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End of an era

Riis overcame climatic chaos to end the reign of Indurain

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Posted: Thursday July 06, 2000 02:37 PM

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.

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 wheels.

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.

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