TOLEDO, Spain (Reuters) – Federico Bahamontes, the first Spaniard to win the Tour de France in 1959 and still considered to be its best-ever climber, is looking forward to watching the last day of this year’s enthralling race on Sunday.
Invited by organizers to attend the finale on the Champs-Elysees in Paris, the 91-year-old did not feel like flying at his age so he will instead watch the end of the race on TV.
While six decades have flown by since he topped the podium, the oldest living winner of the Tour is full of spirit when he argues the cycling of yesteryear, which he learned by peddling black market goods on a cargo bike, was more authentic than now.
“You know what I call today’s cyclists? The Holy Week procession. They (only) lack the candle and the lighter to light the candle,” he told Reuters, referring to the slow, solemn marches of penitents with candles before Catholic Easter.
Bahamontes got the nickname “The Eagle of Toledo” after his numerous victories in the mountain stages. He was the first cyclist to complete a ‘career triple’ by winning the ‘King of the Mountains’ classification in all three Grand Tours.
“It was the wheelbarrow bike, going up the slopes of Toledo carrying 100 kilograms, where I got the strength, the best training,” he said, sitting inside his garage-based fan club where he keeps his trophies and photographs.
As a youngster, he never dreamed of winning a big race, his prime concern being finding food and staying alive in the difficult years during and after the Spanish Civil War, which led to a dictatorship that lasted for four decades.
That involved cycling cargoes of bread and vegetables for black market traders and fleeing the police.
But on July 18, 1959, Bahamontes climbed atop the Tour podium in Paris, to the delight of his exiled Spanish fans.
“I think those who enjoyed it the most were the Spaniards (more than me),” he said, reflecting on winning the Tour and claiming the mountains classification, which he did six times.
Known for a fiery, eccentric character that was not always popular with rivals, Bahamontes once famously stopped at the top of the Col de Romeyere with broken spokes and had an ice cream while waiting for his team car and the main group of riders.
He retired at 37 after a win in Montjuic, Spain.
(Reporting by Elena Rodriguez, editing by Andrei Khalip/Ken Ferris/Pritha Sarkar)