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The Watchmaker of Ávila

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Photographs: Timm Kölln

When he’s in Ávila, which isn’t very often, Julio Jiménez lives in the depths of a dark house which has a small living room and a large bedroom with a sizeable bed. The trophy heads of three chamois from the Oisans stare out somewhat perplexed and glassy-eyed from dusty corners.
This is the house in which he lived with his mother, Doña Goya Muñoz, until she died recently at the age of 90; and in which his life and his memories are preserved along with a yellow Bartali brand bike held up by a couple of old rusty rollers gripping the finest Reynolds tubes almost too tightly. It was a lightweight bike made for him by Géminiani to tackle the vast mountain stages during his time at Bic.
Almost 50 years later Julio Jiménez still has that look, his bright eyes are mischievous yet strangely innocent; the reflection of a life which already seems to be fading into that ethereal territory where memory merges with myth.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. His memory is still as sharp, precise and as clearly defined as the innate driving force that guided his years as a cyclist, not to mention his relentless optimism and survival instinct; abilities that have endured to this day and still surprise him. On a cold winter’s day, as sad and gloomy as a winter’s day can be in Ávila, dirty snowflakes fly loose in the air and at four in the afternoon the city is deserted, austere and stony, populated mainly by priests and officials.
It’s already getting dark and Julio, or Julito, as he’s affectionately known around here when he goes to the local bar for wine and patatas revolconas (a potato dish with bacon, paprika, peppers and onions) returns to his home, a ground-floor flat opposite a petrol station, alone.
“I’ll get the dinner on now, grilled steak,” he remarks as he says goodbye, and in doing so provides the finishing touch to a portrait of loneliness, old age (Julio lives alone and is 78 years old) and melancholy in which the ageing, almost forgotten champion’s only remnants of the glory days are a selection of ceramic plates with naïve art motifs (seven in total, one for each stage won on the Tour), yellowing photos that only the very old or the very wise know how to unravel, three stuffed chamois, one for each time he was King of the Mountains on the Tour, and sacks of press clippings sorted by year, including the announcement that appeared in L’Équipe on Saturday July 13, 1964: “Mrs Gregoria Muñoz, as the mother of the winner of the Puy-de-Dôme stage, Julio Jiménez, shall receive a bouquet of flowers courtesy of Interflora at her home in Avila”.
And that was life. Or was it?
The following morning at our second interview and photo session, one feels obliged to ask how his night was; mainly out of pity (because the one asking the question feels young and free in his mediocre life with no past of which to speak), as if to comfort him.
He begins to roll those orbiting oval eyes, allowing a mischievous smile to creep onto his face and responds: “Alone? No, not at all, I called a friend, a girl I know.

We had a good time…” Come again?  By girl you mean, 50 or 60 years old?
The ensuing relief from the question provides a moment of respite. “What are you talking about? She can’t be more than 30 years old, a real cutie…”
It’s a revelation that bursts open the floodgates, momentarily submerging us in truths as we begin to understand – apart from why the bed is so big and cosy – his true personality, the character of a cyclist about whom one could say was always there in the most memorable moments of the Tour during the ’60s, though not many people have heard of him. On the other hand you have to admit that old age doesn’t always mean surrendering and that women are most certainly the spice of life.
Julito was a womaniser who never married because according to him his mother never would have approved of the women with whom he enjoyed spending the nights. He was one of the privileged few in Franco’s sad and repressed Spain that could enjoy a fulfilling sex life, as did most cyclists, being on the road and always moving on.
He experienced sexual repression at a very young age before becoming a cyclist and a watchmaker, the job that nicknamed him ‘The Watchmaker of Ávila’ for eternity. Before putting together and taking apart watches in his cousin’s workshop (so as not to get out of shape, he wouldn’t stop moving his legs as if he were pedalling under the watchmaker’s table), Julio worked in an army clothes shop where dozens of women sewed military uniforms.
“My job was to oil the sewing machine motors,” remembers Julio. “And I loved it because the motors were almost on the floor and while I lubricated them I got a good look at the seamstresses’ legs.”
