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Indurain: Spain’s low-profile hero

Indurain admitted a rider of his characteristics will not be winning.

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PAMPLONA, Spain (VN) — The biggest attraction last week at the Vuelta a España presentation wasn’t a half dozen Spanish stars or even the route itself; it was the presence of Miguel Indurain.

Now 47, the five-time winner of the Tour de France has become a relative recluse since retiring at the end of the 1996 season. Indurain drew bigger crowds than any of the day’s current stars.

Journalists and officials pushed in around Indurain moments following the presentation, leaving the likes of Denis Menchov standing uncomfortably alone and unnoticed.

“The good thing about the passing of time is to keep counting it,” Indurain joked about his post-racing lifestyle.

Indurain says he doesn’t miss much from his racing days and prefers to stay hidden away with his family than search out the spotlight that he never fully embraced when he became a Spanish national hero in the 1990s.

“Cycling’s changed in the sense that it’s more international and there are more global sponsors, but the racing hasn’t changed at all,” Indurain said. “I still follow the sport. I still love to watch the racing.”

On the mountainous Vuelta route, with 10 uphill finales in 21 stages and only one time trial, Indurain admitted a rider of his characteristics will not be winning.

“It would have been impossible for me to win this Vuelta — too many summit finishes and not enough time trials,” Indurain said of the 2012 Vuelta route. “But this is the kind of route the fans want, and the climbing specialists will have a great chance to win the race.”

Unlike many ex-pros who hang around the sport, serving as sport directors or working in the media, Indurain has preferred to stay close to home.

He rarely appears at races or other public events. He writes an occasional column for the Spanish sports daily, MARCA, but otherwise keeps a very low profile.

Indurain simply says he likes to be with his family and children.

“When you’re a professional, you’re away from home most of the year, racing, training and traveling,” he said. “Now I want to enjoy my family.”

Indurain has been largely immune to accusations of doping. So far, the Spanish media has left the iconic star alone while other contemporaries of the 1990s era have either admitted to using or been singled out as abusing EPO and other performance-enhancing drugs.

But Indurain has always been discrete, both during his racing career and after.

Indurain became a national hero in the 1990s as a symbol of a resurgent Spain.

Coupled with the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games, Indurain’s five-straight Tour victories helped Spain project a modern image following decades of dictatorial dominance with Franco and a transition to democracy in the 1970s and 1980s.

Indurain fever swept Spain and bars would fill up each afternoon to watch live broadcasts of the Tour stages. When the Tour would enter the Pyrénées, thousands of crazed Spanish fans would clog the roads on the steepest climbs.

In 2011, there were scores of retrospectives on the 20th anniversary of Indurain’s first of five Tour victories.

His Tour run ended in 1996, when Indurain couldn’t respond to the attacks in the French Alps from Bjarne Riis, who later admitted he was doping on EPO en route to winning that year.

Two weeks later, when the Tour rolled into Pamplona in what was meant to be a homage to the Spanish star, Indurain would eventually finish 11th in what would be his final Tour.

Indurain said it was bittersweet that the Vuelta begins in Pamplona, where his hometown Villava is on the outskirts of the city made famous by Hemingway.

“This Vuelta is not a tribute to me, but to cycling in Navarra,” he said. “There is a lot of cycling tradition in this part of Spain and it will be beautiful to see the Vuelta pass so close to home.”

Despite winning two Giros and five straight Tours, Indurain never won the Vuelta. His best was second in 1991 and the Vuelta became his final race in 1996, when abandoned on the road to the Lagos de Covadonga climb. He never raced again.

“I gave away more victories than I won during my career,” Indurain said, who was famous for being a generous champion. “I could never win the Vuelta. I came close once with second, but the Tour became my major goal, so I never had the chance to really focus on the Vuelta.”

Indurain doesn’t like to dwell on his past and prefers the quiet life of a family man far from the media spotlight.

Indurain has three children and now does the things that most parents do, except that he has the luxury of not having to work. He picks up his kids each day at school and attends family functions as an everyday member of the community.

His oldest son, also named Miguel, just turned 16 and has recently picked up the bike. Indurain has also started to train again, going out on training rides with his son, but he insists he’s putting no pressure on Miguelín.

“I tell him to ride as long as he enjoys,” he said. “When he doesn’t, he can just give it up.”

Indurain is getting back into decent shape, good enough to put the hurt on others during group rides. Last summer, he participated in the 18th Marcha Cicloturista Pedro Delgado, that was dedicated to Indurain and the 20th anniversary of his first of five Tour victories.

Indurain rode at the front for nearly all of the elite men’s course, taking huge pulls, but eventually fading in the closing kilometers to finish 34th.

GP Indurain in trouble?

The race that bears his name — the GP Miguel Indurain (1.HC) — could be in trouble.

According to a report in the Diario de Navarra, organizers of the race, set for March 31, are facing a budget shortfall that could force the cancellation of the one-day race.

The lead organizer of a the racing club in Estella says that the racing club is 30,000 euros short of the 130,000-euro budget to hold the race. Government backing, to the tune of 60,000 euros last year, is still not assured for the 2012 edition.