“He Is Miguel, of Course”

Why does Miguel Indurain keep winning the Tour de France? In Spain, at the start of the season that could bring an unprecedented fifth straight victory, only one answer makes sense.

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Everybody, it seems, has a theory about Miguel Indurain.

Take, for instance, the thighbone theory, an ostensible favorite of his longtime coach, José Miguel Echavarri. “The secret’s in the length of his build,” he says. “His legs provide more power than other riders can generate.”

Or the weight theory, advanced by Spanish cycling journalists like Inglo Munoyerro, who has followed Indurain since he was a teenager. “He used to be a little heavier,” Munoyerro says. “It makes a big difference.”

Then there’s the temperament theory. Temperament, as in the placid demeanor that Indurain manages to maintain even in the most trying of moments. Temperament, as in his uncanny ability to mask his emotions (read suffering) from his opponents. And temperament, as in patience, a point that teammate Andy Hampsten stresses. “Miguel was willing to work his way up through the ranks of his team,” he says, “even though he was already good enough to be the star. It helped him develop without burning out too early.”

There is also the heart-and-lung theory, one that I’m a bit partial to. True believers in the heart-and-lung theory insist that Indurain’s heart beats once a day or so and that his lungs are the size of a pair of Honda Civics parked side by side. Sports Illustrated was quite taken with this notion, promising in a 1993 article that Indurain’s lungs were “so huge that if you look carefully at his lower back as he pedals a bike, you can make out their gentle heaving.”

And finally, my favorite: the alien theory. Alien, as in something not of this galaxy; alien, as in, “He’s an extraterrestrial,” which is what former world champion and rival Gianni Bugno of Italy said after Indurain trounced the field by more than four minutes in a 1992 Tour de France time trial. I like the alien theory because it’s the only one that makes any sense. Clearly the secret of Indurain’s success can’t be a magic thighbone, or cycling teams would regularly raid the NBA for talent. Besides, Indurain is only six-foot-two, not even the size of a decent point guard.

Nor is it plausible that superstardom came to Indurain simply because he lost weight. I’ve seen pictures of the young Miguel, and it’s not like he was being recruited by the World Wrestling Federation. Maybe he’s lost a few pounds since his more awkward years, but not more than five.

Apparently, however, something did happen. And Indurain, who as a young scrub in the 1980s always showed promise but rarely demonstrated brilliance, became arguably the greatest cyclist of all time. This month, he stands poised to win an unprecedented fifth consecutive Tour de France, with the possibility of a sixth hanging on the horizon like a harvest moon.

Which is why, last spring, I went to the outskirts of Pamplona, where Indurain makes his home not far from the family farm where he grew up and where his team, Banesto, is based. I wanted my own theory.

The Banesto boys have parked the getaway cars at the edge of Estella, a small Basque town about 70 miles from Pamplona. There are several land-yacht Mercedeses, a large equipment truck, a small van, a camper, each vehicle emblazoned with BANESTO and rigged with a roof rack for cradling exquisite Pinarello bikes.

In three months this little armada will be caravanning around France while Banesto’s soldiers fight for their lives in the Tour de France before a worldwide television audience and thousands of reporters, most, no doubt, hoping they’ll fail. But on this April day, it’s just spring training, and the crowd that’s gathered is here to celebrate the beginning of the European cycling season.

Estella, where this 122-mile race starts and finishes, is a beautiful little town set among hills and bisected by the Rio Ega. Under the steeple of a twelfth-century Romanesque church, the town square is roped off and packed with racers wearing flashy uniforms that advertise their sponsors, everything from a baking conglomerate to a national society for the blind. The eight teams are all Spanish, and though there are security guards, no one seems to mind the hordes of kids who scurry under the ropes to hustle autographs and gawk at the Campagnolo gear. It’s a bright and balmy day, with the musky smell of txistorra sausage, a Basque specialty seasoned with garlic and red pepper, wafting from a tent next to the registration desks. The crowd lines up for hunks of txistorra on slabs of crusty baguette, as, much to my amazement, do most of the 148 racers. Indurain, to my disappointment, is nowhere to be found.

“I will ride over 30,000 kilometers this year to help Miguel win the Tour,” says 21-year-old Vincente Aparicio, explaining the ethic to which all of Team Banesto adheres. It’s 15 minutes before the race, and Aparicio is sitting on a bench, enjoying the warm sun and the quaint prerace fanfare. He’s dark and delicately handsome, and if he ever wins the Tour himself, his looks are sure to attract sponsors. But, odds are, the most he can ever hope for is the chance to win a stage. For now, he says, “I work for Miguel.”

Banesto, perhaps more than other teams, has been constructed with one mission: to win the Tour de France. A large banking corporation pours tremendous resources, roughly $11 million per year, behind two dozen cyclists and a couple dozen support staff with the explicit purpose of constructing an environment, both on and off the course, that will allow Miguel Indurain to be the best bicycle racer in the world during one month of the year. The race strategy is surprisingly simple. Their star devastates the opposition in time trials–he has won all but one of the Tour time trials in the last three years–and then, with the help of his team, refuses to be dropped in the mountains by spindly climbing specialists. It’s a strategy no other team can imitate, quite simply because nobody else has Indurain.

