Indurain riding straight into the record books

With six days to go in the Tour de France, Robin Nicholl believes the race leader is already assured of a historic triumph
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The Independent Online
Miguel Indurain stands head and shoulders above the Tour de France pack. The man from the Navarre farmlands feels close to home: the Spanish border is within cycling distance and he is six days from a record five wins in a row when the Tour resumes today.

After two weeks and 2,547 kilometres, Indurain is established with a lead of 2min 46sec over Switzerland's Alex Zulle, and is still bracing himself for more challenges. There have been more than ever this year, but the anticipated threat from Tony Rominger, seen two years ago as the best hope of toppling Indurain, has not returned.

Then he beat the maestro at his forte, time-trialling, and looked strong in the mountains. Last year, however, sickness took out Rominger and this time he conceded defeat after the second day in the Alps.

Rominger gives the impression of a man whose heart is not in this challenging game. He has been talking of retirement for some time and he is more than 12 minutes adrift of Indurain.

Evgeny Berzin had more ambition until his Tour debut got too much. The Russian has yet to reproduce the level that beat Indurain in the 1994 Tour of Italy, and pulled out before reaching l'Alpe d'Huez. Both had the mixture of time trialling talent and mountain climbing experience to unsettle Indurain, but not consistently enough in the Tour.

Three years ago Zulle was showing similar traits, beating Indurain in a time trial, and taking the yellow jersey when the Tour visited Indurain's territory. After a quiet spell he became a born-again contender this year, and has come the closest to threatening Indurain.

Certainly the surging drives of Marco Pantani over the mountains are unsettling but the Italian cannot match it in the time trials, and that is where Indurain really reigns. Bjarne Riis has the ox-like qualities to arm-wrestle Indurain out of the yellow jersey, but gaining significant time is not within the big Dane's capabilities. Still, he tries and tries.

Laurent Jalabert's ambitious fight to reclaim the yellow jersey he lost in a crash needed close watching by Indurain's Banesto troops, but the Frenchman too has not got that time-trialling quality to underpin his other strengths. Jalabert and Zulle are in the ONCE team, a superbly drilled outfit with master tactician Manolo Saiz in charge, but their combined forces cannot unseat Indurain.

Indurain has them all weighed up. "In five Tours my most dangerous opponent was Claudio Chiappucci. After I am finished a future Tour winner will be a complete all-rounder, at his ease in the mountains. Someone like Zulle or Berzin, but they must wait.

"As long as I feel the drive and the excitement I will come back, possibly until I am 34. I want to give up at the top," Indurain said, giving himself another three Tours (he celebrated his 31st birthday on Sunday).

But he remembers the day after his birthday in 1992 when Chiappucci took him to his limits as he chased the Italian's winning solo through the Alps to Sestriere. Chiappucci may be playing second fiddle to his team- mate Pantani this year, but that day in the Alps, Indurain recalls: "I felt spent but I made it to the finish."