During the collection of data and testimonies for the biography that he has just published about Federico Martín Bahamontes, the British writer and journalist Alasdair Fotheringham visited one of the gregarious members of the Tour winner in 1959 in Rentería. Luis Otaño received the visitor like this: «You I bet what you want that Federico has charged you money for letting you write his biography, right? ». Before receiving the answer, the former Gipuzkoan broker turned to his wife and said: “Didn’t I tell you?” The brilliant climber who debuted on the Tour in 1954 and who, five years later, became the first Spaniard to prevail on the Grande Boucle left that image among those who shared that time with him. That intimate account contrasts with the public portrait of him. Bahamontes -about to turn 95- and his victory in the gala round were proof of change in a country that was moving away from hunger and was beginning a period of development.
In ‘El Águila de Toledo’, Fotheringham reflects the impression that Bahamontes made when he came to cycling. «The first time I came across Bahamontes was doing the military, in the Toledo military championships. Suddenly, pedaling next to me, I find this scrawny boy, dressed like a homeless man. He left us behind », recounted Miguel Poblet. The profile that Jesús Loroño made of the Toledo was cruder: “He was lying under a tree, licking a piece of bacon and looking like a bum.” That image is from 1953, just a year before Bahamontes wowed in his first Tour. In 2013, about to turn 85, Magazine, from ‘L’Equipe’, named him the best climber in history. “Would he have voted for another?”, They asked him in that publication. “No,” he answered emphatically. “It is the record that speaks.” The 53 ports of him crowned in the lead, his six mountain titles …
Bahamontes is an exaggerated story. In success and in defeat. From the beginning to the end, in 1965, in his harsh farewell to the Tour: on June 30, in the tenth stage, he had reached the finish line of Bagnéres-de-Bigorre, in the Pyrenees, the penultimate one. Julio Jiménez, neighbor and enemy, won that day. ‘Fede”s blood boiled. And he attacked from the Aspet exit on the following day. Jiménez, Poulidor, Gimondi, Janssens… They all organize to hunt him down. They shoot and shoot and they don’t catch him. Almost exhausted after a long chase, they receive the news that Bahamontes has withdrawn. In his way. He had hidden in some bushes and, after letting the squad go in search of him, he tiptoed into the ‘broom car’. It’s easy to imagine his mischievous smile hidden there while everyone sweated hunting him. That’s how he left the Tour.
To try to understand his figure, you have to go back and see how he got to the Grande Boucle. From hunger. He was born in Val de Santo Domingo (Toledo) in 1928, eight years before the start of the Civil War. In July 1936, the whole family was penalized in a refugee camp in the University City of Madrid. «We lived like gypsies, under some tarpaulins. There were thousands of people there,” recalls Bahamontes. His father, Julián, later got a job hauling supplies at the Atocha station. That’s what they lived on, what their father managed to steal. ‘Fede’, who could never be a child, sneaked into the Retiro park to gather some firewood. When the bombings and the conflict stopped, Julián sought bread as a stonecutter. His son went with him to the pit. With 11 years.
He was an old boy. He would get on the vegetable trucks and take what he could. “Orange peel, stale bread, vine shoots, rotten fruit and cats… I’ve eaten all of that,” recalls the former cyclist, who turns 95 this July. He also made some loose peseta from the sale, as scrap metal, of unexploded bombs that he unearthed in the trenches of Toledo. “There was hardly any food for anyone. My mother would get some churrusco bread and some onions, she would boil them in water and that was what we had for dinner,” he told Fothenringham. A childhood like this, searching for food daily, sticks to the soul like a scar. Hence his obsession with money. Despite the passage of time, he has not forgotten the price of each thing or product that he bought.
Winner. ‘El Águila de Toledo’ going around the Parque de los Príncipes in Paris after winning the gala round. efe
He also got on the bike out of necessity. I needed a vehicle to illegally transport flour and vegetables. Black market was his way of life. Nor did he avoid misery. She sick. typhus. She stayed at just 45 kilos. His straight hair fell out and when it grew back it was already wavy. He saved his life, but a doctor told him that his lungs were affected. Forever. That he did not make efforts. Bahamontes, as almost always, disobeyed. With a couple of colleagues from the black market he signed up for his first cycling race. The second he already won with his peculiar supply: a banana and a lemon. She ate them with skin on. And soon he verified that with that sport he earned more than his father breaking stones or harvesting. It was the way to go to calm the hunger.
