I am in a converted garage in Toledo, central Spain, receiving a lesson in dedication and sacrifice from Federico Bahamontes. The garage is the headquarters of the Bahamontes fan club, which is presided over by Bahamontes himself.
Bahamontes does not admire many climbers. He rates himself, but that’s natural when you have a good claim to being the best cyclist ever to ride up a mountain. In the 1950s and ’60s he won the King of the Mountains six times, and the equivalent at the Vuelta twice and the Giro once. Only Richard Virenque has since equalled that Tour tally.
Virenque, in fact, won seven, but his performances were tainted by the Festina affair (the major doping scandal in which a car from that team was stopped at the Belgian border just before the 1998 Tour and industrial quantities of performance-enhancing drugs were found, pointing to a large-scale team-administered doping programme).
Bahamontes, however, claims, and with some force, never to have doped – in an era when doping products were less effective than in the 1990s but their use equally rife. He is 88, but he has the demeanour and vigour of someone 20 years younger. His handshake firm, his step sure.
“All the people who raced with me are now dead because of what they were taking,” he tells me. He is still pin sharp, still totally in control of his faculties, and though he sounds fierce his forthright opinions are delivered with the twinkling humour of your favourite granddad. Nobody in his era measured up, according to Bahamontes, and nobody since has either, and if that’s what he believes, then he will damn well say it. Only Charly Gaul almost made the grade, and Bahamontes calls him “my number one enemy”.
Alejandro Martín Bahamontes (according to the church register) was born in a small village near Toledo in 1928. The family was poor but the Spanish Civil War and the Franco regime lowered them, like many, into abject poverty. For a while his father broke rocks as a road-mender’s mate; for two years, the 11-year-old Federico had to help him. As a teenager, Bahamontes stole stale bread and rotten fruit, and even killed cats to stave off his family’s hunger (cats that, Alasdair Fotheringham writes in his biography, The Eagle of Toledo: The Life and Times of Federico Bahamontes, his mother gutted and stuffed and which the family called ‘baby goats’).
Riding a bike was part of this struggle to survive. By 18, Bahamontes was working as a market trader, unloading lorries and then picking out and selling on the rotten fruit the stall-holders didn’t want, and he saved the money he made to buy a bike. The plan was he would ride from village to village, illegally picking up bread and beans and flour which he would then sell on the black market in Toledo. Anyone caught doing this by the Guardia Civil, who patrolled the roads, faced a prison sentence. Often he would ride in the middle of the day, when it was hottest and the police would be on their siesta; needless to say, speed and cunning were an asset.
“All my strength came from the market,” he tells me. It is difficult to imagine this poverty as he sits here now in his of office, behind a huge desk, in front of a picture of himself as a handsome young man and next to a stern statue of an eagle. Bahamontes entered his first race almost by accident, when he met some friends on the road who were going and he tagged along. He came second. From his earliest races he always excelled in the mountains. “Whenever I arrived in the mountains I was happy,” he says.
Truly, for the first few years of his career, he thought of little else. He won the King of the Mountains in his first Tour, and absolutely dominated from then on. Unlike Vietto or Charly Gaul, who would emerge to be his main rival, his style wasn’t pretty. He would stand on the pedals, curiously upright, with his shorts hitched high and his hands shifting forward and back over the bars. It was, however, devastatingly effective. A favourite trick would be to attack, slow down so that he would get caught by the bunch and then go immediately again, crippling his rivals. Either that or recover and eat a little, and then launch off for the next lot of KoM points.
“My tactic from the beginning was attack, attack and attack again,” he says. The French press called it racing ‘à la Bahamontes’, a backhanded compliment that implied he didn’t take it seriously enough. There is an idea that, not being 100 per cent concerned with winning, there is something gratuitous in the climber’s art, and Bahamontes is in part responsible for that. The story goes that one year he stopped at the top of a col during the Tour de France, and, having claimed the KoM points, got off his bike and ate an ice cream and waited for the peloton to come.