He was a single guy and the envy of his fellow riders because he didn’t have to conceal his affairs, hide from his wife or live in fear and pretence. He wasn’t like Federico Bahamontes, who made Fermina, his lawful wedded wife, out to be a character from fascist mythology; the devoted wife that watches over the home while her husband, the triumphant Spanish soldier, sets out to conquer.
Years later, Federico, another womaniser even to this day, over 80 years of age and always in the company of good-time girls, fell in love with a stewardess on the Tour of Spain, the Chorizos Revilla one. They had twin daughters who he kept secret from the entire world (even if the whole world except Fermina didn’t take long to find out). Since then, on any given Tuesday of the year you won’t find Federico at home. He leaves Toledo and devotes the whole day to his twin girls in Madrid.
Julio didn’t suffer like Luis Ocaña did. “After I retired I began doing radio commentary for the SER chain and Ocaña was commentating for the competition, the COPE, but every night of the Tour of Spain we went out together with the podium hostesses,” recalls Julio.

“He was always on edge, nervous, worried that his wife Josiane would suddenly appear, as she had a habit of turning up at parties without warning,” says Julito. “It was because of those nights that Luis one year told me he couldn’t handle it anymore, that he didn’t have the strength for anything more than commentating on the radio, then he would shut himself in his hotel room and have his dinner sent up; it was just too much for him.
“It was then that I found out he was really ill and didn’t have long to live. In spite of that, when I was finishing up the Vuelta he told me he was going to the Tour of Italy four days later [in those days, around ’94, the Tour of Spain ran between April and May, and the Tour of Italy began the following week], and as much as I told him he was crazy, that in his condition it made no sense to go on the Giro, he insisted. He never got there of course, he shot himself before.”
When his friend Luis died, Julio, the other great Spaniard that raced in the Bic team (although they never raced together, they succeeded each other: Jiménez left in 1968; Ocaña, 11 years younger, arrived in 1970), made Ocaña’s widow Josiane part of the group with Anquetil’s widow Jeanine.
They went with them to crits and races and invited their friends, reminding Julio of the summers after the Tour which were an endless asphalt adventure at the wheel of his gigantic Ford Taunus (and later his BMW when Ford stopped sponsoring the team and Baron Bich, who manufactured the ball point pen invented by László Bíró, took over) with several bikes in the boot and Annie Anquetil, Jeanine’s daughter, sitting by his side. Leading the way was Jeanine Anquetil herself, driving a Ford Mustang with Jacques dozing at her side.
“I also wanted a Mustang like Anquetil because Ford used to let us choose but Géminiani didn’t. They told me that a Taunus was much more practical and the Mustang was very uncomfortable because your arse was almost on the floor.
“That was how we travelled when there were crits, from town to town up to 800 kilometres a day. We raced, ate, slept, and drove on. There were champagne breakfasts with oysters. The Anquetils always wanted us to accompany them on the tours,” says Julio. “Jeanine booked the hotels and they were always very expensive châteaux. I was making less money but their company more than made up for it; the joy of the dinners, the crystal clear laughter of Jeanine… What they did in the evenings, I won’t go into.”
Even without realising it and before truly getting to know the blonde genius from Rouen, a tormented yet vivacious soul, Julio’s heart was with Anquetil and always has been, even after the Frenchman’s death. He discovered it almost by chance on the very day that he won on the Puy-de-Dôme, the day of the ’64 Tour that for France and half the world went down in history as the volcanic duel between the two Frenchmen, Anquetil and Poulidor.
“But that wasn’t how it happened, although it’s no longer possible to erase the legend or change it. There was no duel on the Puy-de-Dôme between Anquetil and Poulidor. There was no fight. 
“Both were little more than two exhausted boxers that didn’t exchange a single blow; they couldn’t stand on their feet and held each other up so as not to fall. The real duel was fought out in front by the two Spaniards, the two Spains of Julio Jiménez and Federico Bahamontes” – sentiments echoed by the demystifying and fiery tongue of Raphael Géminiani, director, philosopher and Anquetil’s translator, emanating from the screen of Julio’s other TV set which is in the bedroom at the foot of the bed. The video tells the story of July 12, 1964, and it’s one that Julio watches over and over again; his memory turned into a TV documentary.
