Federico Bahamontes: The fiery Eagle who flew up the mountains

As the peloton enters Spain, the nation's first winner tells how Franco and fruit led him to glory 50 years ago

Alasdair Fotheringham
Thursday 09 July 2009 00:00

"Attack, attack and attack again." They could be the words of Tour de France favourite Alberto Contador describing his approach to this year's race as it enters his native Spain today. Instead they sum up the strategy of Federico Martin Bahamontes, nicknamed "the Eagle of Toledo", who 50 years ago became the first Spaniard to win the gruelling event and whose historic achievement will overshadow proceedings over the next two days as the peloton snakes to Barcelona and through the Pyrenees south of the French border.

Those were the mountains where Bahamontes, now 81 but still going strong and still considered cycling's best ever climber, started eliminating his rivals en route to victory in Paris. "I had only one tactic, and that was attack, attack and attack again," the Eagle admits. "From start to finish."

Although the race lead did not fall into his grasp until the Alps half a century ago, Bahamontes, then as now a wafer-thin, wiry man with a haughty Iberian stare and a fiery temper to match, had already polished off his main opponents in a superb time trial on the Puy-de-Dôme mountain top finish in central France. "I never used to drink coffee but that day I'd drunk two in quick succession and I was going like the clappers," Bahamontes remembers. "Halfway up the Puy, I didn't think I was going so well, but by the summit I'd outclassed them all."

"It was very simple with Bahamontes," Britain's most prolific Tour stage winner, Barry Hoban – whose early career overlapped with the end of the Spanish climber's – once told me. "He'd attack at the foot of every mountain, and when he did you knew you wouldn't see him again until the start of next day's stage."

Quite apart from his nickname, Bahamontes' racing style came straight out of the Boy's Own Paper and legends of his climbing prowess grew fast. The most famous myth was that Bahamontes had once attacked on an Alpine mountain pass so that he could have time to eat an ice cream at the top, and the reality is only slightly more mundane. "One of my wheel spokes broke halfway up, so I attacked so the repairs could be carried out at the top without me losing time," he explains. "But the team car carrying the spares got stuck behind the main bunch, so I bought an ice cream to pass the time. After that I was known as the 'ice-cream rider' – I wish I'd never stopped!"

Thanks to his aggressive riding, in 1959 Bahamontes pedalled into Paris as the winner of the Tour, which in that year happened to finish on 18 July. Outside Spain the date has no significance, but south of the Pyrenees, it is known as the anniversary of the start of the 1936 military uprising that led to General Franco's 40 years of fascist dictatorship. The coincidence meant Bahamontes' victory was hijacked by the ruling regime.

Fans across the country clustered around their radios listening to state stations as they relayed Bahamontes' triumphant progress, and on his return he was congratulated by Franco in person as no less than 14 military brass bands simultaneously played in his honour.

However, Franco's rule had a more significant impact on Bahamontes. During the brutal three-year civil war that followed the military uprising, which had left Spain economically shattered, Bahamontes, from a poor family, was one of millions left scrabbling to survive. "I became a cyclist at the age of 10 because I would have starved otherwise," he recalls with devastating simplicity. "I used to nab fruit off the lorries in the local market and sell that, and with the money I made I bought my first bike in order to sell more fruit faster.

"I'd ride around with up to 150 kilos of fruit and vegetable on the back on the bike, but all that extra weight, I think, helped me become a better mountain climber. Once I shed it all, I could fly."

Bahamontes' first victory came quickly enough – in his first race, aged 17. "I only had a lemon and a banana to eat all day, and I was so hungry I ate the lemon peel and all, but I still won." he recalls. "I'd done 60km that day selling stuff on the black market, but I attacked from the gun and that was that. It was the same as the Tour [in 1959]; they all reckoned I'd crack out there by myself. But nobody could catch me."

Bahamontes quickly realised he could make more cash out of riding a bike than flogging stolen fruit, although his lifestyle became only slightly less precarious. "Me and another rider, Manuel Lopez, would travel around Spain sleeping in the guards' van of goods trains so we didn't have to pay the tickets. Manuel would find out through his brother, who worked as a station-master and who could use the railway's telegraph system, which races were on. Then off we'd go, he'd win the sprints and I'd win on the climbs, and we'd make a fortune."

Word got around and Bahamontes was selected to ride the Tour de France for Spain in 1954. "I was particularly pleased, because for the first time ever, I had a new tracksuit and a new suitcase," he recalls. He still owns both.

As a professional, the wins continued to pour in: Bahamontes racked up no less than six victories in the King of the Mountains classification – a record that stood for over four decades – with the Tour victory in 1959 the highlight. There were other occasions when he came close to a second win and one time when he was touched by the murky world of race-fixing. "In 1963, I led the Tour for a week and I even got a phone call from one of the French riders one night asking me to sell him the race. But I refused. Other races I'd have sold," he cheerfully admits, "but not the Tour."

He also developed a reputation as a rider with a fearsome temper: once insulted by a member of the public during a race, Bahamontes promptly turned around and, wielding a bike pump, chased after him for an hour. And when the Tour of Spain organisers re-admitted six riders who had pulled out exhausted as they could not handle the pace set down by Bahamontes, he got so angry he quit the race himself.

When Bahamontes' career, if not his temper, fizzled out in 1965 he opened one of Toledo's biggest bike shops, but he continued to milk his fame as Spain's first Tour winner. For years he would travel from one celebratory dinner to another, eating up the miles in a huge white Mercedes with another Spanish climber, three-times King of the Mountains winner Julio Jimenez from nearby Avila, for company. Today, Bahamontes no longer drives the length and breadth of Spain, but both he and Jimenez are still major draws at cycling events, and it is hoped both will be present in Barcelona this afternoon.

The finish of today's Tour stage could hardly be more appropriate either. It ends at the summit of Montjuic, the climb where Bahamontes won his last ever race back in 1965 – and if Contador attacks as he attempts to win, not just his power-struggle with team-mate Lance Armstrong but the Tour, you can be sure Spain's first winner of the famous title would be the first to applaud.

Republican Convention: The pouting primadonna

Born 9 July 1928, in Toledo, Spain.

* Bahamontes was nicknamed 'The Eagle of Toledo' for his superb incline ability.

* He became the first Spanish winner in Tour de France history in 1959.

* The rider holds the record for The King of Mountains (KOM) wins, with an impressive 9. (6 in the Tour de France)

* The Spaniard was the first ever cyclist to win the KOM at all three Tours. Luis Herrera (Colombia) is the only other man to have achieved the feat.

* Bahamontes is one of only four riders to win The KOM in the Tour de France and the Vuelta de Espana in the same year. He accomplished this in 1958.

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