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 Miguel�n, 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.