“To this day Poulidor asserts that it was because of me that he didn’t win the Tour. If I hadn’t won the time bonus that day [Poulidor came in third at the top after Jiménez and Bahamontes, there was only a bonus of one minute and 30 seconds for the first two], he would have defeated Anquetil.
“I got so fed up with his version of events that one day I told him in public. I said to him: ‘Your problem, Raymond, is that you’re mean. If you come up to me at the start of the race or during the stage and give me a cheque or a promissory note – ‘Here take this, so much for letting me win’ – I’d help you out… but you just talk, you just talk but never say anything worthy of me trusting you.
“Bahamontes too, who of course was behind Poulidor, took it out on me. ‘It’s your fault Poulidor didn’t win’, he would tell me. I told him that if he really wanted Poulidor to win, why didn’t he let him past because with the second place time bonus he would have come out of the Puy-de-Dôme with the yellow jersey… The thing is that I didn’t believe that he could win either.
“It was a 260-kilometre stage and I was a rookie on the Tour despite being almost 30 years old but Barrutia, a very strong Spanish rider on the flat, took me under his wing. He would tell me to stick with him and to attack only when he said so.
“I reached the foot of the Puy-de-Dôme in good shape. There had been attacks but to no avail, as he controlled the Poulidor team and they didn’t want any breakaways. Robert Cazala’s representative came up to me and told me that if I came in with Raymond and did what I had to do, he would make it worth my while.
“I felt confident though and pretended not to hear. I attacked when there were just over three or four kilometres to go to the top. I dug in for 200-300 metres and I was away. It was very tough going. I was up against it. Langarica, the director, had set me up with a really nice 28-radius wheel, though due to the length of the stage and the effort I was putting in it went off-centre and began to rub the brake; it was going from one side to the other.
“You have to take into account the technology of the day. In those days the most that bikes had behind were 22 teeth, and the small plate was a 46 – the 42 didn’t come out until ’67. Imagine climbing with those things when now they go up with a 39 plate and 25 sprocket if they want to… I really had to dig in.
“It was a nightmare. The mechanic, Letona, opened the brake but the wheel was still zigzagging around. He asked me from the car if I wanted to change the bike. I no longer had the strength to speak so I just moved my head from side to side to say no. I looked back and saw Bahamontes chasing me down and I said to myself, if the bike breaks, it breaks. It was a superhuman effort.
“Years later I was talking about it with Ocaña. ‘I’ve never given more than I gave on the Puy-de-Dôme’, he said. The same was true for me. I didn’t know if I was going to fall, when you dig in so hard that you don’t know if you’re still alive… I didn’t even know if I was still pedalling.
“But Bahamontes couldn’t catch me. I was the first to reach the makeshift finish line which was no more than a stripe painted on the ground, then Federico grabbed the 30 second bonus.
“Poulidor was third, no bonus, Adorni came in fourth, and fifth place belonged to Anquetil who held the lead by 14 seconds. Two days later he won his fifth Tour. In Paris, Poulidor was second and Bahamontes came in third.”
Julio liked Anquetil because he was a champion and a gentleman. When he or any of the other ravenous climbers attacked and shattered the peace there were no insults flying around like with the others, the Italians especially. “No, Jacques saw the attack, he knew he was in for a rough time but said nothing, put his head between his shoulders and suffered, but he could take it,” says Julio.
Anquetil and Jeanine liked the joy, the experience and the vital optimism of this cyclist with wiry legs who came from deepest darkest Spain radiating light. Their union was inevitable, just as it was inevitable that Bahamontes would always defend Poulidor. In 1965, Stablinski, Anquetil’s right hand man, told Julio that if he was interested in joining their team, as Géminiani and Jacques wanted, he would be paid four times the 6,000 Pesetas a month, 36 Euros nowadays, that he was getting in Kas.
“I told Langarica, the Kas manager, to increase my salary, that I deserved it, that I had been the best in the team and if not, I would leave; he told me that it was impossible and as long as he was in charge all the riders would be paid the same, no matter who they were. What mattered there was teamwork,” recalls Julio.
