Toast to the legend of San Miguel

Robin Nicholl reflects on a cyclist who shows dignity in victory and in defeat
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The brown eyes filled with tears as Miguel Indurain stood on the podium in Pamplona, north-west Spain. He was home, but he had not brought with him the yellow jersey that has covered his broad shoulders on each of the past five Tours de France.

The crowds, however, had come to pay homage to the man, not to his trade mark. They cheered, they chanted and they sang his name. His conqueror, Bjarne Riis, stood beside him and raised Indurain's arm. It was the magnanimous gesture of the gallant victor, but in one sense, no matter where he finishes, Indurain has all his rivals beaten: although he has appeared to take cycling over in recent years, it has never taken him over.

When his fellow Spaniard Abraham Olano got the better of him in the world road race championship, he was insulted in the streets of San Sebastian for having dared to beat the "immense Miguel". This defeat is different: a nation must now become accustomed to celebrating only past glories.

Indurain's tears of that emotional moment in Pamplona were not for himself but for those fellow Navarrais who had decorated their region with banners and painted slogans. By the time the Tour left Spain, they had caught the mood. One banner summed it up - "Five is enough" it read. The days of boundless achievement were gone for ever, but the crowds were there to praise a remarkable man.

After his third triumph on the Tour, streets were named in his honour and even a hymn sung his praises; King Juan Carlos greeted him on his return from Paris and another victory, but never did it corrupt Indurain. He was the country boy, a mother's ideal son, the hero of a nation, but he was always humble. One year, on his way to another Tour victory he phoned his mother, Isabel, on the farm at Villava. Not to tell her that he was beating the hell out of the best in the world of cycling, but to see if they had harvested the corn.

Indurain, who is big brother to three sisters and to Prudencio, a valued member of the Banesto team, started his racing life in a local children's race. The big attraction for the growing lad was the sandwich and drink the finishers received. He tried his hand at basketball, and in athletics his long legs carried him to the 400 metres title in the Navarre championships. But cycling won him back.

He grew into a champion, and into a role model. He is strong and he rarely sees the point in saying much. He is inscrutable and at peace (his only recorded outburst, which made the pages of the Spanish newspapers, was when another rider accidentally trod on his stockinged foot). He can see no point in and has no need for brash acts to antagonise rivals, but when he turns on the power his rivals hurt.

"Miguel is a lord," said the man who nurtured the champion's career, Jose Miguel Echavarri, who gave up a bar in Pamplona to run the Reynolds cycling team in 1985. "Eddy Merckx would grind and humble his rivals, but Miguel is considerate and does not rule in such a fashion," he added.

When a rider earns the respect of his fellow professionals and becomes their leader, he can do as he pleases. Bernard Hinault, another man who won the Tour five times, ruled the pack. No one came or went without his permission. When a young rider attempted an attack, Hinault chased after him and told him he was "committing suicide and to get back there with the rest".

Indurain, who is now aged 32, is more easy-going and never plays the boss until a stage gets serious. Then he dictates the pace with a power that comes from those extra-long thighs and his immense lung capacity. Those legs whirl relentlessly and consistently - he is the master of the time trials, which have been the foundation of his Tour successes.

This time it was not to happen. He has not won anything - not a time trial, not a stage. Once asked about the intensity and the agonies of the Tour, he shrugged his big frame and said: "There is no need to worry. After all it is only a bike race."

He had prepared himself for the moment that he could not perform as he used to and his humility did nothing but emphasise his greatness.