Cycling / Tour de France: Indurain lieutenants' protectionist policy: Robin Nicholl on the Banesto team who may have this year's Tour de France in their pocket

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CHAMPAGNE corks were popping in Miguel Indurain's camp yesterday, and there are still 10 days remaining in the Tour de France. It was nothing too premature, merely Indurain's 28th birthday, but seen by many as a practice run for the real celebrations in Paris on 26 July.

Eddy Merckx has known the triumph of winning a Tour five times, and the Belgian summed up Indurain's chances. 'It's a formality,' Merckx said. 'I don't see how anyone can beat him, especially with another 65 kilometres of time trial to come. He could gain so much time over that distance. I can't see that tactics will stop him.

'In the Tour Indurain could be as great as Bernard Hinault and myself, especially if they continue to make courses as hard as this year. Then I cannot see anyone beating him.'

Elsewhere in the Jura town of Dole, riders rested, played with their children or went for a bike ride. Anything to take their minds off the task ahead. It is as much a burden for Indurain's troops as those of Gianni Bugno, Claudio Chiappucci, and Greg LeMond.

Indurain, cool as ever, is relying on the strength of his Banesto team rather than strategy. He has powerful lieutenants in Jean- Francois Bernard and Pedro Delgado, the Tour winner of 1988.

'It will be very tough in the mountains, as the stages are long and it will be dangerous for me all the time,' Indurain said. 'If, however, I can hold my advantage on the others after the Alps it will be a major step towards victory. It is not my plan to attack but rather to counter my rivals and try not to let them make up too much time.'

LeMond, normally ready for any kind of public relations, refused interviews, to 'take off the pressure'. Chiappucci refused to talk tactics and went to bed. His right-hand man, Stephen Roche, lies fourth but is expected to suffer with his injured back as the big climbs begin. That left Bugno alone to face the questions.

Since his time trial victory demoralised his rivals in Luxembourg, Indurain has been talked of as though he were already in the leader's yellow jersey.

Pascal Lino has been glorying in the unexpected fame of 10 days in the maillot jaune. 'If anyone is going to take it from me I want it to be Indurain. He is the greatest,' said the Breton, in whose home town houses have been repainted yellow.

Yet his manager, Jacques Michaud, talked of tactics that might work given the right situation. 'All teams will be hoping to trap Indurain on his own in the mountains, and that his team will disintegrate under attacks,' he said.

'However, if that happens it is possible that Indurain, who is so strong, could play Eddy Merckx, and race in front on his own. Then again, he has a very strong team, so I doubt if it will happen, but you never know. . .'

That was the most positive approach on how to conquer El Conquistador, who is 1min 27sec off the lead, but such a gap is a leaf in the swirling winds on the mountains that will make and break many on this Tour.

Bugno once resorted to listening to Mozart to cure his fear of descending mountain passes. He is a man of nervous temperament, and agrees that Indurain has a psychological advantage.

'If I can attack I don't think I can take more than two minutes off him,' Bugno said. He is currently 3min 12sec behind Indurain. 'I have no strategy, but I will be watching for a situation that I can turn to my advantage.'

He could be still looking for that opportunity in the Champs- Elysees 10 days from now.

Today is the overture to an Alpine symphony with one mountain of note, but a weekend over nine mountains in and out of Italy will lift the Tour to fortissimo.

RACES WITHIN THE RACE: King of the Mountains: 1 C Chiappucci (Carrera, It) 123pts; 2 R Virenque (RMO, Fr) 91; 3 F Chioccioli (GB- MG, It) 80; 4 J Murguialday (Amaya, Sp) 67; 5 R Golz (Ariostea, Ger) 63; 6 D Rezze (RMO, Fr) 39. Points: 1 L Jalabert (ONCE, Fr) 171pts; 2 J Museeuw (Lotto, Bel) 162; 3 O Ludwig (Panasonic, Ger) 117; 4 M Ghirotto (Carrera, It) 116; 5 D Konyshev (TVM, CIS) 91; 6 Chiappucci 83.

(Maps omitted)