RETRO: INDURAIN'S FIRST TOUR WIN

We look back at the 1991 Tour, which Miguel Indurain won with a dar­ing moun­tain raid

Procycling - - Contents - Writer: Alas­dair Fotheringham Photography: Off­side/ L’Equipe

Miguel Indurain, the story goes, won five Tour de France yel­low jer­seys in a row in the early 1990s with ruth­less and te­dious time­tri­alling ef­fi­ciency. At the point when his Tours were won and lost and the drama should have been at its high­est, Indurain sim­ply stran­gled his ri­vals’ as­pi­ra­tions, putting min­utes into them in the time tri­als, then pas­sively de­fend­ing his lead in the moun­tains. The iconog­ra­phy re­in­forced the nar­ra­tive: the best Indurain pic­tures of the era were from the time tri­als: the ma­chine-like Spaniard, his ex­pres­sion mostly hid­den be­hind a half­face time trial hel­met, sharply in fo­cus; the back­ground blurred. The stereo­typ­i­cal view of Indurain, per­pet­u­ated by the me­dia and re­in­forced by the rider’s be­hav­iour off the bike, was that he was de­void of emo­tion, though there was one small chink of am­bi­gu­ity: the gri­mace which he wore dur­ing those long, crush­ing time tri­als some­times looked a bit like a smile.

Some of the cov­er­age of Indurain didn’t do him any favours. ‘Is this man a robot?’ asked Cy­cle Sport mag­a­zine rhetor­i­cally on its cover be­fore the 1996 Tour. The sub­text be­ing the un­spo­ken an­swer to the ques­tion: yes, though iron­i­cally that was the year he was roundly beaten by Bjarne Riis.

But all this was a lit­tle un­fair. When you talk to Indurain, he is a warm­hearted, friendly, gen­er­ous and straight­for­ward per­son. The prob­lem was that most of the non-Span­ish me­dia didn’t of­ten talk to him, see­ing him as in­ac­ces­si­ble and dis­tant, when he was sim­ply un­com­mu­nica­tive and shy. But he was widely ap­pre­ci­ated by his ri­vals. Fur­ther­more, the per­cep­tion that he won five Tours all in the same way is flawed. What’s for­got­ten is that his first vic­tory,

in 1991, was noth­ing like the oth­ers. It was a Tour won in a spell­bind­ing at­tack in the moun­tains, fol­low­ing a riv­et­ing open­ing week. His time gains were still re­in­forced in the time tri­als, how­ever. This was Miguel Indurain, after all.

The Banesto team wasn’t 100 per cent be­hind Indurain be­fore the 1991 Tour be­gan. He had been groomed to be­come 1988 Tour win­ner Pe­dro Del­gado’s suc­ces­sor in the Navar­ran squad, but the ques­tion of ex­actly when Del­gado should hand on the ba­ton to his younger team-mate had yet to be re­solved. Indurain’s 1990 Tour, when he was stronger in the moun­tains than Del­gado, should have sorted that one out. But Indurain had been pushed into sec­ond by a com­plete out­sider, Mel­cior Mauri, in the 1991 Vuelta, and this had left the lead­er­ship ques­tion un­re­solved.

Banesto’s so­lu­tion was typ­i­cal of the cau­tion of­ten shown by their man­age­ment team of José Miguel Echavarri and Euse­bio Unzué. As for­mer team-mate and cy­cling com­men­ta­tor Jeff Bernard, him­self a top three fin­isher in the 1987 Tour, re­calls, the Span­ish team started the 1991 Tour with no fewer than four dif­fer­ent po­ten­tial lead­ers: Del­gado, Indurain, Bernard him­self and Julián Gorospe. The lat­ter was a Basque racer re­garded as a po­ten­tial Tour win­ner for many years in Spain, but who never lived up to his early prom­ise.

“All of us had the green light to go in any of the early breaks, be­cause of what had hap­pened in 1990,” Bernard tells Pro­cy­cling.

The pre­vi­ous year, a break on the open­ing road stage by Frans Maassen, Ro­nan Pensec, Clau­dio Chi­ap­pucci and Steve Bauer had gained 10 min­utes and it took even­tual win­ner Greg LeMond al­most the en­tire Tour, and not a lit­tle luck, to over­turn Chi­ap­pucci’s stout de­fence of the yel­low jer­sey which he took in the Alps. “Banesto had had no­body there,” says Bernard. “The man­age­ment didn’t want that to hap­pen again.”

