Indurain cannot sate his hunger

TOUR DE FRANCE '95: The omens are good for the Spaniard who is ready to rewrite the record books. Robin Nicholl reports
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The Independent Online
It started with a sandwich and a drink, and now Miguel Indurain is about to gorge himself with an attempt for a record fifth consecutive victory in the Tour de France.

He will celebrate his 31st birthday as the Tour comes to the boil in the Pyrenees, 20 years after his farming father sowed the seed when he bought him a bike.

Then Indurain discovered bike racing, or rather that everyone who finished the local race was rewarded with a sandwich and a drink. No wonder he was 14 stone when he reached his 18th birthday, but it is a sleek powerhouse who sets out today from St Brieuc, the start of the 3,535km thrash through France and a little of Belgium.

If omens count for anything, St Brieuc on the Brittany coast is a bike ride from Yffiniac, the birthplace of Bernard Hinault, the third and last rider to rack up five victories.

The late Jacques Anquetil was the first 31 years ago, and Belgian's Eddy Merckx joined the club in 1974. If he succeeds, Indurain will be the first to put five together without interruption.

Legendary names, legendary deeds, and if any more omens were needed there is Jose Miguel Echavarri.

He was Anquetil's team-mate and is now Indurain's manager, and to the Spanish six-footer a father figure. "I always dreamed about making Miguel a champion, but above all I wanted to make him a man," Echavarri said. "It pleases me when Miguel is compared with Anquetil."

Anquetil had a gentle philosophy about racing. Never humiliate others. Live and let live. Indurain subscribes to the same philosophy and he is content. "Whatever Echavarri asks I will do. I trust him entirely," he said.

In the shadow of Indurain is a line of respectful challengers. Switzerland's Tony Rominger has shown signs of being the most serious, but after his Tour of Italy triumph he said: "Indurain is such a kind guy. I cannot see him as an enemy.

"I don't know if he is on the same level as he was last year, if so it will be difficult. He is the strongest and if he wins five that would seem normal."

Britain's Chris Boardman has ridden against Indurain this year. Even beating him in time trials, but there are no false illusions. "Indurain doesn't panic," he said. "This year he has his strongest team. He will have three Banesto team-mates with him at the top of the climbs."

That extra muscle in the right place at the right time could be crucial to his fifth victory.

The demise of the Le Groupement team has robbed Robert Millar of a British record for appearances. It would have been his 13th. He finished fourth 12 years ago, still Britain's best performance, and became the first Briton to win a category outright when he kept the red polka dot jersey of best mountain-climber.

That brings the British content down to two in a field of 180. Apart from Boardman there are the long-serving legs of Sean Yates. Last year he spent a day in the leader's yellow jersey, a fitting tribute for a man who devoted his career to the ambitions of others.

The collapse of Le Groupement, a pyramid-selling company, also knocked out the world champion, Luc Leblanc, who last year was the best Frenchman, finishing fourth, and takes away Brittany's chance to cheer their local hero, Ronan Pensec.

This Tour marks the 10th anniversary of Brittany's proudest moment when Hinault won his fifth. Now "The Badger", as he is known, is a technical consultant with the Tour organisation, but as an ex-rider he cannot be happy with the late finishes, set to suit television, particular on the first day.

Today's curtain-raising time trial, where Boardman made his mark last year, finishes around 10pm, so the later starters, traditionally the main contenders, are going to find it hard to digest a meal and sleep well.

In 1978 Hinault, wearing his first yellow jersey as Tour leader, was at the front when the riders protested at late finishes, early starts, and too much travelling between starts and finishes. In the Pyrenees they came within 500 metres of the finish, dismounted, and walked the rest of the course.

Tomorrow's route takes the Tour through Hinault ville. There's a lot of deja vu about this year.

THE MAIN CHALLENGERS

TO INDURAIN

TONY ROMINGER (Switzerland)

Born: Voyens, Denmark, 27-3-1961

Team: Mapei

Best performances: 1st, Tour of Spain 1992, '93, '94. 1st, Tour of Italy 1995. World hour record 1994

Amazed everyone when after winning the Tour of Italy he announced: "If I was told 'you don't have to ride the Tour de France' I would happily stay at home."

No one said that, so Rominger is in, and it should be business as usual. He came close in 1993, only sickness stopped the man with a Swiss father and Danish mother, who lives in Monaco where he occasionally takes a bike ride with world motor racing champion Michael Schumacher.

Rominger, due to retire next year, has the time trialling and mountain climbing skills to undermine Indurain, but insists on tipping his Spanish rival to win.

EVGENY BERZIN (Russia)

Born: Vyborg, 3-6-1970

Team: Gewiss Ballan

Best performances: 1st, Tour of Italy 1994. 1st, Liege-Bastogne-Liege 1994

Has a rebellious streak, and a hunger for success. He walked out on the Soviet school of cycling because the regime was oppressive. Then his victory over Indurain in the Tour of Italy started lights flashing after a season of blanks.

1994 was good for him, but then he soured relations in his team with verbal arm-twisting in a fruitless attempt for a better deal.

If he has the full support of his men then he could be challenging. Piotr Ugrumov's withdrawal through injury puts the full weight of success on Berzin. The Latvian, second in 1993, has a better record in Tours but then he has been around longer.

MARCO PANTANI (Italy)

Born: Cesena, 13-1-1970

Team: Carrera

Best performances: 2nd, Tour of Italy 1994. 3rd, Tour de France 1994

Pantani missed the Tour of Italy this year because of a painful knee problem but if all goes well he should be handing out the agony in the mountains.

His 1994 record was built on the balding lightweight's ability to ride mountain roads faster than most, and he also took the best young rider title.

He may not match up to other contenders in the all-out time trials on flatter terrain.

RICHARD VIRENQUE (France)

Born: Casablanca, 19-11-1969

Team: Festina

Best performances: 5th, Tour de France 1994 - won mountains category

With Luc Leblanc sidelined by the financial collapse of his sponsor, Virenque is in the limelight, his favourite spot, as the French hope.

Although a wandering dog knocked him from his bike recently Virenque is sure to start, and is another relying on his mountaineering for success. Last year he beat Pantani to the red polka dot jersey of best climber.

He enjoys being the centre of attention. That is what best motivates him. Last year his Tour fan mail topped 850 letters, and he would dearly love to enjoy the rock-star adulation the Spanish lavish on Indurain.

CLAUDIO CHIAPPUCCI (Italy)

Born: Uboldo, 28-2-1963

Team: Carrera

Best performances: 2nd, Tour de France 1990, '92. 3rd, Tour de France 1991. 2nd, Tour of Italy 1991, '92. 3rd, Tour of Italy 1993

Chiappucci is always a contender. His firecracker image does not always please his fellow professionals, but he cannot be underrated.

He has been around a long time, and has had his flops, but when he gets his act together it can be inspirational. His victory in Sestriere after an excruciating solo through the Alps was a classic.

He revels in the nickname of Il Diablo, and has a small devil tattooed on his chest. An extrovert for sure, but ambitious.

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