Life in the slipstream of Indurain

Paul Trow talks to a young Devon recruit about the Banesto team
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The Independent Online
Miguel Indurain may be chasing his sixth successive Tour de France win when the world's most celebrated cycle race begins on Friday, but already the groundwork to victories number seven and eight is being laid down in deepest Devon.

The town of Totnes, nestling in the jaws of the Dart estuary, is the sort of place whence outraged citizens pen letters to the Daily Telegraph bemoaning the standards of modern journalists' grammar. But it also has two significant connections with the world of international cycling.

The better-known link, perhaps, is that the pounds 125,000 high-tech bike used by Graeme Obree, the national 4,000 metres pursuit champion and former world record-holder, was built there. But Totnes is also the home of Jeremy Hunt, one of Britain's most promising young road racers and a fully paid- up colleague of Indurain's in the Spanish team Banesto.

Hunt turned professional at the start of the year after a successful amateur career in which he landed a string of titles with the Birmingham- based CC Giro team and finished second in the last two national championships.

The Banesto squad, which is owned by one of Spain's most prominent banks, consists of 18 riders, 10 of whom will take part in the Tour de France. Unfortunately for British cycling fans, Hunt will not be among them. His career with Banesto is still very much in embryo and over the next few weeks, in between his gruelling daily five-hour training stints on the roads of Devon, he will instead be watching his matchless Spanish team- mate's attempt to make it six of the best on Channel 4.

"You're just learning in the first year, helping out," said Hunt, 22. "You have to do what they tell you." None the less, he has had five competitive outings at Indurain's elbow this year and has clearly benefited from the experience. "When your team-mate has the yellow jersey, as he usually does, you have to get out to the front with him. You also have to watch out for a breakaway by one of the other teams, and make sure the breakaway group doesn't get too far ahead.

"Indurain seems a really nice guy, perfectly normal and laid-back. He always signs if someone asks him for an autograph. My job has been to ride down the mountains with him and then let the hill-climbing specialists take over. I suppose I'm more of a sprinter than an endurance rider at the moment. I'm probably too young for the Tour de France. It's a gruelling test of stamina and I don't think I could get round it all at this stage. "

Born in Canada and previously domiciled in Manchester, Hunt took up cycling at 13, partly due to the influence of his father, Martin, a Londoner who used to ride at Crystal Palace and was once a regional champion. His younger brother Jonathan, 19, also rides, but has been sidelined by a virus. Hunt has also had a virus recently, as well as a back injury.

"My fitness isn't the reason I'm missing the Tour de France. It had already been decided I would sit it out," he insisted. "There will be opportunities in the future. Ideally, I'm looking for a 10-year career in professional cycling - it's a lot better than being paid to sit in an office or working in a factory. Some of the guys who work for Indurain are very well-off. If you do it well and the team wins, you can make a good living out of it."

Meanwhile, he aims to prove his fitness today over 140 miles at the national championships in Abergavenny, where the final place in the five-strong British road-racing Olympic squad is up for grabs. "I would already have been picked if I'd been fully fit," he said. "I'm going to ride there but if I'm feeling rubbish then I'll have to pull out. If my training is going well by the end of the Tour de France, though, I will ride for Banesto in the One-Day Classic in Spain on 27 July.

"At the moment I live here in Totnes and just go to Spain for races. The way professional racing is, you fly in, race and then fly home." However, Hunt plans to move to Spain next year, possibly to Barcelona or Valencia, for easier access to the Banesto team's base in Pamplona and its headquarters in Andorra. Bob Grinsell, the boss of the CC Giro team which Hunt joined four years ago when he was British junior champion, has no doubt his protege is on the right track. "How can he fail to get better if he's rubbing shoulders with the best riders in the world? After all, team-mates don't come any better than 'Big Mig', do they?"