Thursday, January 23, 2014

A lone Colombian in Flanders. The difficult but inspiring story of Giovanni Jiménez, Colombia's first professional cyclist (Part 2)

This is part 2 of an article about Giovanni Jimenez, which was first published in Cycle Sport magazine. For part 1, go here

(Photo: Cycling Archives)

One Colombian in the Peloton
As Jimenez became the first Colombian rider to ever compete in races like the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix and the Vuelta a España, he befriended competitors like Eddy Merckx. “The Colombian press would later ask Eddy about his ‘great Colombian friend’, Giovanni Jiménez. He always spoke beautifully about me. That was a great honor. But in reality, we were just friendly with one another. It’s not as though I was his best friend. But I guess being the lone Colombian rider made me somewhat memorable. There weren’t other non-Europeans racing back then, so the fact that I was Colombian—out of all things—certainly made me stand out. I never minded that at all. I was and am still very proud of being Colombian.”

Merckx was not alone in noticing and remembering the lone Colombian rider in the peloton. At races like the world championships, he was hard to miss. Jiménez made up the one-man Colombian team. He paid for his own travel, food and accommodations, since he received no support from the Colombian government or its cycling federation. He raced alone, and showed up with nothing but his bike, and a Colombian team jersey that took much pleading for him to even obtain.

Jimenez shows off his Colombian national jersey (Photo: Cycling Inquisition)

With that white wool jersey, he competed in seven world championships, mostly with help from Belgian teammates and friends who drove him to races, and assisted him in any other way they could. “For me, competing in the world championships while wearing the Colombian tricolor jersey was a sacred, yearly pilgrimage. It was an unbelievable honor, even if people in Colombia didn’t even know that I was racing. I wanted to do my very best for my country and its people.”When I ask Jiménez about the lack of support from the Colombian federation, he shrugs his shoulders. “I don’t want to go into a longwinded diatribe about the lack of help and support that I received during those years, or the reasons why they didn’t help me. They ignored me actually, despite me reaching out to them. The people who were unwilling to lend me a hand are either elderly now, or no longer with us. So all that matters to me is that no young athlete has to endure the extreme sense of isolation—by those from his own country—that I had to go through.”

When Jiménez says this, an unusual aspect about his life and career suddenly becomes perfectly clear. Unlike Colombian cyclists who traveled abroad decades later, Jiménez was not treated badly by the European press or by European riders while being praised back in Colombia. To the contrary, he was welcomed into one of the most cycling-centric nations in the world, Belgium. He was helped by European teammates, directors and clubs, while the Colombian federation turned its back on him, albeit as a result of Jiménez being years ahead of what they thought was possible. I ask him about this, the fact that his experience was more or less the opposite of what others in his position would experience year later, but he’s quick to dismiss how peculiar his situation was. In doing so, it’s clear that he holds no animosity in this regard. He lived his dream, and did so the only way it could have been lived. How many people get to live out their dream at all?

Giovanni's last professional racing license, 1979 (Courtesy: Giovanni Jimenez)
Times change
Through the 1980s and 90s, Jiménez saw Colombian cycling flourish throughout Europe, something that made him immensely happy. He saw the success of riders like Luis Herrera, Francisco Rodriguez, Alvaro Mejia, Samuel Cabrera, Fabio Parra, and Santiago Botero as a culmination of the dream he sought to fulfill when he boarded that ship in 1962. Like so many Colombians around the world, he cheered those riders on while watching them on TV. He did so while running a sports complex outside of Brussels, to which he dedicated most of his post-cycling years to.

Today, Jiménez is retired, and lives a quiet life of leisure with his wife and friends. He travels back to Colombia from time to time, and continues to ride his bike with friends from the cycling club he joined in Belgium before turning professional. He’s also found a way to help young Colombian riders who want to try their luck at racing in Belgium.

