'Sphinx' prepares to cast his spell

TOUR DE FRANCE: Indurain plots sixth consecutive victory as the great race begins today
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reports from 's Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

Ernest Hemingway would have enjoyed the romance of the triumphal homecoming of the farmer's son, Miguel Indurain, to Pamplona, the town the American author loved and wrote about in his The Sun Also Rises.

Pamplona will be in mid- fiesta, with 182,000 people celebrating St Firmin's festival when the local hero charges into town with the Tour de France in three weeks' time. It promises to be quite a party.

Outrunning the bulls through the narrow streets of this medieval town may be their sport for the festival, but for Indurain's rivals there appears to be no way of outriding or outflanking the Spaniard.

"The Sphinx" as he is known has had the Tour spellbound for five years - and Pamplona waits to welcome its favourite son in the firm belief that once again he will be wearing the yellow jersey of Tour No 1. He has, after all, worn the colour for 60 days in past Tours.

To make the town's homage even stronger and the celebrating louder he arrives the day after his 32nd birthday - a sign of the stage-managing that is a forte of the Tour organisation. Their diplomacy also has been tested. After a letter from the Basque separatists of ETA, Tour organiser Jean-Marie Leblanc has agreed to a Basque-speaking commentator on the Tour while it is in Spain.

Indurain hails from Villava, some kilometres from Pamplona, but Hemingway's town is where his competitive edge was honed as a child pedalling to earn a sandwich and a drink for completing his race. It is also where Jose Miguel Echevarri ran a bar until his motivational skills as a manager were called on to build a professional team, and Indurain happened to cross his path.

Now both are in the Netherlands for today's start. Ahead of Indurain stretch 22 days of racing through five countries, 24 mountains and plenty of uncertainties.

The curtain-raiser time trial over nine kilometres could fall to Britain's Chris Boardman, but it is who will stand on the Paris podium on 21 July that really matters. Boardman has no doubts. "I watched Indurain in the Dauphine Libere race. It was a lesson," he said. "He passed up opportunities to inflict damage, waiting until the time was right to do maximum damage with little effect on himself, physically and mentally. He knows how to play mental warfare.

"After last year I thought the ONCE riders were the team to keep attacking Indurain until he broke, but after their top man, Laurent Jalabert, cracked in the Dauphine Libere, I believe that they settled for less than overall victory."

Jalabert, world ranked No1, has long been the best chance France have had since Bernard Hinault joined the elite club with five Tour victories. Jalabert has the hallmarks of a challenger, but so too have others, and new names are joining the queue to prevent Indurain establishing a new and exclusive club with six Tours.

Switzerland's Tony Rominger has won three Tours of Spain and a Tour of Italy, and admits, that at 35, "this is my last chance" to complete a set.

Next year Rominger plans to change his team role to lieutenant in the hope that he can help another Spanish rider to win. His team-mate Abraham Olano is, at first glance, an Indurain look-alike. Last year he won the world road-race title ahead of Indurain - which brought him insults from his fellow Basques for beating the great man - and was second to him in the world time trial championship.

Second in last year's Tour of Spain and third in the Tour of Italy last month, Olano's big-tour pedigree is shaping up. This time he rides in support of Rominger.

The Russian challenge is headed by Yevgeny Berzin whose beating of Indurain in the 1994 Tour of Italy was seen as yet another signal. The list of hopefuls ranges from Berzin to Alex Zulle of Switzerland. They are all waiting for Indurain to falter so that they can pounce. Pamplona hopes it will not be during their 17th stage, which is rated the hardest with 260 kilometres and five mountains.

Strong legs and a tactical brain do help but riders need "teeth". Knowing how to grind your rivals on those torturous days is the key. Indurain has it.

After three days here, the race crosses Belgium into France, then in the second week heads for Italy to finish at Sestriere on the top of a 2,300 metres climb that is one of the four highest Tour peaks. Spain follows in the final week as the Tour maintains its roving role which began 42 years ago at Amsterdam with the first start outside France.

Despite the Indurain reign, everyone has a level of ambition. For Boardman it is to reach the Paris finale, a distant 3,900 kilometres away, for the first time and in the top 20, while Britain's other hope, Max Sciandri, wants to improve on last year's stage win.


Yevgeny Berzin

Age: 26

Born: Vyborg, Russia

Resides: Broni, Italy

Team: Gewiss

His 1994 Giro d'Italia dominance of Miguel Indurain, particularly in the time trials, put him high among the 1995 contenders, but bronchitis ended his Tour ambitions after 10 days.

Laurent Jalabert

Age: 27

Born and resides: Mazamet, France

Team: ONCE

World ranked No 1, he has been winning Tour stages since 1992, plus the points jersey (consistent finishing) in 1992 and 1995. The team manager, Manolo Saiz, also has Alex Zulle just in case...

Tony Rominger

Age: 35

Born: Voyens, Denmark, of Swiss parents

Resides: Monte Carlo

Team: Mapei

With three Vuelta d'Espagna and a Giro d'Italia to his credit, Rominger is a Tour natural. Third last year and second in the 1993 Tour plus taking the mountains jersey proved that.

Alex Zulle

Age: 28

Born and resides: Wil, Switzerland

Team: ONCE

Reaffirmed last year his earlier Tour promise (wore the yellow jersey in 1992) with second place. He can climb mountains and win time trials, the primary attributes of a Tour challenger.