That fight to survive made ‘Fede’ a difficult character for his teammates. Bernardo Ruiz, the first Spaniard to get on the Tour podium, defines it like this: «Fede? He never thanked anyone for anything. As a climber he was great, but he didn’t know how to use force. One day he beat you, but the next he did nothing. It was impossible for me to understand what was going through his head. Perhaps his childhood. Bahamontes won a Tour and could have won more: he was second, third and fourth. His victories were his and the defeats were his gregarious. “He never deigned to say thank you,” says Luis Otaño.
king of the mountain
If he did not win before in the Grande Boucle it was because he did not propose it. His goal was the reign of the mountain. That changed just before the 1959 season. During a hunt with greyhounds in Toledo, Fausto Coppi offers him a contract to sign for his team, Tricolfilina. And he sets a goal for him that ‘Fede’ had not even considered: winning the Tour. Coppi convinced him. But the Tour was disputed then by national teams. The Spanish team, led by Dalmacio Langarica, had to face its own civil war. Loroño and Bahamontes couldn’t even see each other. Langarica chose the man from Toledo and left the man from Biscay at home.
That was not enough for ‘Fede’. He also did not trust Antonio Suárez, winner of the Vuelta. Perhaps for this reason, to make clear his leadership, Bahamontes attacked in the first stage of the 1959 Tour. Nobody expected it. The fact is that he drove away several rivals and, above all, Suárez. Still, he was not calm. And he attacked again on the second day, as soon as he found out that Suárez had once again been left off the hook. Internal fights were a habit in the Spanish team, although on that occasion they benefited from an even greater war, the one that had broken out in the French team. Four supposed leaders, Anquetil, Bobet, Geminiani and Riviére, aspired to the first drawer of the podium in Paris. Many pending accounts separated them.
In that, the mountain and the heat arrived. The best allies of ‘Fede’. He flew over the Tourmalet accompanied only by his Luxembourgish twin, Charly Gaul. But he did not squeeze. He kept his strength. For once, Bahamontes calculated. He was no longer the crazy person from the peaks who would stop at the top to eat ice cream. He waited for his day to come. He came. In the thirteenth stage. In the oven of the Massif Central. Fire on the Tour road to Aurillac. Gaul fell into that bonfire. And the France team split. War between brothers. Anquetil and Anglade, a Frenchman integrated into a regional team, helped Bahamontes to sink Bobet and Riviére. The man from Toledo was approaching the lead and, best of all for him, Suárez left that day. From a distance, Spain lived pending the adventures of the ‘Águila’. A country with its ear glued to the radio.
Bahamontes overwhelmed Puy-de-Dôme in the time trial. He reduced the list of opponents to one, the Frenchman Anglade. He went after him in the Alps, in the Grenoble stage, and with the help of Gaul. The two climbers shared that day. The Luxembourger raised his arms and the Spaniard dressed in yellow. There was another alpine chapter left by the Aosta Valley. And there, Riviére and Anquetil joined forces with Bahamontes and buried the chances of their compatriot Anglade, who had attacked on the soggy descent of Petit-Saint-Bernard. The Frenchman put the Toledo man on the ropes, unskilled downhill. The Spaniard was rescued by Anquetil and Riviére, who did not want a Frenchman from a regional team to take the biggest race in the world.
A day later, Bahamontes left Anglade behind in the tough port of Forclaz and took plenty of advantage to calmly face the final time trial. The 1959 Tour was his. When, already in Paris and with the bouquet of flowers on his shoulder, they asked him to send a few words to his followers in Toledo, he released: «Tell the mayor that it would be a good time for him to give me that land to build a house that he had given me. promised if I won.” This was the first Tour of a Spaniard from that Spain who escaped from hunger as he could, even on pedals.
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