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A test of heart

Miguel Indurain wins for the fifth straight time

Click here for more on this story

Posted: Thursday July 06, 2000 04:27 PM

By Austin Murphy

Issue date: July 31, 1995

It was a sweet gesture, and it was as subtle as a ten-gallon hat. Two hundred meters from the finish line in last Friday's 18th stage of the Tour de France, Lance Armstrong set about dedicating his victory in that stage to Motorola teammate Fabio Casartelli, who had been killed three days earlier in a crash. So what if Armstrong nearly gave himself tendinitis in both elbows pointing to the sky and blowing kisses to the heavens? When you are 23 and from Texas, and you are honoring a friend buried the day before, with a victory in the world's biggest bike race, you don't worry about laying it on a little thick.

This was the year reality overtook hyperbole at the Tour de France, long known for its "killer" mountain stages. But no one overtook Miguel Indurain of Spain, who finished the three-week race four minutes and 35 seconds ahead of Alex Zulle of Switzerland and whose ceremonial Sunday stroll along the Champs Elysees was the anticlimactic end to a race he had sewn up a fortnight earlier.

As he has in winning the Tour each year since 1991, the introverted Indurain employed a cold, calculating style, and what little he had to say was of little interest. And, fairly or unfairly, Big Mig's unprecedented win-neither Jacques Anquetil nor Eddy Merckx nor Bernard Hinault, the only other riders to have won five Tours, won them in succession-was eclipsed by events that marred and then elevated the sport.

The 24-year-old Casartelli was killed after the ascent to the Col de Portet d'Aspet, the first of the six climbs in the Pyrenees that the riders had to make on July 18. The cyclists were coming off a rest day, the second of two in the 20-stage grind, and the pace had been brisk. Minutes after beginning his descent Casartelli, traveling at about 55 mph, leaned into a curve and went down, causing a crash that brought down several riders. He fell headlong and fractured his skull.

Casartelli was taken by helicopter to a hospital in nearby Tarbes, where he died shortly after arrival. Astonishingly, the Tour organizers proceeded with the afternoon's festive postrace awards program, as if nothing had happened. Stage winner Richard Virenque, who had yet to be informed of the tragedy, mounted a podium in Cauterets and, grinning, accepted the ceremonial bouquet and a smooch on each cheek from a pair of lovelies. The Tour's lack of sensitivity elicited outrage all over Europe, particularly in Italy. Had a French rider come to grief, it was suggested, the Tour would have responded differently.

The cyclists-foremost among them the veteran Italian riders-decided something had to be done. "No one felt like racing," said Andrea Peron, Casartelli's roommate. Word went around the peloton at Tarbes the next morning: There would be no race. The patron, Indurain, had been consulted and "gave his nod," according to one rider.

After observing a minute of silence and then wiping their eyes-for beneath their garish, aerodynamic shades, many of these tough men wept-the cyclists set off on a stage that was not so much a race as a hearseless cortege.

Ten kilometers from the finish the remaining riders of the Motorola team-Armstrong, Peron, Frankie Andreu, Steve Bauer, Alvaro Mejia and Stephen Swart-went to the front. With the finish line in sight and the pack a respectful 200 meters back, the Motorolans formed a kind of flying wing and rolled across the finish together. Crossing a few feet ahead of the others, by design, was Peron.

A LESSON IN DIGNITY proclaimed the French newspaper L'Equipe the next day, and so it had been. "This sport is so dog-eat-dog," said Armstrong, Motorola's team leader. "For 130 guys to come together like that showed the class of the peloton."

Class, yes; common sense, no. Even as they rode in honor of Casartelli, their unhelmeted heads invited a similar tragedy. The riders complain about how hot it gets under the helmets. Fair enough. But if the cyclists were completely candid, they would have admitted that vanity was an equally powerful reason why few of them wear protective headgear on a regular basis. They liked the way their hair streamed behind them when they rode. Armstrong did don a helmet the day after Casartelli's death, but two stages later the headgear was back collecting dust in the Motorola car.

Team spokesman Paul Sherwen said he had been told by a Tour doctor, Gerard Porte, that Casartelli's injuries would have been fatal whether or not he had been wearing a helmet. "But," added Sherwen, "that's just one opinion." Racers must wear helmets in the U.S. and in some European countries, but not in France. When the Tour tried to force riders to wear headgear several years ago, the cyclists simply refused. The issue faded away, and it was resurrected by the death of a rider-albeit the first one as the result of a crash in 60 years.

If the homage to Casartelli helped the riders bring their mourning period to a close, it also closed out any chance for Zulle and his ONCE team to catch Indurain, who rides for Banesto. The uncontested stage on July 19 featured three nasty climbs in the Pyrenees interspersed with long flats-ideal terrain for ONCE to have launched assaults on the champion. Yet Zulle and his teammates were in the forefront of those who wanted to ride for Casartelli.

Zulle had been the last obstacle on Indurain's radar. One by one the contenders had taken runs at him; one by one they had been calmly dispatched. Indurain's main challenger coming into the race was thought to have been Tony Rominger of Switzerland, but Rominger fizzled early, his fade attributed by some to his decision to ride hard in the Giro D'Italia, a three-week race that ended in early June.