(Photo: Cycling Archives)

They need a place to call home
For many years, Jiménez and his friend Marc Claeys have welcomed Colombian riders looking to make it in Europe. “They need a place to call home, some place to go to when they first arrive here. They need a place to sleep, and keep their bike in order to learn about racing in Europe, and hopefully make a name for themselves.” Jiménez asked Clays –his old amateur teammate– to open up his Belgian country home, to let young Colombian riders and teams stay. The list of riders who have been welcomed by Jiménez and Marc Claeys is impressive, and includes the likes of Victor Hugo Peña (only Colombian to ever wear the yellow jersey at the Tour), Mauricio Ardila (Rabobank, and Geox-TMC), Alejandro Cortés (2006 Colombian national champion), Marlon Perez (Pan American Games gold medalist who raced with Caisse d’Epargne), and Leonardo Duque (Vuelta a España stage winner who races with Cofidis). So in his own way, and with the help of his Belgian friend, Giovanni Jiménez has quietly remained involved in the sport.

Fort Carillion
Demolished
Speaking with Jiménez today in his adoptive home of Brussels, it’s obvious that he’s at home there. He found the one place on earth where cycling is as loved as it is in Colombia, and decided to stay. There’s a sense of quiet joy about him, which can only be achieved by living a life without regrets. His demeanor is warm, and he enjoys relaying the many adventures that he lived through while riding as a professional. He’s proud of his life in cycling, though he cautiously steps back when I refer to him as a “pioneer”. “Nah” he says, “I merely followed my heart”.

As we get ready to say our goodbyes, I remember to give Jiménez something that I’ve brought all the way to Brussels for him. It’s a picture of Fort Carillion, the ship that brought him to Europe in 1962. The one he identified with as its hull cut through the waters of the Atlantic Ocean. It’s the first time Jiménez has seen a picture of the ship since he left it behind in Hamburg.

He gasps, and instantly recognizes the ship. Jiménez leans into the photograph, and squints his eyes as he scans every inch of it. Along with the photograph, there’s information about the ship, which Jiménez reads carefully. As he finishes reading, he hangs his head, and closes his eyes for a few seconds. It’s not just a blink. It’s more than that. He opens his eyes slowly, looks up at me and says:
“The ship was destroyed and dismantled in 1979…the same year that I retired from cycling. I wasn’t physically destroyed when I retired, but in a way, my heart actually was. There was nothing left in me after finishing a career to which I gave absolutely everything I had. I fought everyday while I raced…but I guess like the ship, I had nothing left to give, and I was done for. I was destroyed because I had given everything I had, and that’s how cycling should be. You should fight and fight, until you have nothing more to give. That’s the only way to know that you’re truly done. And that, to me, is the beauty of the sport.”

Jiménez’s warm smile returns to his face. He has spoken like a true Flandrian. But the passion in his voice is unmistakable. After all these years, Jiménez remains thoroughly and unmistakably Colombian.


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Teams

1968    Mann - Grundig - Libertas (Belgium)
1969    Mann - Grundig (Belgium)
1970    Goldor - Fryns - Elvé (Belgium)
1971    Bic (France)
1972    Hertekamp (Belgium)
1973    Hertekamp (Belgium)
1974    Magiglace - Juaneda (France)
1975    Alsaver - Jeunet - De Gribaldy (Belgium)
1976    Gero - Eurosol (Belgium)
1977    Théo Cops (Belgium)
1978    Old Lords - Splendor (Belgium)
1979    DAF Trucks - Aida (Belgium)

Source: www.cyclingarchives.com and Giovanni Jiménez Ocampo

5 comments:

  1. That old Colombia jersey is gorgeous. "Colombia" in that old serif font written in the yellow part of the flag. I would pay for a good replica of it....

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  2. As always excellent article. Remind me of my old country (Yugoslavia) and the same troubles we had.
    Thank you,
    Veso

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  3. Excellent article about a real cycling pioneer. Very nice touch digging up that photo for him.

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  4. Dave, thank you for the nice words. great to see that someone actually read the whole thing!

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  5. Klaus, what a GREAT article...thanks! Jeff in Vermont

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