Cycling: Will the Next Tour de France Champ Please Rise Up?

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, July 1996

Cycling: Will the Next Tour de France Champ Please Rise Up?

Indurian goes for his sixth, but it won't be a gimme. A bettor's guide to the Big One

Yawning observers insist the 1996 Tour de France is no race at all, the wisdom being--can you guess?--that five-time winner Miguel Indurain already has his sixth yellow jersey in the bag. Sure, the 31-year-old could crash, fall ill, or (indulging in his favorite hobby) oversleep during the race's 21 days and 2,378 miles. And this year's unusually mountainous course provides chances for also-rans to nip at his back tire. Even so, the frugal oddsmaker must advise: In what may be Big Mig's last Tour, don't bet against the indomitable Spaniard.

Miguel Indurain (1-2)
Call him what you will--dominant, dull, extraterrestrial--Indurain is poised to secure his place as the Tour's all-time best with an unprecedented sixth straight win. As usual, Big Mig's plan is to build up a huge lead in the individual time trials and hold his own during the race's 19 pack-contested stages. But this year's layout may jinx his routine: The opening mountain stage comes earlier than usual (on day seven), and the first time trial, held the next day, is on an unusually mountainous course crossing the Iseran pass in the alps. Still, Indurain is no slouch in the steeps, and he'll be fired up during the 161-mile 17th stage, which crosses into Spain and finishes with a hero's welcome in his hometown of Pamplona.

Tony Rominger (3-1)
The 35-year-old Swiss has done it all in professional cycling--except win the Tour. Now in his final season, Rominger is opting not to defend his title in the Giro d'Italia and to focus solely on Tour de France training. He may be the only rider capable of matching Indurain stroke for stroke on both climbs and time trials, but Rominger goes to pieces if he has a single bad day in the saddle. Assuming he doesn't crack, he'll look to gain ground during the stage-eight time trial.

Laurent Jalabert (6-1)
Until last year, Jalabert was dismissed as a flatland sprinter who oofed in the mountains. But the 28-year-old Frenchman, rounded out by experience, finished the 1995 Tour in fourth place and dominated September's Tour of Spain. Jalabert will likely be off the pace in the time trials and on big mountains, and he's still coming back from an early-season knee injury. Otherwise, look for his powerhouse ONCE team to wear Indurain down with constant attacks, hoping to open the door for the first French win in the Tour in ten years.

Alex Zulle (8-1)
At his best, the bespectacled Swiss has scored impressive second-place finishes in both the French and Spanish national tours, but he has also inexplicably chalked up a few pack-filler placings in other years. The 28-year-old congenially shares leadership of the ONCE team with Laurent Jalabert, a usually ego-free arrangement that could make the squad too tough for even Indurain and his Banesto cohorts to overcome. After the race is done climbing through the Alps on July 9, look for the unpredictable ZËlle either in the top three or in the broom wagon.

Eugeni Berzin (10-1)
Thanks to Berzin's huge ego, even his Gewiss-Playbus teammates have mixed emotions about their leader--the Generation X Russian spent the last two years screaming for a bigger salary and more loyal domestiques. But the Tour requires confidence and the right cardiovascular wares, and he has plenty of both: In 1994 he dusted Indurain et al in his first major stage race, the Giro d'Italia. Still, a Tour win may be a few years off for the 26-year-old.

Lance Armstrong (99-1)
OK, so Armstrong has bailed out of the race twice and struggled to a 36th-place finish last year. But at the wet-nosed age of 24, the Motorola rider can claim two Tour stage wins, victories in shorter stage races, and a rollicking early-season 1996 campaign that included a win in both the Tour DuPont and a hallowed one-day classic, the FlŠche Wallonne. Though Armstrong recently went public with his own doubts about ever winning the Tour, he's still only 24 years old--an age at which Indurain mustered an anonymous 47th place--so we'll still book him as a Lone Star State-size long shot.

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