Matchless but modest Miguel

Robin Nicholl looks back over the career of a man mountain called Indurain, who is the only cyclist to have won five Tours de France in succession
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Miguel Indurain, who collected nicknames as readily as he picked up road-race titles during the five years when he dominated the Tour de France, may have retired but he will continued to be revered as a hero in his native Spain.

The "Colossus of Roads", "Big Mig", "the Sphinx", "Singing", however cycling aficionados around the world preferred to refer to him, Indurain became one of the greats of the sport and his popularity at home did not wane even though, having become the first man to win the Tour five times in a row, he failed to make it six last year.

When the Tour crossed the border into Spain and passed through his home town of Pamplona last July, the phenomenal, emotional welcome he received could not have been greater had he been wearing the coveted yellow jersey of Tour leader. Instead the colours rested with Denmark's Bjarne Riis, who kept them until the Paris finish. Yet Indurain, his brown eyes filled with tears at his reception, was still the only champion for his fellow Navarrans. "Five is enough," one banner proclaimed.

Weeks after leaving the Tour as one of the vanquished, Indurain gave Spain something else to cheer when he won an Olympic gold medal. The Atlanta time trial was to be his final bow. Retirement rumours rumbled on through the season until this week when, in keeping with his manner, he slipped quietly into the Hall of Fame to end an admirable reign.

Indurain's interest in bike racing was fired when he was 11, because a sandwich and a drink was given to each lad who finished a race in his home town. Then he was hungrily growing towards his 6ft 2in, his physical stature aided by working on his father's farm at Villava. Physically he was a natural for basketball. He tried it and also became the 400 metres running champion of Navarre, but he was destined for the chain gang.

Guided by Jose Miguel Echavarri, who left his bar in Pamplona to become a team manager, Indurain bloomed. His first Tour de France in 1985 lasted four days before he was ordered to pull out. This gentle introduction made Indurain thirst for more. Four years later, he won his first Tour stage.

Applause, medals and admiration came, but nothing would change his way of life. He was the people's champion. The Tour, with all its agonies and frustrations, tried its worst, but Indurain was true to his nickname of the Sphinx.

In the heat of impending victory, Indurain phoned his mother, Isabel. He was not seeking comfort in her motherly tones, all he wanted to know was whether the family had harvested the barley crop.

Indurain once raced 16 miles on mountain roads with a double fracture of his wrist, and his only publicised acknowledgement to pain was when another rider accidentally stood on his stockinged foot. Indurain's shout was quoted throughout the Spanish media. "Everyone tells me that I never look as if I am suffering, but when I see videos of the races I always remember the pain I had to endure."

He was as cool as an iceberg, and just as dangerous. It is his unseen depths of resolve that sink his rivals, but Echavarri always pointed out the physical Indurain. A heart almost twice the normal size, a slow heart beat, and a lung capacity twice that of the average man of his age. Indurain's extra long thigh bones also gave him more leverage for pedalling, and that was the key to the speed that gave him the victories in Tour time trials that were the foundation for those five victories.

His mentality, as much as his physique, was to be admired. "Miguel is a lord," Echavarri said. "Eddy Merckx would grind and humble his rivals. Miguel is considerate and does not rule in such a fashion."

Indurain always treated his team like a family. "The riders are my brothers and Echavarri is the father. I never scream or shout at my team-mates. Aggression does not make me a better rider. Everyone makes mistakes. I do, and it is best to forgive."

After his third Tour triumph, streets were named in Indurain's honour, even a hymn sung his praises. Spain's King Juan Carlos greeted him on another triumphal return to Spain, and, when it came to sportsman of the year, the likes of Seve Ballesteros had to settle for being voted into second place. When Indurain hit the Tour road in July Spanish TV ratings soared, and peaked on his triumphal parade along the Champs-Elysees. Programmers could be running repeats next July as their superstar settles for a quieter life with his wife and family, and looks forward to the next harvest down on the farm.

Fame could never spoil Indurain. His example in deed and manner will be hard to follow. Five Tours de France, two Tours of Italy, a world title, the world hour record, and Olympic gold would make many stick out their chests, but, as he said after a Tour victory: "I am proud of what I have done, but you must keep a perspective. It's just a bicycle race, after all."

Miguel Indurain fact file

1964 Born 16 July at Villava, Spain

1985 Turned pro with Reynolds Team; Tour of Spain, 84th; Tour de France, abandoned; two race victories

1986 Tour of Spain, 92nd; Tour de France, abandoned

1987 Tour de France, 97th

1988 Tour de France, 47th

1989 Tour de France, 17th, won two stages; Tour of Spain, abandoned

1990 Joins Banesto team; Tour de France, 10th, won one stage

1991 Tour of Spain 2nd; Tour de France, 1st, won two individual time trials

1992 Tour of Italy, 1st; Tour de France, 1st

1993 Tour of Italy, 1st; Tour de France, 1st

1994 Tour of Italy, 3rd; Tour de France, 1st; tested positive for salbutamol, in nasal spray for asthma, but cleared; one-hour world record

1995 Tour de France, 1st

1996 Tour de France, 11th; Tour of Spain, abandoned; Olympic time trial, 1st

1997 Retired 2 January.