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Tour de France history: Miguel Indurain time-trials to unique double-double

In-depth
14 Apr 2022
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Miguel Indurain’s 1993 Tour win secured his place in history as the only man to record two Giro/Tour doubles back-to-back

Words Giles Belbin Photography L’Equipe

‘The first chapters of the soap opera arrive this weekend,’ reported the Journal de Genève on the morning of the opening stage of the 1993 Tour de France.

‘In Puy-du-Fou in the heart of the Vendée, [comes] the prologue. [Miguel] Indurain or [Alex] Zülle; Zülle or Indurain? These two names dominate. Last year in San Sebastián, two seconds separated the Basque from the Saint-Gallois.’

On that day 12 months earlier, Indurain had worn the yellow jersey as the reigning Tour champion, racing through the streets of San Sebastián in front of his home crowd, en route to a prologue win that came just three weeks after he had stood in Milan as the winner of the Giro d’Italia.

The question at the time was whether his exertions in Italy the month before would cost the Spaniard the defence of his Tour title. Indeed, Indurain had only entered the 1992 Giro because he needed two Grand Tours a year in his legs, and the Vuelta, then held in April, came too early for him.

Indurain reflected in a 2017 interview that ‘the idea was to be competitive. I wasn’t planning to go to Italy and just ride round, but I wasn’t fixated on winning.’

As it happened, a brace of time-trial wins and strong riding in the mountains brought Indurain the 1992 Giro title at his first attempt. At the Tour he lost the race lead after his win in San Sebastián but grabbed it back in the Alps, holding yellow to Paris to emulate Fausto Coppi, Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Stephen Roche as winners of the Giro and Tour in the same season.

Against the clock

Fast forward to the 1993 prologue and the defending Tour de France champion and yellow jersey-wearing Indurain would again roll down the start ramp as the recent winner of the Giro having secured his second title in Italy the previous month.

As predicted by the Journal de Genève on the morning of the Grand Départ, the prologue was fought out between Indurain and Zülle. It was a 6.8km prologue course in the Vendée that featured a 700m climb of 7%.

Last off in the early evening, Indurain, pictured here during that prologue, stopped the clock in 8min 12sec, taking the race lead by eight seconds over the Swiss.

Indurain lost the jersey the next day and by the time of the race’s first long time-trial, a 59km test at Lac de Madine, he sat in 27th place, trailing race leader Johan Museeuw by more than three minutes.

All eyes were on Banesto’s leader to see what inroads he could make with the mountains around the corner, and the answer was emphatic.

Indurain punctured early but still proceeded to unleash a devastating performance, ripping off his helmet before the 19km mark, catching four riders on the road and blasting around the course more than two minutes quicker than second-placed Gianni Bugno. As night fell the Spaniard had yellow by a little over one and a half minutes.

For the rest of the race Indurain defended his lead superbly, losing only three seconds over the course of five tough mountain stages in the Alps and Pyrenees to the man who had emerged as his greatest threat – another strong time-trial rider and climber – Switzerland’s Tony Rominger.

Rominger then won the final time-trial, a rare defeat for Indurain in a race against the clock, but the man from the Basque Country was already out of sight. His final winning margin was just shy of five minutes as he took his third Tour win in a row.

‘It was a little harder than the last one,’ Indurain said dryly in Paris, ‘because there were more mountains.’

A unique place in history

Indurain’s 1993 Tour win brought him his second Giro/Tour double in succession, something no man had achieved before and no man has achieved since. If that feat alone was enough to secure Indurain’s place as one of the greatest Grand Tour riders of all time, he was far from done.

Tour wins followed in 1994 and 1995, meaning today he is the only man in the books with five successive Tour titles to his name.

‘Every year the same song. By now, we don’t have to spend much time practising it,’ the leader of the band charged with playing the national anthems in Paris jokingly told the New York Times in 1995.

Such achievements mean his name should inspire wistful acclaim, however the perceived manner of his victories – always controlled and rarely with panache – gave rise to grudging respect rather than provoking passion.

For many he was the antithesis of those champions from a bygone era, the romantic ages of Coppi, Bobet and Merckx, riders so often remembered through sepia-tinted glasses.

Where Hinault rode with undimmed fury and passion, so Indurain kept on keeping on, biding his time, not initiating anything, defending and waiting for his turn against the clock where he knew he would prove unbeatable.

There was, of course, more to Indurain than just being a ruthless metronome. No one can win the Tour without being skilled in the mountains, the arena in which Grand Tour legends are crafted.

Indeed, Indurain’s early stage wins at the Tour came in the rarefied air of the Pyrenees with mountain-top wins at Cauterets and Luz Ardiden in 1989 and 1990 respectively.

Subsequent years brought often equally impressive, if more defensive, performances in the mountains as he fought for yellow. His 1994 ride on Hautacam, when he led the pursuit of Marco Pantani who was threatening his race lead, leaving riders scattered in his wake as he reeled the Italian in, is just one example.

Indurain’s final race was the 1996 Vuelta, two months after his Tour reign had been ended by Bjarne Riis. On the Vuelta stage to the Lagos de Covadonga he climbed off his bike outside his team’s hotel, the ride to the lakes too much to bear.

After 13 years as a professional rider he was done. Three months later he confirmed his retirement. ‘My family are waiting,’ he said.