Culture

‘Big Mig’ and discovering Spain’s cycling soul

On Indurain’s birthday, we remember his last Tour and our correspondent’s first.

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By the second week of the 1996 Tour de France, it was obvious that Miguel Indurain was not going to win a record sixth yellow jersey. The general classification leaders dropped him at Les Arcs in the Alps, and then Bjarne Riis cracked him for good at Hautacam in the Pyrénées.

That year was Indurain’s last Tour, and it was my first. As a newbie wannabe cycling journalist working for one of the seminal websites for this new thing called the Internet, I was thrown headlong into a world that I had only read about on the pages of VeloNews.

Simply seeing Indurain in person was awe-inspiring. No rider since has left such a physical impression on me as the tall, tanned, and towering Spaniard in his prime.

My semester-abroad college-level Spanish didn’t serve much good at the pre-Tour press conference. Indurain was one of those rare riders who could speak a lot without really saying anything. He rambled on for 40 minutes, with Spanish journalists hanging on his every word, speaking in a heavy, rapid-fire Navarra accent that sounded to me like he had marbles in mouth. I asked a journalist to confirm my notes, “So basically he said he’s feeling good, but no one knows who will win until the race ends in Paris?” Yep, that pretty much sums it up.

Miguel Indurain struggled in the 1996 Tour. Photo: Getty Images

Two weeks later, Indurain’s Tour chances were cooked, but stage 17 climbed over the Pyrénées into Spain with a finale in Indurain’s hometown of Pamplona to pay homage to the Spanish star. Indurain was absolutely huge in Spain at the time, one of the icons of a nation proudly stepping out of the shadows of the Franco years. At the time, I was also stringing for The Associated Press, and the editor liked my pitch of documenting the historic stage from inside a Spanish bar (smart working habits come early).

Rather than spend the night in France, my colleague and I decided to drive into Pamplona that evening, skip the next day’s start, and wait for the Tour entourage to arrive in Pamplona. After a torturous, three-hour drive on hairpin turns and narrow mountainous roads — convinced we were going the wrong direction in those pre-GPS days — we arrived in a panic to Pamplona, sure that it was too late to have dinner.

Miguel Indurain let his wheels to the talking
Miguel Indurain was quiet, and let his wheels do the talking. Photo: Getty Images

In France in those days, it was a near miracle to find a restaurant open past 10 p.m. On the advice of some friendly Spanish journalists, we searched out a local ambassador, a kind of Spanish steakhouse. By the time we arrived, the streets were near empty and our hearts sank, thinking we were too late. We stepped inside a restaurant, found only two tables were seated, and a waiter in the corner polishing silverware. We were relieved when he shrugged his shoulders and said yes when we asked if we could still have dinner.

Of course, instead of being late-night diners, we were among the first to arrive. By the time we worked through our steaks, a rowdy band of Spanish journalists paraded in — “¡Mira! El gringo ya está con el postre!” — and laughed as they sat down for dinner at nearly midnight. By the time we stumbled out, the streets were so crowded you could bodysurf from bar to bar. That was my introduction to Spain, and I haven’t left since.

The next day’s stage was anti-climatic, at least in the overall fight. Indurain didn’t mount his miracle comeback. In fact, he lost even more time and finished well back in a chasing group as the pack roared into Pamplona. The mood was still festive, and the town was alight to celebrate their most famous son.

Indurain won five consecutive yellow jerseys at the Tour. Photo: Getty Images

People packed into bars the next day to watch the stage. There were no smartphones or Twitter updates in those days. Cycling was a major sport in Spain in the 1990s, and Indurain was a god. Many jeered at Riis, the giant-killer, and the room burst into joy when the image of the proud Indurain, riding in the distinctive Banesto jersey, filled the screen. I interviewed dozens of fans as the images blared on TV. Along with the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 and the international rise of such sports stars like Seve Ballesteros, Indurain’s success at the Tour represented the proud new image of a re-born Spain.

That was the only Tour I would see Indurain. I was around that fall to witness Indurain clip out of his pedals on the road to the Lagos de Covadonga as he abandoned the Vuelta a España. A few months later, Indurain confirmed his retirement at the age of 32.

Miguel Indurain time trials
Miguel Indurain was unbeatable against the clock. Photo: Getty Images

In his prime, Indurain was unbeatable against the clock, and used his time trial prowess to crush his rivals at the Tour. Five consecutive yellow jerseys still stand as the official record. He also won the Giro-Tour double twice, in 1992 and again in 1993, a remarkable achievement that since then has only been equaled by Marco Pantani in 1998, the last to do it. Indurain’s final chapter included winning the time trial gold medal in the 1996 Atlanta Games.

Always quiet and soft-spoken during his career, Indurain largely disappeared from the public eye in retirement. He occasionally shows up at rides and in the media, but Indurain was content in retirement, just as he was when he was racing, to let his wheels do the talking.

Today, Indurain celebrates his 56th birthday. In many ways, that evening in Pamplona seems like yesterday, but a generation of Spanish cyclists have come and gone. Now we’re just weeks away from the start of the 2020 Tour de France. Those same fans will be packed into the bars in Pamplona, waiting for the next Indurain to give them that familiar rush.