Cycling: Indurain's team give Hunt his final polish

A British cyclist has shown his will to succeed by defeating some top Tour sprinters. Robin Nicholl talked to him
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JEREMY HUNT is a self-made bike rider. With fine tuning from the team that guided Miguel Indurain to five Tour de France triumphs, he could be destined for great success.

Now there are hints that he could be ready for his first major event, the Tour of Spain, just three years after talent-spotter Francis Lafarge tipped off his fellow Banesto officials about a rare specimen - an Englishman with a sprint potent enough to win important races.

As the reign of Indurain closed with retirement, so Hunt arrived fresh and ambitious in the Spanish camp. A year later he was revealing the makings of another winner.

He dented the fast-finishing reputations of Erik Zabel and Italian Mario Cipollini in a Spanish stage race. Hunt outsprinted the German in Zaragoza a month after Zabel had won the Milan to San Remo classic.

Cipollini, who rates himself the world's fastest finisher, was also in Hunt's wake, but two weeks before that victory Hunt had been having serious doubts.

"Then I won a stage in the French Tour de la Sarthe and it reassured me that I could make it as a professional," he said.

Hunt's confidence gathered momentum and he finished the year with 10 victories, nine of them in Union Cycliste Internationale races, which made him the seventh most prolific racer of the year.

Zabel has twice won the green jersey of top points-scorer in the Tour de France, and Cipollini took the points jersey in last year's Giro d'Italia. Those are major targets for top sprinters, and Hunt claimed his apprentice colours with the points jersey in the aptly named Tour de l'Avenir (the Tour of the Future).

Six years before Lafarge "found" him, Hunt had proved he had the grit to make a bike rider. "In fact he spits gravel," said Colin Lewis, who was a team-mate of Tom Simpson in the 1967 Tour de France that cost Simpson his life.

"Because he has had a tough family life, Jeremy is as hard as nails and you need that to be a top professional. He is a self-made 'bikie', and is that tough he will race on nothing. I once said that he would sleep in a bus shelter if it was necessary, and he gives nothing away.

"He thrives in mucky weather," said Lewis who first met Hunt when the callow 15-year-old walked into his Devon club-room and said he wanted to be a bike racer like his dad.

After Hunt won the British junior road race title in 1991, Lewis got him a place with a club in Metz, and then with another team based in Northern France.

"Out there it is the university of racing. Here it is just the high school," said Lewis whose protege rapidly repaid the faith with 15 successes in his second year.

Hunt's hardness helped him to become British road race champion last year when he got up from a jarring crash to win. It has also become his undoing especially when faced with a 30-hour-a-week training regime.

"I got a bit carried away with training, and my body was not used to it. I cannot yet cope with really hard training," said Hunt who was born in Saskatchewan, Canada, 24 years ago.

"I got ill too, and as soon as my health goes down, everything goes out of the window. I had come through the apprentice stage with Banesto. Now I have to start all over again. I trained too hard after I was ill and it would not go away."

The lung infection has set him back in a year when, with the right form, he could be tackling his first three-week tour in September. "I might be riding the Tour of Spain. It is a possibility if I am showing well in August."

His dreams lie with the one-day classics. "I would like to be a classics rider like I was as an amateur because that is what I am good at. My big ambition is to win a classic or a world road race championship."

Banesto's handlers have the skill and patience, Hunt has the qualities, and only time will tell if the mix is right.