Unfortunately, I drove your car daily under this regimen. This was the same sort of relentless driving in a car that Induráin was doing on the bike.
I thought about him a lot. How could anyone following the route not think about him? He was the race. He owned it. The daily press reports in my country, where cycling is not all that important, undoubtedly made his victory seem so very easy. I am sure, from the time he opened up his fist lead at two minutes, 28 seconds in the time trial from Périgueux to Bergerac, then lengthened the lead to four minutes and 47 seconds two days later, that his efforts were restricted to a little line in a column of "Other Sports News" that read something like, "And in the Tour de France, Miguel Induráin maintained his lead...," the information sandwiched between the hiring of some assistant basketball coach at the local junior college and the arrest of some former athlete on a DUI charge. Hah.
I would roll out of the car nightly, weary and stiff, and wonder how Induráin felt. The weather was a prolonged stretch of summer misery, big fat suns painted across the nightly forecast map of France, humidity at knockout levels. The hotels were heavy on 12th-century architecture, low—very low, nonexistent—on air-conditioning. How could Induráin handle all this? I lay sleepless and sweaty in a tiny bed in Lille at three o'clock in the morning, listening to a French wedding-reception party phonetically sing a Joan Jett song ("I love rock 'n' roll/Put another dime in zee jukebox, baby") and wondering if Induráin also was sleepless. Was he awakened early by the singing penitents and seekers of miracles in Lourdes? Did he just about lose it in Montpellier, finding his room on the fifth floor of an elevatorless hotel, the walls about three feet thick, the temperature hot enough to cook a large pizza with anchovies?
Every time I saw him he seemed to be the coolest guy in the neighborhood. He was wearing the yellow jersey, le maillot jaune, which signified he was the overall race leader. Once he established his early lead, he controlled everything that happened. He rode in the center of the pack, the peloton, usually surrounded by his Banesto teammates. If one or two of the lesser lights from some other team whipped out in a breakaway, he let them go. What did they matter? They were down in the standings, no threat. If anyone within, say, 10 minutes offered a challenge, out came Induráin in his yellow shirt. He answered with authority. Much of the time he was still sitting on his seat, pedaling, while the competition was standing, pumping as if the highway patrol were involved in the chase.
Induráin is 6'2" and 175 pounds, with the resting pulse of an oak tree. Although he is worth more than $4 million and his feats are celebrated widely in Spain, he still is a quiet mystery. He says little, and when he does talk, it is always in clichés and platitudes. His mantra for this race, once he took early control, was, "I just want to keep the yellow jersey." Period. Although he comes from a region of Spain that is contested by the Basques and the Spanish, he has never taken a side in the debate. He is Basque for the Basques, Spanish for the Spaniards. He has been married for two years and lives most of the time near Pamplona. End of quiet public story.
"Write whatever you want," he tells reporters. "That will be fine."
"How do you explain him?" said Jim Ochowicz, manager of the U.S. team, Motorola. "He is Gretzky or Michael Jordan, just better than everyone. He doesn't care what he does in the other races. He points for this race. That is for sure. And he wins. And he'll probably win again next year too."
"I don't know much about him," said Frankie Andreu, the lone American left at the end, after three-time winner Greg LeMond dropped out early and future hope Lance Armstrong dropped out too, as planned, two thirds of the way through the race. "He has to be some kind of genetic freak with great lung and heart capacity. I see him in the peloton every day, then we hit the first hill, and I don't see him anymore."
A win next year would put Induráin at the top of Tour history. Three men—Jacques Anquetil, Bernard Hinault and Eddy Merckx—have won the event five times. None won five times in succession. Induráin, as he proved this year, is this generation's answer to the cycling legends. He rode this year's course, considered difficult even by Tour standards, in 103 hours, 38 minutes and 38 seconds.
Which brings us back to the car. Things could have been much worse. I saw windshield-sticker cars following Induráin in the Alps during the last week that were spewing black smoke, cars that were pulled to the sides of the roads, cars that were being towed away in disgrace. I saw at least three-tractor trailers out of commission, dead. Your vehicle did not meet that fate. It was still running at the end, though with that yellow light flashing and the ta-chickada noise upon acceleration.