Riders in the storm

Robin Nicholl says Tour de France rivals must climb a man-mountain
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The Independent Online
Cool as an iceberg, and just as dangerous. It is those unseen depths of Miguel Indurain that sink his Tour de France rivals. Stone-faced when it demands, the farmer's son who has brought in the Tour harvest for the last five years is ready to reap a record sixth victory.

Belgium's Eddy Merckx dominated the Tours of the 1970s, scoring 34 stage wins in seven years, more than anyone else, and winning five Tours. "He is the only one I know of who can dominate the way Miguel does," Indurain's manager, Jose Miguel Echavarri, once said. "But he was a robot and his force humiliated rivals. Miguel is generous and respects his rivals." Those sentiments are shared by the Span- iard's rivals. "I cannot see Miguel as an enemy," said Tony Roming- er, of Switzerland. "He is so nice."

Is that Indurain's secret, put- ting rivals at their ease before breaking them? More likely it is the 31-year-old's incredible phys- ical capacity. His heart is almost twice the normal size, and his lung capacity is double that of anyone his age. Echavarri knows well the motor within the 6ft 2in frame, but points instead to the pistons - Indurain's long thighs. They give him more leverage for pedalling, and "provide more power than other riders can generate", Echavarri added.

Indurain needs such power to carry his 176 pounds through the Alps and the Pyrenees. He was in the light heavyweight class when he was 18, and was told by a sports doctor to lose weight - "it will make the difference between being a top rider and one of the pack". The burden is now squarely on the shoulders of his challengers, who are a veritable ABC of talent, from Evgeny Berzin to Alex Zuelle.

But finding a chink in the armour of this contemporary El Cid has defeated most over the years. Four days before the Tour finishes in Paris it rides into Pamplona, which is a few kilometres from Indurain's home village of Villava. This stage comes after the serious mountains have been tackled, and while the Tour planners cannot stage-manage it, their fingers will be crossed that Indurain is dressed in the yellow jersey of Tour leader.

There are 3,835 kilometres, 24 mountains and 22 days between the Dutch start at s'Hertogenbosch and the Champs Elysees finale, and scope for many to star. Chris Boardman should be first to take centre stage as the Tour opens in Holland for the first time in 18 years. He has spent less than two weeks in the heady atmosphere of the Tour, and each time made an impact. In his 1994 debut he won the opening time trial in Lille, and became only the second Briton to wear the yellow jersey before retiring on the 11th stage. Last year Boardman's made an impact for the wrong reasons: he broke a wrist and ankle in a crash on rain-slicked roads inside the first 10 minutes of the Tour. The Merseysider aims this year to complete a Tour.

Saturday's opening time trial in s'Hertogenbosch sets the scene for Boardman to feature before the fast-finishers step up for a few days of success. Then the towering Italian sprinter Mario Cip- ollini will try to take charge as he nears a career tally of 100 wins in seven seasons. The second week opens with a mountain time trial set for the second day in the Alps when 198 riders face toiling over a mountain road of nearly 15km to the 1810-metre summit of the Val d'Isere ski resort.

With one mountainous day in their legs, and more to come, Indurain's rivals will attempt to unsettle him. Indurain admitted to breaking down once in the mountains of the 1992 Tour. Two kilometres from an Alpine summit, he remembers: "I suddenly died and could go no further, but I made it to the finish." A ray of hope for exasperated challengers, but in such situations Indurain's serenity is as powerful as those muscular legs. France was ready to put its money on Laurent Jalabert then, but in the Dauphine Libere stage race Indurain rode away from him on an Alpine pass, and later world-ranked No 1 Jalabert quit the race with 40km still to go.

Indurain's Tour run has been founded on winning time trials. Apart from the Val d'Isere test over 30km, there is a 60km race-against-the-clock at St Emilion on the eve of the finish. On 21 July, Indurain the Indomitable will more than likely become Indurain the Inevitable unless Jalabert has recovered his dignity, Tony Rominger finds his true form, Pavel Tonkov recovers from his triumphal Tour of Italy, Evgeny Berzin is in better shape than he showed in the Italian tour, Piotr Ugrumov escapes the bridesmaid role and Alex Zuelle can rediscover his winning touch. A titanic test for the iceberg, to be sure.