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Cycle Sport's Giovanni Jimenez Ocampo Biography
« on: January 20, 2014, 21:27 »
It's not a biography penned by me, this time, but for years I've been looking forward to this. Giovanni Jimenez Ocampo was always a mystery to me. The Colombian who sailed to Europe in the mid-sixties and landed in the Belgian kermess circuit. First Colombian to turn pro and remained so for 12 years in the glory years of Belgian cycle racing.

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

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, generosity and friendship.

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.
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.

“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.

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.


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.”

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.

Part 2 of Giovanni's story will be published on Thursday. 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.

Giovanni today in Brussels (Grand-Place)

German racing licences:

Giovanni Jimenez and the Cannibal:

In September 2012, Dutch newspaper Volkskrant met with Giovanni:

Nieuwe lichting Colombianen meldt zich

Giovanni Jimenez zit even zonder woorden. Is het echt waar dat een landgenoot de generale repetitie voor de Ronde van Lombardije heeft gewonnen, vraagt de 70-jarige Colombiaan tot twee keer toe. 'Dit is prima nieuws', klinkt het door de telefoon.

AMSTERDAM - Jimenez mag zich een pionier noemen en dat doet hij ook. Hij geldt als de wegbereider van Herrera, Parra, Soler en alle andere Colombianen die de laatste drie decennia furore maakten in het wielerpeloton. De gedachte dat de Ronde van Lombardije vandaag voor het eerst een Zuid-Amerikaan als winnaar kan begroeten, is niet vreemd na de midweekse zege van Rigoberto Uran. Die won Gran Piemonte, een eendaagse koers op Italiaanse bodem.

Lang voordat iemand van ze had gehoord, besloot Giovanni Jimenez Ocampo in 1969 zijn geluk te beproeven. 'Ik werd gevraagd naar Europa te komen, en weg was ik', zegt hij. Twaalf jaar duurden zijn omzwervingen langs Belgische en Fransen ploegen voordat hij na zeven zeges zijn fiets opborg. Twaalf jaar, herhaalt hij. 'Weinig Colombianen kunnen zoiets nazeggen.'

Op de achtergrond vult zijn Belgische echtgenote de woorden aan waarnaar haar man soms even moet zoeken. Hij staat erop de journalist in het Nederlands te woord te staan, ofschoon er thuis vooral Frans wordt gesproken. In Drogenbos is hij neergestreken, onder de rand van Brussel.

Het oordeel van Jimenez is gewenst. De Colombiaanse renners zijn dit seizoen aan een opmerkelijke opmars bezig. De derde golf lijkt het in zich te hebben de vorige generaties te overtreffen, ook al kan Mauricio Soler na zijn val in de Ronde van Zwitserland vorig jaar nooit meer fietsen.

Wie aan Colombia denkt, ziet vooral Lucho Herrera de Touretappe naar Alpe d'Huez winnen in 1984. Drie jaar later schreef hij als eerste niet-Europeaan de Ronde van Spanje op zijn naam. Fabio Parra vergezelde in 1988 Delgado en Rooks op het Tourpodium. Dankzij renners als Botero, Hugo Peña en Soler, in 2007 de beste klimmer van de Tour, ging de Colombiaanse aanwezigheid nooit onopgemerkt voorbij.

Vijftien van hun landgenoten worden vandaag aan de start verwacht in Lombardije, met Uran als meest aansprekende naam. Hij krijgt bij Team Sky de hulp van landgenoot Sergio Henao, vorige week nog negende bij het WK. Samen fietsten ze zich dit jaar de toptien binnen in de Giro.

Het is zoals Jairo Clopatofsky het graag ziet. De verlamde Colombiaan geldt als een vechter sinds hij zich opwerkte tot de directeur van het nationale comité voor de sport, Coldeportes.

Onder zijn hoede keerde Colombia bij de laatste Pan-Amerikaanse Spelen met 84 medailles terug, tegen de 47 uit 2007. De renners van Colombia-Coldeportes, dat slechts uit Colombianen bestaat, worden deels door de overheid betaald. In ruil daarvoor proberen ze een positieve draai te geven aan het armoedige en gevaarlijke imago van hun land.

Jimenez prijst die ontwikkeling. Eindelijk voelen de Colombiaanse wielerprofs de steun van hun regering, zegt hij. Bij het WK zag hij met eigen ogen hoe ze tegenwoordig in de watten worden gelegd. 'Ze hebben mecaniciens, masseurs en een dokter tot hun beschikking.'

De bus van Colombia-Coldeportes was ter ondersteuning zelfs vanuit de teambasis in Italië naar Valkenburg gekomen. Jimenez: 'In mijn tijd deed ik er twaalf dagen over om met de boot van Colombia naar Europa te komen. Dit is beter.'

