Monday, January 20, 2014

A lone Colombian in Flanders. The difficult but inspiring story of Giovanni Jiménez, Colombia's first professional cyclist (Part 1)


(Courtesy: Giovanni Jimenez)

As another season gets under way this week, interest in Colombian cycling continues to rise. Fans and teams alike anxiously await new breakaway performances by riders from a country that just a few years ago was hardly represented within the professional peloton. 

Watching all this from the sidelines is a man who not only knew that this potential existed, but also one who actively took the necessary steps to make all this happen.

Giovanni Jiménez was the first Colombian cyclist to ever become a professional, an absolute rarity when one considers that as late as 1983, the cycling federation in Colombia insisted that its riders remain amateurs. In order to pursue his dream, Jiménez faced unbelievable difficulties, ones far beyond those that Colombian cyclists face today. And sadly his story, one of stubbornness, hard work and bravery in the face of difficulty, is hardly known in Colombia.
 
But the fact remains: Giovanni Jiménez was a brave pioneer. One who paved the way for so many who came after him, and one who did so in very unique way, by finding the only place in the world where cycling was as revered as it was back home. Flanders. 

His story is at once uplifting, and crushing. But all tales of pioneering spirits are, and it's one that must be told. Thanks to Giovanni Jiménez for his time, and generosity.

(This story was first published in Cycle Sport Magazine)

Jimenez today, Brussels (Photo: Cycling Inquisition)

A certain kinship

“I took a stool from one of the boat’s cabins, and put it on the deck, facing the port as we sailed off. I found myself staring at the Colombian coastline. I couldn’t bare the thought of turning away while Colombia, my home, was still visible. Before that moment, I had never doubted my decision to leave. But sitting on that stool, watching Colombia literally fade away and eventually disappear, I was suddenly overcome with fear and doubt. I refused to get up while the coastline was still visible.”

Once Colombia was no longer visible, Giovanni Jiménez Ocampo stood up. It was 1962, and he was only twenty years old. He took a deep breath, and decided to move to the bow of the ship. He chose to look ahead, and spent most of the twelve days that it took Fort Carillon—a small cargo ship with room for only a handful of passengers—to sail from Santa Marta in Colombia, to Hamburg, Germany. Jiménez suffered from severe seasickness during the trip, but he stayed at the bow of the ship regardless. Due to the pioneering nature of his trip, he felt a certain kinship with the Fort Carillion as it brusquely broke through the waters of Atlantic Ocean.


Jiménez had seldom ventured outside his native Medellín up until that point. Now he was headed to Europe, an impossibly foreign, in order to fulfill a dream. The dream he sought to realize was so outlandish, that he was quite possibly the first to ever even think of it. He wanted to be the first Colombian to become a professional cyclist. Not only that, he wanted to understand, and eventually excel in the often unforgiving one-day races of early spring.

Jimenez and Eddy Mercx (Courtesy: Giovanni Jimenez)

A Tough Start (1962-1967)

The idea of moving to Europe was first brought up to Jiménez during his days racing on the track in Medellín. It was there that he befriended a German engineer named Joakim Kautezky. Kautezky worked for Siemens at the time, and was in Colombia installing some of Medellín’s first stoplight and payphone systems. He was fond of Jiménez, as was his son, who casually mentioned that he could use someone like him when racing on the track back home in Germany.  The young Colombian amateur had already amassed an impressive number of wins, and rode with the same prestigious club as future luminaries Martin “Cochise” Rodriguez (Giro stage winner, who raced with Gimondi in the Bianchi squad), and Raul Mesa (who famously directed the Café De Colombia squad to impressive victories in Europe in the 1980s). Although Kautezky’s son had perhaps made the comment about needing someone like him in passing, Jiménez took it to heart, and knew hecouldn’t let this opportunity pass. He told Kautezky that next time they’d see each other, it would be in Germany.

In 1962, when Jiménez first arrived in Hamburg, he was faced with an insurmountable amount of difficulties. Although he arrived in the summer time, a brutally cold winter came soon enough. It felt inhumane to Jiménez, who had never experienced anything like it in his equatorial birthplace. He was desperately alone and culturally isolated, largely as a result of the language barrier. But Jiménez made a point of learning German, much as he would later with French, and Flemish. Still, he faced other difficulties. Even through contacts like Kautezky, Jiménez was unable to find enough track racing in Hamburg. So he moved to Munich, and then Cologne, all while working in factories that made underwater communications cables, and parts for iron bridges.

