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Fall Of An Icon

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Photographs: Offside-LeEquipe

Hautacam, Tuesday 16th July 1996
Miguel never wore his Polar heart-rate monitor on his wrist and almost never looked at it. He used to carry it in the back pocket of his jersey and at the end of every stage he would give it to Sabino [Padilla, his personal trainer and Banesto physician] so that he could dump the data into the computer.
However, that day he checked it, pulling the gadget out of his pocket to take a quick look. He got the fright of his life.
“You know Arri, I wouldn’t mind leaving the Tour right now and going home” – Miguel and Arrieta, in the blue Vitus van where the riders took refuge after the mountain stages, as the buses weren’t able to make it that high up.
When Arrieta arrives – the second Banesto cyclist to finish the stage – he finds Indurain alone in the discrete, unmarked vehicle with its black-tinted windows. He’d already taken off his sweaty cycling kit and eaten a banana.
Iza, the masseuse, had already given Indurain a good going over with the cologne-scented mitt to clean the sweat away and he’d put on dry clothes. He was breathing more easily, almost in resignation, but his eyes still wandered, lost in disbelief.
“Look, Arri. During the first two kilometres on the way up my heart was already over 190 beats per minute. I knew that I was going to suffer like never before and Riis was climbing strong…”
Indurain didn’t go home, just as he hadn’t after the first time he took refuge in that unmarked Vitus after a hard day on the mountain. That time it was at the other end of France, in the Alps, on one of those bleak, rain-soaked days. The sleeves and raincoats came out and Miguel refused to take his off until the sun broke through.
It was wet on the Madeleine, wet on the Cormet de Roselend but sunny in Les Arcs. Three kilometres from the top, Miguel goes over to the car, returns the raincoat, sleeves and jacket and tells [Banesto directeur sportif] José Miguel Echavarri he’s going to attack.
A few metres later, it’s José Miguel who accelerates, pulling alongside a disfigured, swollen and rather out of sorts Miguel, now with a swollen tongue; on his last legs and pleading: “Salt, salt…”
With a gesture of impatience, he takes a swig from one of the water bottles that are handed out, then proceeds to throw it away as it only contains water.
He also dispatches the bidon from Emanuele Bombini, the director of Berzin’s Gewiss team, who felt sorry for him. It was the first time in six Tours that Indurain couldn’t be where he wanted to be, the first day he felt he might not win the Tour, but his analysis, which was reinforced by the memory of what had happened two years before while climbing Valico di Santa Cristina on the Tour of Italy, offers a circumstantial response: it was dehydration caused by excessive winter clothing and a dubious raincoat.
Indurain raced wrapped up in warm clothing on the Stelvio at the Giro. On the Tour, it was the rain and the Madeleine and the Cormet… and perhaps he’s mulling all this over while eating a banana and yogurt with cereal in the Vito parked a few metres behind the finish line at Les Arcs.
In Hautacam, however, his analysis is different. “In Hautacam, Arri, I saw something I thought I would never see. I saw Riis powering along and my heart was already at 200. I suffered like a dog, Arri, and tomorrow they’re expecting us in Pamplona.”
“I don’t know, Imanol,” Arrieta tells Erviti, director and former rider from the present day Movistar team. The two of them are looking at a framed map of France which has the ‘96 Tour route marked on it.
“I think Miguel carried on because the next day the stage came to his city. For him it was torture, yet at the same time an obligation to which he willingly subjected himself. He knew he was really going to suffer; he knew he was going to lose a lot of time, because the stage was punishing, but he also knew he had to keep going because there would be thousands of Navarre waiting for him, who would applaud him and adore him in whatever state he arrived.”
“I was there, 12 years-old, at the side of the road,” Imanol exclaims. “I saw him go past; I saw Miguel.”
“It was the toughest stage I think he’d ever done on the Tour and we’d been going non-stop from the first climb: 262 kilometres, distances that are unheard of nowadays,” Arrieta says.
“We left Argelès-Gazost and started to climb the Soulor at full tilt. Back then the Festina team were on their way out and there was Neil Stephens from the ONCE team in their pink jersey, one of the few who made it up the Aubisque and the Marie Blanque.
“We arrived at the Soudet, which is an oven, and Squinzi, the owner of Mapei, went crazy and ordered Rominger and Olano to go for broke; finishing second and third behind Riis meant nothing to him, so it was all or nothing.
“They attacked with [Manuel Fernandez] Ginés and it was all over. Miguel saw everything and he knew what awaited him. After the Soudet in Larrau, Riis, Dufaux, Escartin and company flew off ahead; they didn’t seem to suffer and the rest of us climbed as best we could.
“From the top of Larrau to Pamplona there were still 100 kilometres to go and alongside me I hear Chiappucci heave a sigh of relief. I said to him: ‘Make no mistake, Claudio, the hardest part is yet to come’.
“One hundred kilometres of steep climbs which aren’t worth any points but hurt like hell, and between the wind and the… It was one of the hardest days ever on a bike. Miguel arrived at Pamplona. He got there more than eight minutes behind but suffering because he wanted to suffer, that’s how he was…”
It was Miguel Indurain’s last tour. Two months later, Echavarri and Unzue, the bosses at Banesto, asked him to race in the Tour of Spain. Indurain was not physically or psychologically fit enough for the race and pleaded with them not to force him.
They forced him. Indurain didn’t finish that race. On September 20, after ascending Mirador del Fito at the back of the field, Indurain got off his bike forever at the foot of the final climb, Lagos de Covadonga.
There was nothing binding him to the suffering. No moral or sentimental bond. He never raced again professionally.
On January 2 1997, without having reached the age of 33, the greatest rider in Spain’s history announced that he was to retire from cycling.
Translation by Graham Tippett.

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