A giant in the saddle; profile; Miguel Indurain

Norman Fox studies the qualities of the Spaniard who has made the Tour de France his own

OVER a few of the 2,500 miles that riders in last year's Tour de France endured, some desperate optimists entertained the thought that perhaps Miguel Indurain might not be the power he was when winning this most pitiless of cycle races in the previous three years. Or was it that the French organisers, who had done their damnedest to plan a route that might defeat this impassive, formidable Spaniard, could at last succeed? Up to a point they may have been right in spotting a hint of vulnerability, but Indurain still won. The man was, and remains, a giant who bestrides sport's most mountainous challenge.

That victory allowed Indurain to join a special club comprising other legends of cycling, the winners of four consecutive Tours de France: Jacques Anquetil (1961-64) and Eddy Merckx (1969-72). Next Saturday the 30-year- old bull of a man from near Pamplona sets out from Saint Brieuc in another attempt to prove to the begrudging French that he could become the undisputed all-time king of the road. Then the rest of the world may even recognise him as being among the best athletes in any sporting arena. Cyclists suffer more than most in their efforts to achieve that recognition.

Competing in the Tour for the 11th time means he has to forget what he said last year: "Never again. What do they expect of me?" If he wins, the pressure will only increase. To be acclaimed as the all-time great, Indurain has to win six times, which the great Merckx once predicted the Spaniard would do. But time is catching up with him. "I don't believe I can improve any more," said Indurain. "After five years at the top, you begin to feel the kilometres and the challenge from younger riders". Despite what he says, there is precious little sign of a successor, merely a few pretenders, and in this year's Tour he is the only man who has previously won the race.

The record number of Tour victories (five) is held by Anquetil, Merckx and Bernard Hinault, who was the last French winner back in 1985. This time the questions being asked of Indurain are whether indeed some weaknesses were spotted last summer and if the French organisers have finally put so many uphill, down dale and beat-the-clock problems in his way that the outstanding favourite is beaten less by his opponents than the demands of the course.

The French do not see Indurain as a gift to the sport, claiming he lacks adventure - he won only one Tour stage last year. Most cycle- racing followers like their heroes to have a touch of derring-do, skidding down mountain roads, riding off alone into the sunset and visibly suffering. Indurain is not like that; not like the old French heroes, nor the Belgian Merckx. But there is a big difference between putting more mountains and longer time-trials in his path and stopping him relentlessly grinding down the opposition. What makes the man unoriginally called "the metronome" tick?

There were moments in last year's race, which in its early stages memorably but controversially left France to snake through southern England, when even this astonishingly powerful man wondered whether one more Tour would be worth the long-term health problems that so many of the sport's champions have suffered after taking on a few races too many. But one of the reasons why the French particularly find him only marginally less boring than the English rugby side is that he has always been scrupulously economic with his energy output. He may have said after winning last year that he was not Superman, but he surely comes a close second.

He has a metabolism that is probably superior to any other athlete in top-class sport. His at-rest pulse rate of 28 suggests that he virtually goes into a state of hibernation. After sprinting to the line, the rate ascends to what most of us would expect when catching a call before the answerphone goes on. On the steepest of climbs, other riders notice with disbelief that he rarely appears to sweat or struggle for breath. If there is ever fear in his eyes, he hides it behind large, dark glasses.

Last year he occasionally seemed to suffer, but even in 1985 when he rode the Tour for the first time and abandoned after only four stages, other riders noticed that he was adept at disguising a grimace with a smile. It was something he practised even in his early racing days as a teenage Spanish amateur champion.

His lung capacity is a third above average and his height (6ft 2in) and weight (12st 7lb) are unusual in cycle racing. The French complain that they can admire his impressive physical presence but not his laid-back, seemingly selfish attitude to racing. He likes to sit in the main group of riders, watch every move and do only what's necessary, which also seems to be his philosophy on life generally.

In cycling, champions who are reluctant to take their share at the front are unpopular, the more so if they go for overall victory in the time- trial stages. But they are often rich. Last year, Indurain earned pounds 250,000 for winning the Tour and was estimated to have an annual income of more than pounds 2m. And that was in spite of finishing only third in the Tour of Italy, a result that persuaded him not to ride this year's Giro. However, he will probably respond to criticism in his home country and race in the Tour of Spain in September.

Even if his 1994 victory was not without one or two moments of fallibility, this time he again starts as favourite, and he could do what has never been achieved in post-war Tours and wear the leader's yellow jersey throughout, commencing with his speciality, the first day's time-trial. Last year he confided to a team-mate that he intended leading all the way, but, surprisingly, he lost the prologue time-trial to the British rider Chris Boardman, only to remind the field of his real time-trial ability by easily winning between Perigueux and Bergerac in spite of high temperatures and humidity. Later he mercilessly overtook all the other race favourites on the seven-mile Pyrenean climb of Hautacam, near Lourdes. At the end of the day, even Tony Rominger, the Swiss rider reckoned to have a chance of challenging Indurain overall, had to admit:"It's all over for me. Indurain is unbeatable".

Rominger and Indurain could not be more dissimilar. At the end of the summer, Indurain always returns to his home village and quietly resumes local life with his wife, Marisa. He still trains on the roads he knew as a child. The story goes that gypsies stole his first bike but somehow he bought another and was stirred into thoughts of a professional career. In contrast, Rominger, a former book-keeper, lives in Monte Carlo, records his training by computer and spends at least five weeks before each season at altitude in Colorado. If no Frenchman can challenge Indurain, the French turn to Rominger because of his connections with Monaco.

Well supported by his Banesto team, Indurain's final overall margin of victory last year was his largest, 5min 39sec ahead of Piotr Ugrumov of Latvia, who was one of those who thought he had found a race-damaging weakness in the Spaniard when he snatched three minutes out of the leader's advantage on a mountain time-trial. Ugrumov, a close second to Indurain in the 1993 Tour of Italy, rides again this year and is still climbing impressively, but at 35 he may have gone beyond his peak. Meanwhile, Indurain has proved himself the outstanding all-rounder of the present generation by breaking the one-hour track record that had previously been held by the Scot, Graeme Obree, and Chris Boardman. Significantly, Indurain trained for less than a month and had little track experience. So when he said last week that hay fever and colds early in the summer set his training back, it was not enough to register serious doubt.

The strain of top-class road racing is unimaginable. Over the years dozens of riders have turned for help to drugs. Most of the top riders have at one time or another failed tests, and Indurain is no exception. Last September, the French Cycling Federation announced that he had been tested positive after a race the previous May but it was accepted by the Union Cycliste Internationale and the International Olympic Committee that the drug concerned, salbutamol, was contained in a nasal inhaler Indurain had used to improve his respiration. In Spain, the case was interpreted as another example of the French attempting to stop Indurain dominating the sport. They hardly needed worry.

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