Suddenly, a police motorcycle rolls into the square, siren blaring and lights flashing, clearing a path for a single cyclist. The man’s Banesto cap is canted jauntily low over his right eye in his trademark style. Even as he is rushed by a frenzied crowd of mostly children, he seems bemused, a touch detached. The red-coated officer looks over his shoulder and realizes that the man he is supposed to be guarding has almost been knocked off his bike by a group of ten-year-olds and is now signing every race program, hat, and official Banesto water bottle thrust his way. The other teams work hard to ignore Indurain’s arrival.

I press Aparicio, the young Banesto soldier, for Indurain secrets. Does he train differently? More speed work? More distance?

“No,” he answers, a smile playing across his face, as if it were a silly question. “Of course not.”

Does he train with the team?

Again the smile. “We never train as a team,” he says. “We race as a team. One hundred race days a year.”

Does he train with his brother?

“He trains alone, like we all do.”

So why do you think he keeps winning the Tour de France?

Shrug. It’s a look that screams, Don’t you understand? Then he says, “He is Miguel, of course.”

Straddling his bike, signing autographs on this morning, Indurain radiates none of the repressed fury of a Bernard Hinault or the wiry tension of an Eddy Merckx, both of whom have five Tour de France victories to their credit, though not back to back. And unlike Greg LeMond, who always seemed a little uneasy when he wasn’t on his bike, Indurain looks quite at peace in this adoring throng. Interestingly, napping is said to be his only real hobby. He has a long, quintessentially Basque face, taut and somber. At 180 pounds, he has the overdeveloped legs of a racer on a lean frame that, no, shows no sign of baby fat, and his femurs do seem to stretch from knee to shoulder. I strain hard to see for myself the humongous lungs, and I stare at his neck, hoping to spot his carotid pulsing at the fabled 28 beats per minute. In truth, he looks like just another strapping bike racer, though something about him does seem quietly powerful and deeply private. So private that Prudencio, his younger brother and a domestique on Team Banesto, will often sign autographs for Miguel when the star grows weary of the crowds. His expression says, I will stand here and make nice and pleasant, but do not think for a moment that you are going to come close to where I live or what I hold dear.

Just as I press through the ring of giddy children, Indurain disappears in a scrum of Banesto riders. He pedals past me, and I see that smile: You there, with the notebook and recorder, you want more than an autograph, don’t you? Well, my friend, you will learn…

About an hour later, I do learn a little, not talking to Indurain, but watching him. At the start of a long climb about 50 miles into the race, a promising young Banesto rider named Santiago Blanco gets a flat tire. Quickly, a teammate in the second pack exchanges bikes with him, but there is a moment of panic as other Banesto riders gather around to help Blanco work his way back to the lead group, which is now out of sight down the road. Suddenly Indurain drops back from the lead to help, and a somewhat chaotic Banesto team takes on a tight, synchronous shape. “He doesn’t make a big deal out of it, yelling instructions like a lot of the Italians,” Andy Hampsten, the longtime 7-Eleven and Motorola rider who this year became Banesto’s only American member, will comment later. “It’s more a look and a nod, and in a low voice he says, ‘Tranquil, tranquil…’ That’s all it took. We regrouped and started working Santiago forward.”

Twelve miles farther, in Tafalla, a rural Basque village not far from his birthplace, Indurain “broke the pack into a thousand pieces,” as a teammate will declare after the race. He rides out in front for 19 miles, showing classic Indurain form: His bicycle hardly rocks back and forth, and his mouth is closed instead of open and gasping for air. Then, purposefully, he relinquishes the lead.

In the bars of Estella, where the patrons have passed up the wildly popular afternoon Basque soap opera Top Street to watch the race on television, Indurain’s mediocre performance is, oddly enough, deemed further proof of the man’s brilliance. Indurain led the pack just long enough to send a clear message: This year, like the four years before, he has the stuff, he has the goods to control a race, but today he will let somebody else have the glory.

Indurain crosses the finish line in the middle of the field, and immediately he’s off his bike and speaking to reporters and fans in a voice that seems laughably flat. It’s my chance to stare face to face with the great one. My chance to pick his brain. What happened today, I want to know. “People always want you to be at the top, but that’s not always possible,” he says. “I try to give my maximum, but if the day is not mine, another teammate will lead our team.”

He answers other questions in the same maddeningly detached manner. Did it give him a thrill that the race went through Villava, his hometown?

“When I am in the race, I’m only thinking about the race.”

Will he ride in the Giro, the Italian equivalent of the Tour de France and an event he’s won twice?

“It’s possible,” he says.

I want to scream, Miguel! Miguel! What’s going on here? Is it your femur? Your weight? How about temperament? Are you an alien? But I don’t.

I begin to understand, however, why Pedro Delgado, the only other Spaniard to win the Tour in the last two decades once said, “I was his roommate for years, and even I don’t know him.”