Giovanni's racing license, 1962 (Courtesy: Giovanni Jimenez)

“There was great demand for inexpensive foreign labor in those days, and that’s what I was. Inexpensive foreign labor. I wanted to race, but first I had to eat and live. All three proved to be difficult.” Simply put, Jimenez was many, many years ahead of his time. Because of this, even getting a racing license was close to impossible.

“Colombia and its cycling federation were not fully affiliated with the UCI back then. So getting a racing license in Europe as a Colombian was nearly impossible for me. I wasn’t recognized as a cyclist due to my nationality. The structure necessary to do something as simple as race in Europe was just not in place. I had to figure out how to make things work in order to live and race here. Nothing was easy."

Eventually, the lack of track races forced him to start riding on the road. Wins on the road came almost instantly, and with those wins came the attention from local clubs. Aside from his victories, the fact that he was Colombian brought some attention as well. “At the time, a Colombian cyclist in Europe was simply unheard of”, something that was confirmed when Jiménez met with the president of the Staubwolke Refrath cycling club in Cologne. “He asked me where I was from, and once I told him, he couldn’t believe that anyone in Colombia owned, much less knew how to ride a bike!”, he laughs as he recalls such encounters with Europeans who knew so little about his home country, or its wealth of cycling talent. That an amateur team from Colombia would eventually ride, much less excel at the Tour de France in the 1980s was absolutely unthinkable at that time. Jiménez, it turned out, was nearly twenty years before his time, and the general sense of incredulity with which he was met proved it.

Jimenez today (Photo: Cycling Inquisition)

Still, he’s quick to point out that wherever he raced in Europe, he was treated fairly regardless of his place of birth. “People didn’t know or understand where I was from, but I never experienced the discrimination or mistreatment that Colombian riders would eventually endure in the 1980s. To the contrary, I was welcomed with open arms by all Europeans, and they helped me every step of the way.”

It was with this welcoming spirit in mind that Jiménez reached out to a Belgian Gendarme who he met at the velodrome in Cologne. With his help, Jimenez was able to move to Belgium, and soon after met the president of the Ruisbroek Sportief cycling club, Camille Berghmans. Berghmans helped Jiménez make the necessary contacts in Belgium that would allow him to race. More importantly, he introduced him to his daughter, Yolanda, who Jiménez fell in love with, and is still married to today after 42 years of marriage. Belgium provided him with the type of racing and home environment that he’d longed for since leaving Colombia.

German racing license (Courtesy: Giovanni Jimenez)

Professional

Once in Belgium, the young Colombian found himself at the epicenter of the sport, just as he thought he would. Through impressive results as an amateur, Jiménez secured a professional contract with the Mann-Grundig-Libertas team. His first race as a professional was on July 31st, 1968, a nighttime circuit in the town of Malle, Belgium. That night, Robert Lelangue, (father of ex-BMC director John Lelangue) wont. Jiménez came in an impressive eighth in his first outing as a professional.

Giovanni Jiménez soon discovered that he was well suited for Belgium’s tough, windy, and often cobbled races.

“People talk a lot about cobblestones today, and how terrible they are. But you have to remember just how much more pavé we had back then. Today, it's an oddity, since most of those roads been completely redone. But back then, you encountered miles upon miles of them in every race.”

(Photo: Cycling Archives)

Eventually, Jiménez did adapt to the pavé, and to the tough style of racing common in Belgium’s unforgiving weather. As a result, out of his eleven years as a professional, he raced with Belgian teams during all but two seasons. One of those exceptions was BIC, the French team where he rode with world champion and Tour de France winner Jan Janssen, as well as Tour de France and three-time Dauphiné Libéré winner Luis Ocaña. Jiménez remembers those years fondly, including races in Italy during which he was Ocaña’s roommate. While he raced with BIC, he was also Johny Schleck’s teammate, Frank and Andy Schleck’s father. Jean-Marie Leblanc (future director of the Tour de France, and president of the ASO) was also on the team, and it’s when Jiménez thinks of him in particular that he adds, “I was surrounded by amazing riders and great people who knew so much about the sport. Because of that, I learned lots during that time. It was an amazing experience.”

As Jiménez recalls his days with such luminaries, he beams with pride. Luckily, he stays in touch with many of his old teammates.

(Courtesy: Giovanni Jimenez)

____________________________________________________________

In part 2, we take a closer look at the unusual difficulty that Jimenez had in trying to represent his country at the world championships, and how he's worked to make things easier for young Colombian riders looking to make their way in Europe, just as he did decades ago.

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