“So I went to Géminiani. I went to Clermont-Ferrand to sign and the first thing he said was that I had to live in France. So I stayed in his hotel there for the whole year.”
Among the hundreds of photographs that Julio has kept, not a single one was given to him by Bahamontes when they both retired. There’s a promotional photo of the triumphant Eagle of Toledo on which Federico wrote: “To Julio Jiménez, my domestique de luxe”.
“That’s Federico,” says Julio. “Mean and arrogant. He’ll never admit he was wrong. He was obsessed with mountains. He had more strength and just wanted to be King of the Mountains.”
That was Federico, the great post-war hero of Spanish cycling and the only Tour in which he competed alongside Julio. For the winner of the ’59 Tour, it was his farewell; for Jiménez, his debut.
“I admired him and I was afraid of him,” says Julio. “He was the greatest and I was a rookie that was able to race by his side. I would have done whatever he asked of me.” Prior to the Puy-de-Dôme their paths met but didn’t cross in the great Pyrenean stage, the crossing of the four giants – Peyresourde, Aspin, Tourmalet and Aubisque – heading out from Luchon until you reach Pau just like the first time it was done in 1910.
For Julio the equation was clear: it was a great opportunity for Federico to finish with Anquetil and Poulidor and for Julio to be King of the Mountains. At the outset, the two of them broke away but like good Spaniards, stubborn and individualistic, a symbol of the two Spains that had fought each other during the 30-year Civil War, each one rode alone. One on each side of the road, parallel, as if an invisible barrier prevented them from crossing over to the other side with Federico on the right and Julio on the left like two children sulking.
Julio recalls how Raoul Rémy, the Frenchman who ran the Bahamontes team, appeared in the midst of it all, halfway up the Peyresourde astonished and rabid: “‘But can’t we work something out? Collaborate. Let Julio score first in the mountain and in exchange, Federico, he can help you take maximum advantage’. Federico moved his snout and said no, standing firm until he finally gave in, ‘Come on, let’s not sprint anymore and I’ll let you go first through the ports’.
“And as soon as he said that, I went for it. He knew the road and advised me not to go as fast as I was going, reminding me that there was a long way to go to Pau but I’d overestimated my strength. I believed I was capable of anything but on Aubisque I started falling behind.
“It’s not that I felt bad but I wasn’t doing that great either, or perhaps he began to reel me in little by little and so without wanting to, I watched him leave me behind. Rémy then says: ‘Should I tell him to wait for you?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know, you should know, I wouldn’t dare tell Bahamontes to wait for me, he’ll…’ I hung in there,
30, 40, 50, 40 metres and I thought, fuck it, I’m going to catch him and I’m going to sprint… but I couldn’t. If I’d had a little encouragement from Federico,
I wouldn’t have stayed behind or if he had said to me, ‘well, we’re going to climb a little slower, stretch our legs a bit…’
“I was second, I had the wheel changed to have 13 to 15 gears for the flat; Langarica gave me some money to stop in a bar for a drink – they couldn’t give us food or water from the car – and I stopped at a bar to the left once I’d got down the Aubisque. I got a Coca Cola, ate a few lumps of sugar and was just waiting for them to catch me,” recalls Julio.
At the top of the Aubisque, Bahamontes, who in the overall standings was two minutes ahead of Anquetil and Poulidor, went by with a lead of 6m 35s on the group in which both were riding. On the flat roads at Pau his advantage slipped away against the wind and he got to the line with 1m 54s of it left. He had won his sixth King of the Mountains, a record until Virenque came along, but he had lost the Tour.
“Some months later, while the two of them were eating in Bordeaux, Federico confided in me and confessed: ‘It’s just that you have to understand, I was obliged to win the King of the Mountains. Nothing less was expected of me. I couldn’t do anything else’. Federico was still obsessed.”
On the Tour that he was on the verge of winning in 1967 Jiménez was first over the summit of Mont Ventoux. It was the day and the place in which Tom Simpson died, but the memory of the ‘Watchmaker of Avila’ is confronted with a black hole, a momentary lapse. He remembers the unbearable heat that day. It was terrible and to protect himself he put a large cabbage leaf under his cap following the trend set by the Italian Zilioli.