Indurain, by comparison, coasts unapologetically through the early season in order to peak in France. This is the main criticism that has been leveled against him by Merckx, who along with Hinault does for cycling what Jim Brown and Wilt Chamberlain do for their former sports in the U.S.: take potshots at those with the temerity to threaten their records.

If Merckx was "the Cannibal," devouring everyone in front of him, Indurain is "the Boa," winning Tours by patiently squeezing the hope out of his foes. Says Bauer, "Miguel tends to just lets things fall into place, and then, when it's his moment, boom!"

The late afternoon of July 8 did not look like Indurain's moment. A lull seemed to have fallen over the Tour. With a time trial, his specialty, coming the next day, surely Indurain would be husbanding his energy in the final stretch of the seventh stage, a 203-kilometer roller coaster from Charleroi through the Belgian Ardennes to Liege.

But as the pack neared the summit of the day's penultimate climb, a sharp ascent up Mont Theux, Indurain took the 1995 Tour by the throat. "People talk about his heart and lungs," says Bauer, "but he's pretty smart, too. If he sees you're out of place or suffering, he'll turn the screws."

Sensing the complacency of the pack, Big Mig simply powered away from it. Tucked away in Indurain's slipstream was ONCE's Johan Bruyneel, whose eventual victory in the stage was itself a tribute to Indurain. Bruyneel refused to take his turn at the front, letting Indurain do all the work until very near the end.

Among the riders who were served a helping of Indurain's dust that day was Armstrong. "He just rode me off his wheel," marveled the former triathlete from Austin. "Nobody's going to touch him. He's superhuman."

If the future of American cycling sounded a tad forlorn, he had his reasons. Armstrong was still looking for his second Tour de France stage win in an uneven three-year pro career.

Motorola's plan to spring Armstrong for a win in one of the early, flat stages of this year's Tour had had to be revised. Sprinting into Dunkirk on July 6, Armstrong had crashed hard after he was sideswiped by the Italian sprinter Giovanni Lombardi, and he lost more than two minutes in the race standings and much of his hide, incurring painful abrasions on his right elbow, both legs, even his back.

The new plan: Get Armstrong through the mountains, let his wounds heal, then think about winning a stage. Laboring up one of the 21 switchbacks of the fabled Alpe d'Huez on July 12, Armstrong took heart upon seeing that someone had painted longhorns on the road. Then he took another spill when a spectator's camera strap snagged his handlebars.

Feeling frisky with the Pyrenees behind him on July 15, Armstrong attacked early in the 245-kilometer stage from Mende to Revel. The finish came down to a cold war of nerves between Armstrong and Sergei Outschakov of Ukraine. Outschakov outsprinted Armstrong to the finish. His best chance for a stage win gone, it seemed that the best Armstrong could hope for was to finish the race.

Trifles such as stage wins faded into insignificance on July 18 when Armstrong went around a curve and had to brake hard to avoid a third fall. "There were bodies all over the road," he said afterward. One of them was Casartelli, who was curled into a fetal position. "I thought he was holding his knee," Armstrong said. After winning the gold medal in the road race at the 1992 Olympics, Casartelli had been plagued by knee problems.

Armstrong spent the next 20 kilometers looking over his shoulder. Finally, once rider Erik Breukink, who had gone down in the pileup but emerged unscathed, gently told Armstrong, "You can stop looking for him. He's not coming."

The death of a rider was announced on the radio frequency to which all the team cars are tuned, and the news made its way through the peloton. Bauer was crying, and he actually welcomed the hellish ascent up the Col du Tourmalet. "It was easier just to turn all your emotion into anger and focus on surviving the stage," he said.

At the team hotel, Motorola team director Jim Ochowicz asked his cyclists, "So what do people want to do?" There was silence until John Hendershot, one of the trainers, stood up. He said the easy way out would be for them all to abandon the race. The harder thing, he said, "would be to work through this as a team and finish the race, the way Fabio wanted to do." No one disagreed.

That night was "terrible," according to Armstrong. "Riding together for Fabio the next day made things a little better."

Two days after the memorial procession, 15 minutes into the 18th stage, an undulating, 166.5-kilometer ride to Limoges, Armstrong turned to Andreu, the only other U.S. rider in the race, and said, "I've got legs today."

He proved it with 70 kilometers to go, joining a breakaway group of a dozen riders, and proved it again 30 kilometers from the finish. As the bunch relaxed at the end of an ascent, Armstrong suddenly surged, building his lead at one point to 1:15. With the finish line in sight, he took his hands off the handlebars and signaled to his fallen friend. "Today," he said afterward, "I had the strength of two men."

Ochowicz missed Armstrong's stage win. He was among the thousands who attended Casartelli's funeral in Albese, the tiny village outside Como, Italy, where the rider was raised. After the service Annalisa Casartelli carried her infant son, Marco, to the casket and held him over it to give him a chance to say goodbye to his father.

Perhaps when he is older Marco will learn of the events of July 1995 and arrive at this conclusion: My father must have been someone special, to have inspired so much generosity in so many.

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