In het rennershotel gaf hij Uran een schouderklop voor zijn opmars dit seizoen, ook al speelde de renner tijdens de Spelen aan rare rol. Hij deed in de olympische wegwedstrijd nauwelijks moeite te verhullen dat hij genoegen nam met een beloning van Aleksandr Vinokoerov en in ruil daarvoor de Kazak de titel gunde.

Uran beweerde dat hij de sprint nooit gewonnen zou hebben. Verder zweeg hij. Vraag Jimenez ernaar en het enthousiasme verdwijnt voor het eerst uit zijn stem. 'Wat er is gezegd, weten alleen Vino en Uran. Maar het was raar, ja.'

No time for a translation now but I can come back to it, unless some Dutch speaker is motivated to finish the job.  ;)

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  • « Last Edit: January 26, 2014, 13:15 by Echoes »
    "Paris-Roubaix is the biggest cycling race in the world, bigger than the Tour de France, bigger than any other bike race" (Sir Bradley Wiggins)


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    So a short summary of what Giovanni says in that article:

    First he seemed delighted about a Colombian winning the preparation race of the Tour of Lombardy (e.d.: Uran's win at the Tour of Piedmont 2012).

    Jimenez can consider himself as a pioneer and he does it. He paved the way for the likes of Herrera, Parra and Soler and all the other Colombians who made 'furore' in the last three decades. The idea that Lombardy may very well honour a South-American is not surprising since Uran's victory in Piedmont.

    "I was asked to come to Europe and there I went." His career lasted for twelve years in French and Belgian team before he hung his bike after 7 victories. "Twelve years" he repeated. "Few Colombians may say that." 

    In the background his wife helps him to find his words. Jimenez insisted on speaking in Dutch while at home - in Drogenbos, around Brussels - they are speaking French.

    This season [2012] the Colombians are busy with a remarkable boom. The third wave seems to have surpassed the previous generations even though Soler can no longer race after his crash in the Tour of Switzerland.


    Jimenez praises this development. Finally cyclists are feeling the support of their government, he says. At the Worlds, he saw with his own eyes how they are pampered. "They have mechanics, masseurs and a doctor at their service."

    The Colombia Coldeportes bus had come from the team HQ in Italy to Valkenburg as back-up. Jimenez: "In my time I had to sail for 12 days to get from Colombia to Europe. This is better."

    In the riders' hotel he gave Uran a tap on the shoulder, despite Uran's weird attitude during the Olympic race. He hardly did anything to hide the fact that he was satisfied with a victory by Vinokurov.
    "Uran claimed that he would never have won the sprint" he further says. Ask Jimenez about it and his enthusiasm further disappears from his voice: "What was discussed, only Vinokurov and Uran know but yeah it was weird."


    On Wielerarchieven, some posters know a little bit about Giovanni:

    He married the daughter of cycling club Ruisbroeck Sportif's President, the club he raced for when he did not have a team. After his career he kept open the cafeteria of the Ruisbroeck gym for a few years and when Colombian riders had to stay in Belgium (e.g. Zolder Worlds 2002) he would care for them.


    Among Jimenez' best results as a pro are:

    Winner of the Omloop van Vlaamse Scheldeboorden in 1971
    9 Jef Scherens GP 1970
    11 Schelde Prijs 1971
    11 À travers la Belgique 1972 (now Dwars door Vlaanderen)
    11 Brabantse Pijl 1972
    12 Schelde Prijs 1973
    14 Cerami GP 1971
    16 Overijse - Druivenkoers 1968
    17 Denain GP 1973
    17 Overijse - Druivenkoers 1975
    27 Francfurt GP 1971
    32 Tour of Flanders 1973
    33 World Championship (Mendrisio) 1971
    34 Basque Country 1971
    40 Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne 1973
    41 Amstel Gold Race 1971
    42 Amstel Gold Race 1976
    43 World Championship (Ostuni) 1976
    52 Ghent Wevelgem 1976
    53 Milan-Turin 1969
    55 Paris-Brussels 1973
    57 Ghent Wevelgem 1973
    62 Ghent Wevelgem 1974
    68 Ghent Ghent (Het Volk/Het Nieuwsblad) 1972
    90 Ghent Wevelgem 1972
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  • Echoes

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

    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.

    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?

    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.

    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 P, 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.


    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.


    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: and Giovanni Jiménez Ocampo

    The Fort Carillon (French Line) that brought him to Europe in 1962. The ship was dismantled in 1979:

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  • GMiranda

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    This blog is just amazing, I know it for more or less than two years
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