Like the all the best Tour stories this one is more or less true: it was the Col de Romeyère in the Vercors region, the year was 1954, and it was a very hot day. The main reason he stopped was that he was riding on a wheel with broken spokes and needed a replacement, but the ice cream was a pretty classy touch, and one which did not dispel accusations that he favoured spectacular over effective racing: that he was erratic, quixotic even, and excessively individualistic. At times it was more than that: he was self-isolating and troublesome. He took his wilfulness to extremes, seeming always to contrive to be discontented wherever he was, and he changed teams at least once a year for most of his career.
I ask Bahamontes if a climber has to love solitude, as the stereotype suggests. The question is a royal road leading to several of his favourite subjects: suffering, sacrifice and how much better (that is to say, tougher) it was in the good old days.
“[Climbers] have to have the capacity to suffer, so when they come to difficult moments they can deal with it,” he says, and as his thoughts turn to modern riders he segues into they-are-not-worthy-of-the-name territory: “In the Vuelta España, for example, there are only four or five [modern] riders that compete for the classification. The others just sweat and get fat. They eat like kings and get massages and showers after every stage. They’re like girls. They don’t know how to suffer, the bike is hard.”
That’s them put in their place, then.
His eyes are sparkling, he is enjoying himself. There is an element of him playing up to the audience. But there is no doubt he is obsessively serious about the basics of his craft. First, there is that pure, iron will, which is probably innate. Or, as he says: “You don’t learn to be a climber, you’re born one.” Next, there is work, sacrifice, suffering. And them alone. That’s it. They become a mantra.
For example, Bahamontes on racing with power meters and heart-rate monitors: “It’s ridiculous. I tell them the only thing they need is sacrifice and training,” he says. “Fewer numbers, more reality.” Then the qualities needed to be a great climber: “Great sacrifice. The key is in the sacrifice that you have to have if you want to be an athlete.”
It sounds pretty grim and pretty self-abnegating, but then, if you look at where he came from, and the national hero he became, the 50-plus years of comfort and relative wealth he’s had since, I guess it makes sense.
Bahamontes also said one particular thing that has stayed with me. Before my visit to Toledo I’d stayed with friends in Girona, and there had asked Nathan Haas, (the Dimension Data rider, who, it turned out, was a huge fan of the Eagle of Toledo) what he would ask Bahamontes, given the chance. At that point on a climb when the effort becomes unbearable, Nathan wondered, how did he carry on, and go even deeper? What was his key in that moment of suffering? “I thought about everything I had done to arrive at this point,” Bahamontes replied, via me.
The dedication, the sacrifice, the efforts he’d made and the life he’d escaped. “There isn’t the suffering now like there was before. The bad moments make you stronger. To get to the top, you must climb the stairs.” As was the way in this Spanish-French-English conversation, we circled around and came at the question again. “We were poor, we had nothing,” he said later: “There is no way back, the only way is forward. If you don’t fight, you don’t win.”
We kept on bumping into the differences between the modern and the old that day, and I felt for a while that I should put up a defence of the new, or give the modern pros some kind of right of reply. After all, Bahamontes had said to me that today’s cycling was “artificial” and “cold” and that the riders lacked passion or temperament. The legends of old bestride the narrow world like Colossuses and we petty men walk under their huge legs and peep about to find ourselves dishonourable graves. But then I thought about how much Bahamontes and many of the previous generations are respected – by people like Nathan as well as by normal fans – and I thought it was probably unnecessary.
There was self-aware humour in his words, and I think he acknowledged his status both as a legend with total freedom to speak his mind, and as a living link to a bygone age who could easily shock and thrill us modern softies. Beneath the jovial provocations, what he was saying – technology doesn’t necessarily improve racing, money sometimes spoils things, hard work pays off – is totally uncontroversial. And I don’t think he actually wanted people to go back to a time of 12-kilo bikes, misery and desperation in which you were only a few bad results away from eating cats.
There is no way back, the only way is forward.
Edited extract from Higher Calling: Road Cycling’s Obsession with the Mountains by Max Leonard, published by Yellow Jersey