Cycling / Tour de France: Indurain the robot racer set to extend his dominion: Spaniard's unromantic approach means time trials now spell the difference between victory and defeat. Robin Nicholl reports

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The Independent Online
MIGUEL INDURAIN'S robotic victory in the Tour de France might have been planned on a pocket calculator. His deadpan approach to a race that has been a story of romance, intrigue, excitement and panache since 1903 palls by comparison with the heroes and villains of the past.

'I do not get excited very quickly,' he admitted. It took the Danish rider Jesper Skibby treading on his bare foot to raise some emotion in the farmer's son from a village near Pamplona, where the locals and tourists enjoy trying to outrun a herd of bulls as a pastime.

The 29-year-old Indurain prefers to outpace his rivals in time trials, the key to his Tour triumphs, then sit back and watch them try to outflank him for the rest of the three weeks. Defence has now become the best form of attack, dull though it may be.

Eddy Merckx scored his fifth Tour triumph with eight stage wins in 1974. Indurain turned on the power for two time trials, then switched to defensive mode for the rest of the 3,700 kilometres. The age of the robot racer has arrived. Sports science and hi-tech design have brought the best racers to a point where they are monitored like machines. Some are even wind-tunnel tested with their specialised bikes. When checked for power output by physiologists, Indurain poured out 550 watts against the 200 of Mr Average.

Such is Indurain's introvert character and powerful build, it might be thought that he was constructed rather than raised. His shrewd manager, Jose-Miguel Echavarri, knows how and when to apply the screwdriver.

His calculated approach, plus Indurain's sheer strength, have overwhelmed all the Spaniard's rivals. They conceded victory after they could not break him in the mountains and this could be the pattern for 1994 as well.

Indurain is at pains to reject suggestions of his invincibility. 'I'm not from outer space,' he said. 'Like all the riders in the peloton, I'm finishing the Tour tired, after throwing all my energy into the battle.' But he added ominously: 'I like the French saying, 'Appetite comes from eating'. The Tour is my favourite race and remains my priority.'

Indurain's appetite for success is reflected in his unique record in the sport's two most important stage races. He now boasts three consecutive Tours de France wins as well as two in a row in the Tour of Italy in 1992 and 1993.

It seems inevitable that the Indurain juggernaut will roll on, flattening the opposition - unless the Tour organisers do away with time trials, which is hardly likely, or Rominger can produce more shocks as he did in beating Indurain in Saturday's time trial. Age could be against him. The Swiss is 32 and there have been few victors beyond that age in the last 70 years. The oldest, Gino Bartali, was 34.

Rominger's capabilities rest with the demands of his Spanish sponsor. 'They want a good showing in the Tour of Spain which I have won twice. However, to maintain that form for six months is very difficult and anyway those are not the terms on which to take on someone as strong as Indurain.'

If Rominger is not the man to oust the Spaniard, then it could be the task of another Swiss, Alex Zulle, who in his first Tour last year took the yellow jersey from Indurain for a day, and who like Rominger has one time-trial victory over the Tour winner.

Zulle's chance this year was ruined by falls and he finished way out of contention, although at 25 he at least has time on his side.

Age also weighs against the prospects of the Italians, Gianni Bugno and Claudio Chiappucci. They have threatened to topple Indurain for three years but Bugno lacks the final drive to be a winner of a Tour, and Chiappucci is not fast enough to beat Indurain in time trials.

'The remedy is in the hands of the teams,' Jean-Marie Leblanc, the director-general of the Tour, said. 'I do not believe that Indurain's methods lessen the attraction. OK, he is not very spectacular but crowds come to see if he can be beaten.

'Some years we have no favourites but every so often we have a super favourite,' Leblanc added. 'We had Merckx, then Bernard Hinault, and now Indurain. I admire these men very much because they take on the whole responsibility of favouritism in their own way.'

Britain will get two days of Tour drama next year and the chance to see what France has been raving about for 80 years, as the 3,500 race followers and 1,500 vehicles come to Dover, Brighton and Portsmouth. There will certainly be some raving along the south coast when the roads have to be closed to public traffic hours before the Tour passes through.

'We have to ram home a positive message about the benefits,' Mandy Bearne, a Kent County Council official, said. 'For a little inconvenience it can do a lot for the areas involved. People have an idea of what it is all about but not the scale of it.'

1993 TOUR HONOURS

Overall winner: Miguel Indurain (Spain, Banesto).

Second: Tony Rominger (Switzerland, Clas).

Third: Zenon Jaskula (Poland, GB-MG).

Points winner: Djamolidine Abdoujaparov (Uzbekistan, Lampre).

King of the Mountains: Rominger.

Best young rider: Antonio Martin (Spain, Amaya).

Best team: Carrera (Italy).

Stage winners: Prologue time trial: Indurain; 1st stage: Mario Cipollini (Italy); 2nd stage: Wilfried Nelissen (Belgium); 3rd stage: Abdoujaparov; 4th stage team time trial: GB-MG (Italy); 5th stage: Jesper Skibby (Denmark); 6th stage: Johan Bruyneel (Belgium); 7th stage: Bjarne Riis (Denmark); 8th stage: Lance Armstrong (US); 9th stage time trial: Indurain; 10th stage: Rominger; 11th stage: Rominger; 12th stage: Fabio Roscioli (Italy); 13th stage: Olaf Ludwig (Germany); 14th stage: Pascal Lino (France); 15th stage: Oliviero Rincon (Colombia); 16th stage: Jaskula; 17th stage: Claudio Chiappucci (Italy); 18th stage: Abdoujaparov; 19th stage time trial: Rominger; 20th stage: Abdoujaparov.

Total distance: 3,714 kilometres.

Average speed of winner: 38.7kph.

Starters: 180. Finishers: 136.

(Photographs omitted)

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