Cycling: Indurain's reign enters fourth epoch: Tour de France: Spaniard joins the race's all-time greats as rivals and critics are left floundering in the wake of 'El Conquistador'

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The Independent Online
WHEN Miguel Indurain first slipped on the yellow jersey of the Tour de France leader in 1991 it was too small. 'It is so tight that it will be difficult to take off, so I had better keep it until Paris,' he told his Banesto team manager, Jose Miguel Echavarri. And he did.

Now the Tour organisers are used to fitting the 6ft 1in (1.88 metre) frame of 'El Conquistador' and there have been many willing but incapable of stripping him of the revered jersey.

After completing his fourth successive Tour victory on the Champs-Elysees yesterday, Indurain said that the Tour had better stock up again on the larger size for next year. 'I'll be back and I'm coming to win. I would like to have a fifth victory.'

Before the Tour, the Spaniard was being written off by his own press, who for three years had eulogised him. This year he had been deeply affected by the death of his team-mate and friend, Antonio Martin, in a road accident. Then an allergy, followed by tendinitis, added to the feeling that he was finished as a Tour force.

Indurain's third place in the Tour of Italy, which he was expected to win for a third year, increased the doubts. He responded with another unbeatable if unspectacular performance in the greatest cycle race of all.

'He read in the papers that he was finished but he just kept working,' Echavarri said. 'You have to give him respect because he's a great champion and a great person.'

'What I had to say to critics is what I showed in this race. The important thing is overall victory. I would have loved to win a stage but the circumstances made it impossible,' said Indurain, who joins the Frenchman Jacques Anquetil and the Belgian Eddy Merckx as the only riders to have won four Tours in a row. The target is now five on the trot, but Indurain knows his limitations. 'I am 30 and I will not last for ever,' he said.

When they start weighing up the contenders, the British rider Chris Boardman is certain to be mentioned. A win at record speed and three days in the yellow jersey in your first Tour is significant, and Boardman will not waste the experience of his 12 days on the Tour.

He is on the crest of the new wave and with him is Marco Pantani, the successor to Claudio Chiappucci. When Pantani was signed by Chiappucci's team, Carrera, he recalled: 'I was so proud that I did not even look at the cheque.' The Italian's third place goes nicely with his runner-up spot in the Tour of Italy, both gained by his lively mountain racing.

He and Chiappucci are of the same effervescent style but the latter was sidelined by sickness in a race that lost 72 riders to various causes, but particularly the stifling heat and fast pace.

Whether it was made easier for Indurain by the loss of many of his main rivals to injury and sickness is disputable. Indurain seized control after just nine stages by beating the clock in the vineyards of the Dordogne and then stayed firmly in command, despite a remarkable challenge by Piotr Ugrumov. The Latvian late developer belied his 33 years with two wins and a second place in the Alps to finish second overall.

The French were represented on the final podium in Paris by Richard Virenque as the wearer of the red polka-dotted jersey of Best in the Mountains: even Pantani's late drive could not displace him.

Djamolidine Abdoujaparov won the Fair Play Trophy for his sporting spirit, a complete turnabout for a man who had earned a reputation for kamikaze sprinting. This year he also won his third green jersey as the most consistent finisher, bringing the man from Uzbekistan to within one jersey of equalling the record of the Irishman Sean Kelly.

Eddy Seigneur, a French team- mate of Boardman, brought down the curtain on this year's race by overtaking the American Frankie Andreu in the last 200m to win the final stage of an exhausting 3,978 kilometres (2,470 miles).

TOUR DE FRANCE 20th stage (208km, 129 miles, Morzine to Lac-Saint-Point): 1 D Abdoujaparov (Uzbek) Polti 5hr 50min 37sec; 2 J Svorada (Slovak) Lampre; 3 S Martinello (It) Mercatone Uno; 4 P Anderson (Aus) Motorola; 5 B Riis (Den) Gewiss-Ballan; 6 A Edo (Sp) Kelme; 7 G Bortolami (It) Mapei-Clas; 8 M Ghirotto (It) ZG-Mobili; 9 G Fidanza (It) Polti; 10 F Simon (Fr) Castorama; 11 S Swart (NZ) Motorola; 12 H Redant (Bel) ZG-Mobili; 13 B Cenghialta (It) Gewiss- Ballan; 14 G Audehm (Ger) Telekom; 15 J Museeuw (Bel) GB-MG; 16 C Zamana (Pol) Kelme; 17 J van de Laer (Bel) Lotto; 18 T Marie (Fr) Castorama; 19 T Gouvenou (Fr) GAN; 20 S Yates (GB) all same time. Selected: 41 M Indurain (Sp) Banesto s/t.

21st stage (175km, 109 miles, EuroDisney to Paris): 1 E Seigneur (Fr) GAN 4hr 43min 34sec; 2 F Andreu (US) Motorola +3sec; 3 B Hamburger (Den) TVM +6; 4 J Mueller (Swit) Mapei-Clas; 5 A Kasputis (Lith) Chazal both same time; 6 D Abdoujaparov (Uzbek) Polti +25; 7 V Ekimov (Rus) WordPerfect +27; 8 S Martinello (It) Mercatone Uno +29; 9 A Edo (Sp) Kelme; 10 O Ludwig (Ger) Telekom; 11 P Anderson (Aus) Motorola; 12 G Bortolami (It) Mapei-Clas; 13 J Museeuw (Bel) GB-MG; 14 H Redant (Bel) ZG-Mobili; 15 R Verdonck (Bel) Lotto; 16 J van de Laer (Bel) Lotto; 17 A Olano (Sp) Kelme; 18 S Swart (NZ) Motorola; 19 J Svorada (Slovak) Lampre; 20 E Dekker (Neth) WordPerfect all s/t. Selected: 42 S Yates (GB) Motorola +29. Final overall standings: 1 M Indurain (Sp) Banesto 103hr 38min 38sec; 2 P Ugrumov (Lat) Gewiss-Ballan +5min 39sec; 3 M Pantani (It) Carrera +7:19; 4 L Leblanc (Fr) Festina +10:03; 5 R Virenque (Fr) Festina +10:10; 6 R Conti (It) Lampre +12:29; 7 A Elli (It) GB-MG +20:17; 8 A Zulle (Swit) ONCE +20:35; 9 U Bolts (Ger) Telekom +25:19; 10 V Poulnikov (Ukr) Carrera +25:28; 11 P Lino (Fr) Festina +26:01; 12 F Escartin (Sp) Mapei-Clas +30:38; 13 G Bortolami (It) Mapei-Clas +32:35; 14 B Riis (Den) Gewiss-Ballan +33:32; 15 O Pellicioli (It) Polti 34:55; 16 N Rodriguez (Col) ZG-Mobili +35:18; 17 J-F Bernard (Fr) Banesto +36:44; 18 H Buenahora (Col) Kelme +38:00; 19 R Sorensen (Den) GB-MG +42:39; 20 Hamburger +43:44. Selected: 71 Yates +2hr 04min 45sec.

Points classification: 1 D Abdoujaparov (Uzbek) Polti 322pts; 2 S Martinello (It) Mercatone Uno 273; 3 J Svorada (Slovak) Lampre 230.

Mountains Grand Prix: 1 R Virenque (Fr) Festina 392pts; 2 M Pantani (It) Carrera 243; 3 P Ugrumov (Lat) Gewiss-Ballan 219.

Teams: 1 Festina 311hr 28min 53sec; 2 Gewiss-Ballan 312:11.50; 3 Mapei-Clas 312:13.31.

(Photograph omitted)