While many of the top professionals are racing in the Critérium du Dauphiné this week, we take a moment to look back on the legend that was Julio Jimenez, one of the sport’s great climbers, who passed away suddenly this week when he was the passenger in a freak auto accident.
While many consider his compatriot Federico Bahamontes as the greatest climber Spain ever produced, a strong counter argument can be made for Jimenez, who was 87 when he passed away. No, he didn’t win six KOM titles in the Tour de France like Bahamontes, but he came to cycling late – after working as a watchmaker – and didn’t even line up for his first Tour de France until he was 29.
In the 1960’s, however, few could match Jimenez in the high mountains. And while he spent most of his career racing in the shadows of the sport’s biggest names, he often finished in front of them, winning five stages in the Tour, four in the Giro and three in his native Vuelta a España, not to mention capturing the KOM prize in both the Tour and the Vuelta on three occasions.
Countless pages have been written about the epic duel between Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor on the Puy de Dôme in the 1964 Tour. But it was Jimenez who waltzed to victory ahead of the two Frenchmen.
And it was also Jimenez who saw a certain Tom Simpson take his last pedal strokes on the Mont Ventoux on that fateful day in the 1967 Tour, when the British legend collapsed and died. "We had broken away together," Jimenez recalled in a conversation last year. "He didn’t miss a pull up the entire climb. And then suddenly he just fell off his bike. I saw him collapse the first time. I thought it was a mechanical issue, and slowed. Then he fell a second time. We didn’t know what was happening. Simpson was one of my best friends in the peloton. He always treated me fairly. I was crushed. He was a world champion, a big star. Such a horrible loss.”
Of Anquetil and Poulidor, Jimenez harbored opposing views. "Anquetil was a true gentleman, class from top to bottom. He helped me get my first pro contract. I met him at critériums. 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."
When it came to Poulidor, however, Jimenez was less gracious. "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."
While his own career barely lasted a decade, Jimenez still had vivid memories, and he still enjoyed looking over the many pictures and books in his modest apartment in Ávila, about an hour’s drive north of Madrid. The pictures on the wall and books on the shelves spurred fond memories of his days racing with the likes of Anquetil or Eddy Merckx, or later in life, meeting with the King of Spain.
"They say a bike opens the world to you," he said, looking back on his many fond memories that day. "It did for me."
Rest in peace Julio. And thank you for the memories.