“I remember that, and I recall that Simpson had broken away early and that I started to climb the Ventoux. I broke away to score for the mountain because the stage didn’t end at the top but in Carpentras, I started to overtake riders until the moment Langarica told me ‘you’re in first place, Julio’. And that’s all I remember. I guess that Simpson was airlifted out before I went past there but I don’t remember a helicopter or anything.”
Eight years earlier when he was 24, it was another scorching hot day, the glaring heat melting the tarmac and forcing cyclists into the gutter. Two team-mates from the Guardia de Franco team that Julio rode with on the Tour of Portugal, Raúl Motos and Joaquin Polo, died. They were terrible deaths.
“They had very nice hair, not like mine, I went bald when I was still a kid. And to show it off they refused to wear caps; they rode without caps under the Alentejo sun, which was like a furnace, and were so strong that they even broke away.” Polo, who passed out on the road, was taken to a hospital where he later died.
Motos, however, did get to the finish line. “He finished the stage, like us, but he went crazy. He smashed up tables and everything in his path. There were several teams staying in a warehouse, in bunk beds like in a barracks, and Motos had an attack and became delirious.
“He started to shake and shudder and, as he had this tremendous strength, it multiplied and we couldn’t restrain him. Everyone just stood there watching him, he was like a madman, they almost had to tie him up because they couldn’t cope with the strength he had; he practically died there and then as we were looking on.
“He had a severe case of sunstroke. If the others arrived in a stupor you can imagine the scene… The two teams were there in the warehouse in barrack type beds and this guy starts going crazy but no one did anything. “Where do we go, what do we do? It was sunstroke. They needed to get some ice on him right away, but no one did a thing…”
On the ’67 Tour, the one with Ventoux and Simpson, Julio finished second in Paris behind Frenchman Roger Pingeon. “I didn’t win that Tour because we raced as national teams. If I’d raced with Bic instead of Spain, I would have won,” remarks Julio.
The Tour was decided by Pingeon with a breakaway on the Belgian border, Julio being somewhat hampered by the lack of cooperation from his fellow Spaniards. “Ginés García, Manzaneque… They all wanted to win something just to be local heroes but when I asked them for help they said, ‘Nah, man’.
“The only one who helped me on that tour was Gimondi; it was easy to make a deal with him and we did so on the Galibier mountain stage in Briançon. We put on a sprint just for show as I’d promised to let him win the stage and in return he helped me gain some time.”
When he’s not in Ávila or following races with old cycling friends Julio Jiménez escapes to sunnier climes and heads for Alicante where he can sometimes be seen alongside the beach riding a carbon bike given to him by Perico Delgado. There he enjoys the quiet life away from the memories and the nostalgia emanating from his treasure trove of recollections in Ávila; the contents of which he sometimes misses when reminiscing.
The jerseys he never kept, in particular the pink jersey that he wore for several days on the ’66 Tour of Italy, the disappearance of which seemed as though he were being punished once more for his greed, rather ironically the last sin of which you would accuse Julio.
“I took it quite early on in the second stage and Anquetil, who came to work for me as a domestique, advised me to get rid of it right away or it would kill me and besides, there would be time to get it back. I had a hard time letting go of it though. I said that we’d allow a breakaway one day but then I regretted it and didn’t go through with it. I held out until stage 12 where I lost it because I didn’t have the strength and never got it back again,” recalls Julio.
“A few years ago, the film director Luis de Berlanga asked me if he could borrow it along with other mementos such as jerseys, photos, and bicycles to use in his film Paris-Timbuktu. When they’d finished shooting I asked Berlanga for everything back but he said that he no longer knew where it was.
“Years later I was at a race in France and a guy comes up to me with my pink Ford jersey for me to sign. ‘Where did you get this?’ I asked him. He told me that he’d bought it on the Internet, from someone on eBay…”
Perhaps that’s the way it was meant to be. Perhaps Julio Jiménez, the unobtrusive champion, has no need for such souvenirs, however tangible, and no desire to immerse his vivid memory in them in order to keep himself alive, and continue to enjoy living life like no other.

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