But the sce­nario did re­peat it­self in 1991. The gap opened up by a 11-man break on the first road stage to Lyon was only 1:44, but sig­nif­i­cantly, de­fend­ing cham­pion LeMond, and 1990’s third placer Erik Breukink were in the move. Banesto had missed out again.

“That was bad,” says Bernard. “We thought that LeMond could win the Tour, even if there were still three weeks left to go.”

Banesto weren’t the only team hav­ing a bad start. 1987 win­ner Stephen Roche missed the team time trial start and was out of the race. The PDM af­fair, which saw the en­tire team with­draw in sus­pi­cious cir­cum­stances, elim­i­nated Breukink be­fore the moun­tains. “But we never thought Erik Breukink could win. LeMond was our bête noire, the one we were wor­ried about.”

The Alençon time trial, stage 8, saw im­por­tant de­vel­op­ments for Banesto, both good and bad. Indurain won, for his first ever TT vic­tory in a Grand Tour. LeMond was sec­ond at 0:08, and the only other rider within a minute was Bernard him­self. There had been two ma­jor shake-ups of the GC – stage one and the time trial, and LeMond was the only rider not to have con­ceded time in both. The race would go into the Pyre­nees with LeMond in yel­low and Breukink in sec­ond, 1:13 be­hind. Indurain was fourth, at 2:17. LeMond, gun­ning for his fourth Tour de France win, couldn’t have been a big­ger favourite.

For Banesto, Indurain’s stage vic­tory was im­por­tant on an in­ter­nal level. “It was the first time that Miguel had had an im­pact on that Tour,” Bernard re­calls. “I was only a few se­conds back, but Alençon showed that Miguel was in re­ally good shape and win­ning the Tour was not out of the ques­tion.

“Tes stage in Alençon also set the pat­tern for the years to come. Indurain could crush the op­po­si­tion in the first TT, then the team would han­dle them through the moun­tains. That year was even bet­ter: with LeMond in

The stereo­typ­i­cal view of Indurain, per­pet­u­ated by the me­dia, and re­in­forced by his be­hav­iour, was that he was de­void of emo­tion

yel­low, it was up to LeMond’s team to con­trol the race down to the Pyre­nees.”

Banesto did not yet know how far Indurain could go in the Tour. And nor had they planned it. The team be­lieved more in old­school cy­cling im­pro­vi­sa­tion, to the point where one sa­cred tenet of modern Grand Tour strat­egy, the pre-stage team brief­ing, sim­ply didn’t hap­pen. “We’d have a big dis­cus­sion be­fore the Tour, but there’d never be any­thing of that kind dur­ing the race it­self. Never. José Miguel Echavarri would come round in the morn­ing to each rider’s room to say ‘Good morn­ing, see you at the fin­ish’,and that would be it,” Bernard says.

This meant that the riders’ abil­ity to or­gan­ise strat­egy be­came de­ci­sive. Banesto’s French rider Do­minique Ar­naud was a key fig­ure here. Ar­naud learned his race craft in the Wol­ber and La Vie Claire teams, and he’d been by Bernard Hin­ault’s side when he won the Tour in 1985. “Do­minique was our team cap­tain. He knew ev­ery­body and could ne­go­ti­ate with all the other teams about who would work and when,” says Bernard.

That made it much eas­ier for Banesto to ‘run’ the race, ac­cord­ing to Bernard. “In 1991, Do­minique was cen­tral to how Banesto man­aged to keep the Tour un­der con­trol and get Miguel to Paris in yel­low.”

As the Tour en­tered the moun­tains, there were other headaches for Banesto. “There was a lot of pres­sure on us, be­cause Banesto hadn’t done much on that first stage into the Pyre­nees,” Bernard says. It was even claimed by one of Spain’s most prom­i­nent cy­cling writ­ers, Josu Garai, that the spon­sor was so dis­grun­tled with Echavarri that a mys­te­ri­ous anony­mous memo cir­cu­lated in the com­pany of­fices, de­mand­ing he be sacked.

But the crunch stage came 24 hours later, in the race’s big­gest Pyre­nean stage, on a clas­sic five-climb route fea­tur­ing the

LeMond (l) and Indurain shoot the breeze early in the 1991 Tour de France

Indurain and Chi­ap­pucci have left the oth­ers far be­hind en route to Val Louron

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