The Spanish cycling reporters all accept Indurain’s aloofness and find my frustration a tad amusing. Apparently, they like that he’s this way. Eventually Indurain–still smiling, still polite–is spirited away in a Banesto Mercedes. That’s when a local, sensing my frustration, takes me aside and asks, “Have you been to the Bar Maika in Villava? There is a man there, he knows Miguel better than Miguel.”

Villava is a pleasant collection of houses and apartment buildings that feels more like a suburb of Pamplona than the centuries-old Basque village it is. From the outside, the Bar Maika looks like any of Spain’s thousands of little bars. Inside, though, it is something of a religious shrine. Locals come for a shot of Rioja wine and gaze through the acrid cigarette smoke at four yellow Tour de France winner’s jerseys that hang in glass cases on one wall. Framing the yellow jerseys are a pair of shocking pink ones, awarded to Indurain for his wins in the Giro d’Italia. It’s an odd juxtaposition, a bit like wandering into the Dew Drop Inn and finding a bunch of Super Bowl trophies jammed up next to the Donkey Kong game.

This is the world headquarters of the Miguel Indurain fan club, Peña Miguel Indurain. In the rear is a tiny office where I find Aitor David, a local welder, who organized the club in 1990. “Really,” he says, “I was just making official what had existed for years.” David remembers when a 14-year-old Indurain won the 400-meter district track championship and tells the story of the time when Miguel’s first bike was stolen and his father bought him another one and how Miguel cried when he raced with it and was beaten by the older kids who had better bikes. “People like to say Miguel was a poor farm boy,” says David, shaking his head and chuckling. “Farm, yes. Poor, no. His father bought him a better bike. His first fast bike.”

On Sunday afternoon, when the bar is filled with the transgenerational mix of old men and young families that is so common in Europe and rare in America, certain truths–about Indurain and European cycling–begin to emerge. This is an intensely professional sport within which still beats the heart of an amateur. And what impresses David and the loyal patrons of Peña Miguel Indurain is not the amount of money that Indurain makes (about $4 million a year), but the expertise and grace that he brings to his profession. They love Miguel because he can ride a bicycle better and faster than anyone else in the world, which is really a very simple and pure endeavor. And of course they love the fact that Miguel has not interpreted his extraordinary talent as a mandate to become a personality. Where others see dullness, they see the kid who hated to lose to the older boys and laughed when they misspelled his name when he won his first amateur victory in the 1983 Spanish championships.

Around the Bar Maika, most Indurain fans can recount his progression to Greatness: In 1985, he raced in the Tour for the first time and dropped out after the fourth stage. The next year, he quit after the 12th. Then gradually and carefully–two of Indurain’s favorite adverbs–he worked his way to the top: 97th place in 1987, followed by 47th, 17th, tenth, and then finally his victory in 1991.

“Miguel is just so intelligent,” says David.

I like this notion and put it at the top of my list, next to the alien theory. But what exactly does he mean?

“On any day, a dozen, maybe two dozen riders can win a race,” David explains. “Miguel has the deep intelligence to always know himself, his teammates, his opponents. He never chases an unimportant breakaway and always has a strategy to win.”

What David really means, I decide, is that Indurain has some profound sense of self and place that has served him well, allowing him gradually to reach a potential that others might possess but never realize. It is not accidental that Indurain has raced for only three teams his entire career–his local club in Villava, an amateur team sponsored by Reynolds, and Banesto, his sole professional squad. And at Banesto, Indurain is still guided by his coach from his amateur days, José Miguel Echavarri. Indurain has referred many times to his team as a family, “with Echavarri as the father and the other riders as my brothers.”

When the 150 original members of Peña Miguel Indurain fan club rush out of the Bar Maika to light bottle rockets after their man wins a stage in the Tour de France, they are celebrating not just his victory, but a way of life. This is not Madrid or Barcelona, full of rich and important people, but a village culture that they are proud to call uncomplicated and quiet–just like Indurain. They love that Indurain has lived most of his life on his parents’ farm with his brother and three sisters. And when he married a local girl–not some Paris model–last year, they moved to their own small farm about a mile away. Isn’t it amazing that a guy they see all the time out on his training rides could win four Tours de France and be the odds-on favorite to win more Tours than anyone else in history? So what if he’s not very quotable–neither are they.

“When he comes from the Tour,” David tells me, as if victory in July were something to be counted on, just like the running of the bulls through the streets of Pamplona in June, “he always goes straight to the church and presents a jersey in thanks for his success and leaves flowers at the statue of the Virgin of Rosario.” The club leader smiles and sips his martini. “And Miguel comes here, and we celebrate all night.

“This year,” David continues, “there will be more wine, more fireworks, more people.” He shakes his head in wonderment and gestures toward the people passing outside the bar. “The streets will be filled like never before.” He then looks at the yellow jerseys. “We always believed he could win many races,” he says, finding it hard to keep pride in check as he reveals what is perhaps the most complete theory yet about Miguel Indurain. “It is destiny that Miguel wins. He is Miguel, of course.”

Stuart Stevens’s book Scorched Earth was recently published by Atlantic Monthly Press.

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