish riders being selected. The same thing happened in 1963 even though Jiménez continued to post good results, including victories in Spain’s national mountains championship, the prestigious Mont Faron hill climb in France and the KOM title at the Vuelta a España. The Spanish part of FAEMA folded that winter, so Jiménez had to seek another squad—unless he wanted to return to his cousin’s watch-repair shop in Ávila.
So, shortly after his 29th birthday, Jiménez met with Dalmacio Langarica, the manager of the most successful Spanish outfit, Kas-Kaskol. Langarica said to him: “You don’t have a sponsor and I’d really like you on my team. I’ll put you in Le Tour that the other teams have refused so far, because they say you’re too fragile and not willing to work hard. But I’m telling you, if you can put all your love into your métier as a roadie [and not the girls], you’ll race to win and not race any other way.”
In response, Jiménez said, “I told him, okay, I’d rather think about winning stages in the mountains than about Brigette Bardot. I regret not having known Langarica several years ago, as I would be rich and famous, and already have some glory. For me, all that seemed inaccessible, so when Dalmacio told me that I’d be a champion…I accepted.”
So, finally, eight long years after he’d first shown his climbing ability at the Vuelta a Ávila, Jiménez was with a team and a manager who fully recognized his qualities. He didn’t disappoint Langarica. Right off the bat, he placed second in the Barcelona–Andorra classic and won a stage of the GP Eibar. At the Vuelta a España in May, he was sensational, winning two stages (including stage 5 ahead of Tour de France stars Pérez-Francés and Poulidor), taking the KOM title and placing fifth overall. Jiménez was ready to tackle his first Tour.
Despite his successes in Spain and that Dauphiné stage win two years earlier, Jiménez was pretty much an unknown to the media at the Tour. His team expected him to ride as a domestique for most of the Tour and go for KOM points in the climbing stages. He carried out those roles for the first dozen stages, but the Tour, his career and his life changed after stage 13 from Perpignan to Andorra-la-Vella. [Note: A stage of the 2021 Tour will finish in the principality’s capital city for the first time since that 1964 edition.]
On that July day 57 years ago, Jiménez attacked at the foot of the first climb, the Col de la Perche, on the hunt for KOM points; but this time he was almost two minutes ahead of runner-up Bahamontes at the summit and though there were still almost 100 kilometers to race, he continued with his effort, steadily gaining time on a disinterested peloton over the remaining mountain passes, the Puymorens and Envalira, to win the stage by almost nine minutes.
The press didn’t give Jiménez the credit he deserved for such a monumental effort, but a few days later, on the classic Pyrenean stage from Luchon to Pau, he proved his strength by joining Bahamontes (who was shooting for the yellow jersey) in another long-distance breakaway. It started on the first of four climbs. Together, the two Spanish climbers steadily gained up to six minutes on the main group that forced Anquetil to ride hard for the rest of the day. Jiménez took maximum KOM points over the Peyresourde, Aspin and Tourmalet; but he fell back over the final climb, the Aubisque.
“Jiménez doesn’t know these climbs. He told me he had no energy left and that it would be better if I carried on alone. Well, after the finish, he said he felt better on the next little climb…and if we’d been together, I would’ve had the yellow jersey,” said Bahamontes, who came within 35 seconds of taking it. The veteran Spaniard, 36, was still seeking the overall victory four days later on the stage to the Puy-de-Dôme—where he’d won the uphill time trial that triggered his overall Tour victory in 1959.
This time, five years later, the Puy-de-Dôme would be the only summit finish of the race. Hundreds of thousands lined the ancient volcanic peak to see the GC battle between Anquetil, Poulidor and Bahamontes. I was again following the Tour by bike and managed to squeeze into a slot among the rabid fans. And that’s where the race exploded. Jiménez stood on his pedals and sped clear. Poulidor tried to stay with him but thought better of it. And Bahamontes was slow to react, but still moved clear of the two French stars.
Recounting that day, Jiménez said, “Langarica told me what to do. He was Bahamontes’ directeur when Federico won the Puy de Dôme time trial [in 1959]. I only had to listen to what he told me: Attack 4 kilometers from the summit. I knew that Bahamontes couldn’t get back to me on such a short, steep climb. He’s much better on big climbs.”
While Anquetil and Poulidor were playing out their epic duel behind, Jiménez was in a bigger gear, a 45×24, dancing on the pedals as he headed to a superb stage win. “I was very happy to finish; it’s a horrible hill, especially after such a hard day [almost 240 kilometers in seven-plus hours].” That stage is best remembered for Poulidor dropping a weary Anquetil in the final kilometer and coming within 14 seconds of dethroning his rival, but for Jiménez it was truly the day that set him on his way toward his dream of glory and becoming rich and famous.
Jiménez went on to win three more stages at the next few Tours, took second overall in 1967 and collected three KOM titles. He won four stages at the Giro d’Italia—wearing the pink jersey for 11 days in 1966 and finishing fourth overall just behind his new team leader, Anquetil. And at the Vuelta, he snagged another stage and two more KOM titles. If the grand tours in the ’60s had as many mountaintop stage finishes as they do today, Jiménez would surely have won the Tour, the Giro or the Vuelta. Probably all three.
Although he had a very late start to his true professional career, he amassed an extraordinary palmarès in just five years before retiring in 1969. He opened a bar-discotheque within the walled city of Ávila, still did some watch-repair work for his cousin and today, at 86, he enjoys retirement at his apartment in the old town surrounded by his trophies, notable jerseys and some of his bikes.
From issue 104. Buy it here.