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Miguel Indurain: the record Tour winner

Miguel Indurain crop
Mark Bailey
31 May 2016

Despite his record-equalling five Tour de France victories, Miguel Indurain is not one to shout about his achievements.

Page 1 of 2Miguel Indurain: the record Tour winner

Miguel Indurain slides his rangy legs beneath a table at a hotel in the Italian Dolomites, smiles bashfully and exchanges a softly spoken ‘hola’. The legendary Spanish cyclist is an elusive but endearing enigma, a man about whom cycling fans know everything yet nothing at all. He’s the humble farmer’s son who became cycling royalty, the attention-fleeing introvert who won the global extravaganza of the Tour de France a record five consecutive times between 1991 and 1995 to join Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault in the pantheon of five-time winners. A double Giro d’Italia winner, former World and Olympic Time-Trial Champion, and World Hour Record holder, he still enjoys fixing broken tractors and hunting. By nature modest and reserved, his arrival at our interview is so discreet I’m reminded of a comment made by his ex-teammate, Jean-Francois Bernard: ‘When he comes down for his meal, you don’t even hear him move his chair.’

Standing 6ft 2in tall and weighing 80kg in his prime, ‘Miguelon’ (Big Mig) was as strong and powerful as the bulls of his native Pamplona. Science says he should have floundered in the mountains but his Zeppelin-sized lungs, piston-like femurs (his coach Jose Miguel Echavarri claimed his long thigh bones were his secret weapons) and fabled resting heart rate of just 28 beats per minute (the adult norm is between 60 and 90bpm) enabled him to dilute the challenges of gravity. Venerated for his devastating speed in time-trials, in person his every hand movement, footstep and blink appears to play out in super-slow-motion – a charming lifelong trait confirmed by his contemporaries. It’s as though the Spaniard was equipped with a Formula One-style kinetic energy recovery system that stored up his energy during life’s quieter deceleration phases, ready to be unleashed in fury the next time he accelerated on a bike.

Still athletic at the age of 51, with neat greying hair, retro sideburns straying down his tanned cheeks (not quite Wiggins-esque but there is a definite nod to nostalgia) and dressed in a simple polo shirt and jeans, Indurain remains a glorious mystery. He rarely grants interviews but has agreed to meet Cyclist at the chic La Perla hotel in Corvara, nestled between the jagged pinnacles of Alta Badia, where he is hosting rides for customers of cycling tour operator In Gamba, which runs exclusive tours from the hotel.

Miguel Indurain mountain

It seems only right to begin by discovering some truths behind the legendary figure, starting with that 28bpm resting heart rate. Is it true? ‘Some of the stories are true and some of them are a little bit exaggerated,’ says Indurain. ‘Normally I had a resting heart rate of 30 or 32bpm. The coaches used to measure it in the morning and in the afternoon to see if I was recovering. One day we did a medical test and it read 28, so there is some truth in it. But normally it was a little bit higher.’

Various other extraordinary figures have been affixed to the Indurain legend, including a VO2 max (the maximum rate of oxygen consumption during exercise) of 88ml/kg/min and a cardiac output (the volume of blood pumped by the heart) of 50 litres per minute – both double the human norm.

‘We used to have tests of oxygen consumption, heart rate, body fat percentage and things like that, but I cannot remember them all. There were other people with physical conditions like mine, but you need to know how to bring those qualities out – to squeeze the orange a little bit. You can do nothing with your physical condition because you are born with it, but you need to know how to get a better performance out of it. There are cycling champions who have less peak fitness than their opponents, but more motivation. Others have great fitness but don’t want it as much.’ 

The silent assassin

Indurain’s Grand Tour victories were neatly planned and efficiently executed. He would wait patiently, chasing down attacks only when necessary, seldom going on the offensive himself, matching but rarely beating his rivals in the mountains, and calmly extending his lead during individual time-trials. Ten of his 12 Tour stage wins and all four of his Giro stage victories came in time-trials.

The Spaniard’s style drew both praise and criticism. Teammates admired his quiet authority, metronomic consistency and composure, and fans like the young Bradley Wiggins were enchanted by his elegant style and inscrutability. Others were less impressed by what they saw as a negative approach: Indurain was not a man for dazzling recklessness. Off the bike he defused press conferences with polite platitudes. Bernard Hinault commented in 1992, ‘Indurain is the best rider of his generation, but he has won this Tour quietly.’

Miguel Indurain

The man himself explains that his style was the inevitable product of his personality, physical stature and the circumstances in which he raced. ‘The way I rode is the way I am,’ he says. ‘Ultimately when you are out on the road that is also the way you are with other people. Some say I could have been more aggressive and got more victories but if you don’t behave the way you are, you don’t feel comfortable with yourself.’

The likes of Hinault and Cavendish display a certain killer instinct, but with Indurain it’s only possible to identify a quiet but sincere confidence – a will to win but not to crush. He says his diffidence was a strength: ‘You have to be a thoughtful rider. You have to preserve your energies. You have to be aware of your rivals. You have a lot of details to think about. Ultimately you are going to be racing at a very high intensity so you still need to have the capacity to think about your energy, your rivals and your plans. You need brains to stay at the front.’

Indurain also knew he had to make the most of his unique attributes and opportunities. During his era, time-trials were significantly longer – often covering 120km during a three-week Tour compared to the solitary 13.8km time-trial in the 2015 edition. ‘In my time big riders had an advantage because we had long time-trials of 60-70km each and that is where we made the difference over the climbers and the smaller riders. Later on in the mountains, we weren’t going to make any big gains, but we could still perform well and stay close.’

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Page 1 of 2Miguel Indurain: the record Tour winner