Cycling: Tour de France: Indurain's authority beyond reproach

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SHORT of a giant Mickey Mouse knocking him off his bike as the Tour de France riders leave Euro Disneyland for the final stage to Paris, nothing surely can stop Miguel Indurain winning the race for the fourth successive time this afternoon.

After yesterday's penultimate stage in which an exhausted field made the most of its first opportunity for six days to take things easy, the imperious Spaniard retained his 5min 39sec lead over Piotr Ugrumov of Latvia - more than enough to ensure the victory that has effectively been his since the Tour's halfway point 11 days ago.

The stage was won by the Uzbekistani sprinter Djamolidine Abdoujaparov, rocking and rolling his way past Jan Svorada, of Slovakia, and Silvio Martinello, of Italy, for victory by barely half a wheel. Abdoujaparov, winner of the Tour's opening stage in Lille, has retained the green jersey for top sprinter throughout.

Such a finish was always likely after a stage in which the 118 riders, setting off from Morzine, were mostly content to meander up and down the relatively gentle slopes of the Jura mountains, which straddle the Swiss border north-west of Geneva. In muggy weather, a lone category-two climb represented a minimal challenge after what they had been through during the previous five days - Mont Ventoux followed by four successive Alpine stages - and no team or individual made any serious attempt to get away until the final 25km.

An unmistakeable figure in the middle of the peloton, seemingly towering over his rivals, Indurain had long known the race was his. He thus stands poised to equal the record of four successive wins held by Jacques Anquetil and Eddy Merckx, moving ahead of three riders who have won the race three times. Only Bernard Hinault, with five wins, has a better record, and there seems little to stop Indurain equalling it next year and ultimately laying claim to being the greatest cyclist the sport has seen.

Once again, Indurain's pre-eminence in time-trials has been the foundation of his success, and there are those who feel this detracts from his achievements. He should be made to work harder in the mountains, they say. But that is to overlook Indurain's brilliant performance on the climb into Lourdes 11 days ago which put more than four minutes between him and his only serious challenger, Tony Rominger, of Switzerland. Rominger's abandonment of the Tour four days later virtually ended it as a contest.

You might not have thought so if you had been standing on a Kentish roadside nearly three weeks ago as the peloton idled by, but this has been a more than usually brutal tour. Mountain stages for most of the second half, and ferocious heat for the preceding flat stages combined to force 72 abandonments, or nearly 40 per cent of the field - one of the highest casualty rates ever.

New heroes have emerged - younger men like the balding Italian, Marco Pantani, and France's own Richard Virenque and Luc Leblanc, whose Alpine exploits were among the best things of the Tour. But the idea that they might one day challenge Indurain remains, for now, fanciful. This is the Indurain era, and nobody is prepared to say when it might end.