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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 2 of 2Miguel Indurain - The Tour years

From the farm to France

Miguel Indurain was born on 16th July 1964 and grew up on his father’s farm in the village of Villava, now an outlying area of Pamplona, with his three sisters, Isabel, Maria Dolores and Maria Asuncion, and his younger brother Prudencio, a fellow cyclist who competed in the Tour de France four times.

‘From a very young age I was on a bike,’ he says. ‘Not a road bike, just a town bike in my village. I remember always having a bike at home. I did athletics and football but I didn’t find the right discipline for me until I signed up to do road cycling at the age of 12.’

After joining his local cycling club, CC Villaves, Indurain took part in his first race in July 1978, finishing second. ‘It wasn’t until I won the Spanish Amateur Road Championships in 1983 that I realised something was possible in cycling. Until then it was just a hobby. After that, people encouraged me and told me I should try to become a professional. From then on I dedicated myself fully to this profession.’

Miguel Indurain interview

He turned professional with the Reynolds team in 1984 (which was renamed Banesto when the Spanish bank took over sponsorship in 1990) and sampled his first Tour in 1985, pulling out after the fourth stage. ‘I wasn’t supposed to go but my teammate Angel Arroyo got ill so they took me instead. It was a surprise. I wasn’t expecting it. Everything was new. Everything was different. It was a huge shock.’

Indurain completed his first Tour in 1987, finishing 97th. In 1988 he helped his teammate Pedro Delgado to win the yellow jersey and in 1989 he won his first Tour stage – a 147km mountain stage from Pau to Cauterets. In 1990 Indurain won the 215km stage 16 from Blagnac to Luz Ardiden and finished 10th overall, but many claim if he hadn’t been helping a struggling Delgado – who finished fourth – he could have won the general classification himself.

‘I don’t think so,’ says Indurain with characteristic humility. ‘Mentally, I wasn’t prepared to be a leader. When it went well it was because I was feeling calm that I was doing my work for Delgado. If I did well, it was good, but if I didn’t do well, nothing would have happened either. There was no pressure. I had tranquility. Later on, when I was a team leader, I had to handle the responsibility of doing well. That eats away at you all day long. That year I wanted to help Pedro and I did well but it could easily have gone wrong.’ 

Five-star champion

At the 1991 Tour, Indurain was ready to step up and won the time-trials on Stages 8 and 21 en route to victory. ‘The first Tour win was the most special,’ he says. ‘Since I had decided that I liked cycling and I wanted to dedicate myself to it, I had looked at the best race in the world, which is the Tour de France, and I knew I wanted to do what Bernard Hinault did. So when I got my first victory that was the most important one.’

In 1992 Indurain secured the first of his two Giro and Tour doubles, becoming part of an elite club of seven riders (now nine) who have won both in a calendar year. He repeated the feat in 1993. ‘The doubles were very hard – the training as well as the actual races – and you have to be very focused to win both. Maybe 1993 was the hardest. I got a cold in the stage in Andorra and it was harder for me to get to Paris. Achieving it is something I am very proud of. The mountains are harder in Italy but the level of racing and expectation is not as high as at the Tour where you get the best riders in their best form.’

Miguel Indurain portrait

Indurain enjoyed riding in Italy and still does. ‘I come to Italy often and I had a lot of relationships here because almost all my sponsors, apart from Banesto [Spanish] and Time pedals [French], were Italian manufacturers.’ Indurain rode Pinarello bikes with Campagnolo gears. At La Perla hotel there is a special Pinarello lounge that contains one of Indurain’s time-trial bikes. ‘We rode in the Dolomites a lot during the Giro so I have great memories of the place and the people. Italians live for cycling with great passion. In England cycling is a new passion but in Italy it has been like this for years. From races to bicycle manufacturing, cycling is in their hearts.

Indurain secured his fourth Tour win in 1994 and set a new World Hour Record in the same year, beating Graeme Obree’s record with a distance of 53.040km. He pushed so hard he momentarily lost all feeling in the right side of his body. In 1995 Indurain won his final Tour and triumphed in the World Time-Trial Championships in Duitama, Colombia. What drove him to keep on winning? ‘It is simple, he says. ‘I had ambitions and dreams so I kept trying hard every year.’

The Spaniard attempted a record sixth Tour win in 1996 but fell short, finishing 11th. He won the first ever Olympic Time-Trial title in Atlanta two weeks later, before retiring in January 1997, declaring, ‘My family are waiting.’ Indurain now lives near Pamplona with his wife Marisa and three children.

Speed machine

The story of Miguel Indurain will always be entwined with the speed and power of the time-trial. In his book A Race For Madmen, Chris Sidwells wrote, ‘Amid the flat backs and skiers’ crouches, Indurain rode like a Spanish galleon… [he] was the Bugatti Veyron of cycling: his engine was so big that aerodynamic subtlety didn’t matter so much.’

The Spaniard says the time-trial suited both his physical and psychological strengths. ‘It’s very complicated,’ he says. ‘It’s a very personal challenge against the time and the kilometres. It’s you against the rest. It’s about training, experience and motivation. During a time-trial you’re in a bubble where you’re against everyone and everything. You’re responsible for whether it turns out right or wrong and you have to manage yourself. That is something I always liked.’

He says he was disappointed by the lack of time-trials at this year’s Tour. ‘It is a shame because that is what I really like, as a fan. At the Vuelta I only go to watch the time-trial stages. I don’t go to the mountain stages. To me, the time-trial is the discipline in cycling where you can really see who is strongest. There wasn’t much time-trialling in this year’s Tour and I feel as though it was missing something.’

Miguel Indurain France

Which modern riders does he like to watch? ‘I like the ones who give a good show but I feel more inclined towards riders who are complete – the ones who can climb but also time-trial. Of course, as a Spaniard, Contador and Valverde are riders I know and like, but I identify more with riders who are more complete. In Bradley Wiggins’ time, he was very similar to me. Now there is nobody – perhaps Chris Froome is also a time-triallist and a climber. Froome defends himself well in all terrain. I see him perhaps a little bit under pressure. He goes all day with high revolutions so from the outside it’s as though he is under pressure.’

Would Indurain like to be a pro rider today? ‘Practically it hasn’t changed that much. The races are more controlled, but the mountains are the same. What I least like is how much they travel to places like Australia, America and Qatar. I didn’t like to travel. In my time it was mainly in Europe but I don’t think I would have enjoyed long flights to places like Qatar.’

We finish the interview with a walk around the hotel gardens, glancing up at the serrated peaks of the Dolomites high above. Indurain strolls around languidly, smiling and chatting. His shoulders are gently rounded, whether from years spent hunched over a bike or shyness, it’s hard to say. But after an afternoon with him it’s clear that Indurain is one of the sport’s finest gentleman champions. He says he is already looking forward to riding his bike tomorrow.

‘When I cycle now it is just like when I was cycling before. During my career there were hard times but I always did what I enjoyed. At first cycling is your hobby. Then it is your passion. Then it becomes your job. But I will always be happy when I am on my bike.’

Miguel Indurain is an ambassador of La Perla’s Leading Bike Experience. Visit hotel-laperla.it

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Page 2 of 2Miguel Indurain - The Tour years