RETRO: INDURAIN'S FIRST TOUR WIN
We look back at the 1991 Tour, which Miguel Indurain won with a daring mountain raid
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