End of an Era|
Bjarne Riis, a late-blooming Dane, overcame climatic
chaos to bring the long reign of Miguel Indurain to a
by Tim Crothers
Issue date: July 29, 1996
The Cafe Maica is cramped and drab, indistinguishable from any
other small-town saloon in Spain except for the five yellow
shirts that hang like wash on a clothesline along the wall
opposite the bar. The jerseys are Miguel Indurain's trophies,
one for each of his five straight victories in the Tour de
France, and the bar is a shrine to him. The Maica is located in
Villava, Indurain's hometown, and is the headquarters of his fan
club, Pena Miguel Indurain.
For five summers the members of that club sacrificed their
siestas, gathering at the bar to watch each Tour stage on
television. They spilled out into the street to light bottle
rockets in celebration of each of Indurain's stage victories.
And they traveled to Paris to witness his coronations. It is
estimated that half the town of 15,000 made the trip to watch
the farmer's son win the Tour in '95.
This year the race came to them. The inventive scriptwriters at
the Tour devised a charming drama for the '96 edition. During
the 17th of the race's 21 stages, one day after Indurain's 32nd
birthday, the Spanish legend would pedal past Cafe Maica and his
boyhood home on his way through Villava to nearby Pamplona. As
the first-place rider, he would be clad in the yellow jersey and
on his way to a historic sixth Tour triumph.
The notion of winning the Tour was far from risible for the hard-charging Riis, a.k.a. the Carnivore.
It should have been a tour de force for the Tour de France.
Alas, Indurain was not in the proper costume. That afternoon the
yellow jersey belonged to Denmark's Bjarne Riis, who four days
later would win the race, a Tour far less remarkable for what
occurred than for what did not.
For the first time since 1991, Indurain did not win. For the
first time in six years, he did not return home from Paris to
place his victory bouquet at the feet of the statue of the
Virgin of Rosario, Villava's other patron saint.
From the outset, in fact, the 83rd Tour de France did not go
according to plan. During the race's opening week, midsummer in
Holland, Belgium and France felt more like November in Buffalo.
Rain. Cold. Wind. More rain. The Tour lost 31 of its 197 riders
in seven days, including the top American cyclist, Lance
Armstrong, who quit during the sixth stage in a torrential
downpour, afraid he might have contracted bronchitis.
In the seventh stage, from Chambery to Les Arcs in the French
Alps, rain created more chaos. Riding down a treacherous pass,
Johan Bruyneel of Belgium overshot a hairpin turn and fell off a
cliff. He was saved from serious peril when he became caught in
a tree 30 feet below. Alex Zulle of Switzerland wiped out twice
that day and finished the stage battered and bloodied. England's
Chris Boardman lost nearly 29 minutes to the lead, only to
discover that evening that someone had broken into his hotel
room and stolen his wallet, wedding ring and watch.
Meanwhile, Indurain, who has likened himself to a lizard because
he rides better in hot weather, failed to eat and drink
properly, suffered from a sugar deficiency and was twice reduced
to begging for sodas from his crew. He would be fined for
accepting the drinks illegally and penalized a total of 20
seconds, and when he reached Les Arcs he had lost more than
three minutes to the charging Riis. Indurain had cracked for the
first time since he was a callow support rider in the '80s. "I
could not believe it," said Richard Virenque of France, who
finished third overall. "We were all there with Indurain, and
then, when we broke away, he just appeared to be cycling on the
same piece of road. Truly, it was the most remarkable sight I
have seen on the Tour."
The ninth stage, through the Alps to Sestrieres, Italy, on July
8, had to be shortened because of snow, but nothing ruffled the
imperturbable Riis. He slipped on the maillot jaune that
afternoon and never relinquished it. "I remember we came to one
mountain peak in a snowstorm," said Walter Godefroot, Riis's
Telekom team manager. "All that Bjarne said to me was 'Wow, what
a wonderful view.'"
Trailing Riis by 4:38 with just eight stages remaining, Indurain
was encouraged by a letter marked URGENT from Charly Gaul, the
winner of the '58 Tour. Gaul wrote, "When I won the Tour I was
fifteen minutes behind three days before the end. It's not over
yet. Good luck."
Spanish writers began predicting the worst tragedy to befall a
Dane since Hamlet. But they had shortchanged Riis, a late
bloomer at age 32 who was raised by a single father, a cycling
coach in their hometown of Herning. Riis began his professional
cycling career only a decade ago and was for many years timid
and content to ride in support of others, including two-time
Tour winner Laurent Fignon of France. But with age, Riis
gradually gained confidence and ambition. He finished third as a
support rider in '95 and then switched teams to try to win this
year, guided by advice from Fignon, his cycling guru.
Fignon preaches an attacking style, so despite holding a
commanding lead, Riis rode more aggressively than Indurain. In
fact, Riis was so voracious in his campaign to win that the
French press took to calling him le carnassier, the carnivore.
The great Dane chewed up Indurain and the rest of the field
during the 16th stage, which concluded with a brutal, unyielding
13-kilometer ascent to the Pyrenees ski-resort town of Hautacam.
He won the stage by nearly a minute and gained more than 90
seconds on his closest rivals. By the time Riis reached the
Tour's final stages his lead was so secure that he could have
won the event riding into Paris on a coaster bike with training
Indurain finished 11th overall, 14:14 behind Riis. Among the
theories for his downfall were the nasty weather and a weak
Banesto support team, but in the end, it was a matter of
horsepower. Even the most finely tuned engines break down after
so many miles. "My heart was willing," explained Indurain, "but
my legs told me no."
It was quiet at the Cafe Maica on the morning of July 18. The
Tour had just left Pamplona for Hendaye. Back to France. Nobody
in Villava was planning to travel to Paris this year.
An old man sipping Rioja launched into a story he had told a
thousand times. It was about a pair of Gypsies who roamed the
Spanish countryside more than two decades ago. They stole a
cheap bicycle from a shy 11-year-old boy. The kid was so
depressed over the loss that his father bought him a racing bike
the next day. At first the boy pedaled to earn the sandwich and
drink given participants at the finish of a race. Then, having
become the Spanish champion at 18, he rode off to the Tour de
France in '85 but quit after just four stages, fulfilling a
promise to his father that he would return home in time for the
harvest. He competed in six Tours before finally winning the
epic race in '91. At that moment Miguelito became Miguelon, a
man, and he won the next four Tours as well. Maybe he will win
the race again or maybe not, the man said in conclusion, but the
legend is already in place.
For his part, Indurain has said little about his future except
to repeat that when he retires he hopes to fade into obscurity.
His wish is to live a simple life, raising a family in Villava,
much like his father.
But Indurain is certain to chase the victory record in at least
one more Tour, and at some point ride in his own farewell Tour.
Perhaps he can rediscover his form, but surely he understands
that his aura of invincibility is gone forever, erased by the
virtuosity of Riis.
"I struggle to believe that I have actually won the Tour," Riis
said. "To beat the great Indurain is like deposing a king."
The reign in Spain fell plainly to the Dane.