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The simple heroism of Miguel Indurain

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Before attempting to win the Tour de France for the fourth time, Chris Froome must have studied about its legends to acquire motivation and realise that his undertaking would be unparalleled. It wouldn’t be a record but an unusual result. No one in history has ever won four Tour de France races. Or better said: some of its memorable winners didn’t stop at four. As a matter of fact, four of the Tour legends won it for three times and other four legends won it for five times: Anquetil, Merckx, Hinault and, last but not least, Indurain.

Miguel Indurain, otherwise known as Miguelon, was tall, imposing, and austere. He wasn’t frightening but he instilled respect, although he always looked as if he were ready to sit at a table with both his rivals and fans - where he would have probably remained silent, in the corner. He approached road cycling in a similar way. He started to participate in minor races and ended up at the Tour de France.

A hombre de campo
Villava cannot be defined as a town, it is more of an extension, the stretch of Pamplona’s outskirts, one of the first slopes delimiting the Cuenca and the Ultzama river. Villava doesn’t belong to the city. It’s in the country, even if in the late eighties it had no more fields and the people who had been working in agriculture, thus shaping its social fabric, had emigrated. The only remaining farm in Villava, which was small but sufficient to ensure the livelihood of the family running it, belonged to the Indurains. 

Miguel was the second of five siblings and grew up in the simplicity of rural life - el campo - learning how to drive a tractor before any other means of transportation. According to his father, he performed better on a tractor than on a bicycle. And when he started to ride it, Miguelon never abandoned el campo, where he continued to work during the first successful years of his career. Thanks to his attachment to the native soil he became a road cyclist. As a matter of fact, when his parents decided to enrol him to the Pamplona’s colegio, Miguel chose the bicycle to express his dissent. Succeeding in sports would have meant keeping some distance from school, therefore going back to his beloved countryside. 

In the first few years of his professional activity as a road cyclist, it was said that Indurain had withdrawn from his first two Tour de France races because his family wanted him back to work the land. However, his team manager Eusebio Unzué, always denied this story, admitting “Though it may sound realistic”.

A predestined champion
One of Fausto Coppi's most famous pictures was published by the weekly magazine Epoca, where the rider from Castellania - another champion coming from a rural area - was portrayed completely naked. If compared with today’s cyclists, it is very different from what one would expect from a champion and his aesthetics, but the size of his chest cavity had something phenomenal. Miguel Indurain didn’t leave any nude pictures but his chest cavity would certainly attract anyone. Indurain was a predestined champion, as his success was strongly related to his body. He had a lung capacity measuring 8 litres and a heart rate of 28 beats per minute: a few less beats would have caused him to be hospitalised. In 1993, an article by Sport Illustrated described Indurain's lungs as “so huge that if you look carefully at his lower back as he pedals a bike, you can make out their gentle heaving”.

Moreover, he was tall but not slender, just like a long distance rider who could as well be an extraordinary climber, all which contributed to his success as one of the greatest trialists of all time. While pedalling, he had natural aerodynamics, which enabled him to excel in a period when road cycling was perhaps at its best in terms of elegance. Perfect cyclists like Bugno, Jalabert and Tonkov were beaten by a Basque riding a trial bicycle for the first time in 1991, seven years after starting his professional career, when he won his first Tour de France. 

On this basis, he was able to consolidate a career based on hard work - from the fields to continuous training. Looking at him while dominating a race he didn’t even seem to suffer, which was probably due to his training along the roads of Navarra and to his familiarity with suffering. Once he said, “I went very far down the road of pain”.

The harmonic progression
As said above, Indurain was a predestined champion. He was like a good seed in good soil, but in order to achieve his predestined success, he needed to be sown and to grow slowly before blossoming. All this can be observed by analysing his results at the different Tour de France races in which he participated: after withdrawing for two times, he ranked 97th, 47th, 17th, 10th before winning the Tour for five times in a row. No one had ever been able to engage in such an undertaking just like none of the seven best riders winning both Giro d’Italia and Tour de France was ever able to make it for two years in a row. 

However, in order to understand Indurain, it is necessary to look at another important figure, that of José Miguel Echávarri, the poet, the directeur sportif (DS) who followed him throughout his entire career. It would be unimaginable to think of Indurain's success if he hadn’t met his strange DS, one who has always believed in calm - which is very unpopular in road cycling. Gradually, Echávarri learned how to interpret Miguelon’s silence, which the press and many of his fans could not stand. His silence meant being able to wait for a man whose heart bit was half the speed of his interlocutors, unable to compromise too much.  

“I inherited my father’s calm, he was a farmer”, he declared in an interview a few years ago. “He taught me to sow, wait for good or bad weather, and harvest. Work is something that always needs to get done”. Even on top of the world Indurain never stopped being a hombre de campo. When he didn’t ride his bike, he spent time relaxing to regain strength and face new challenges. He was fully aware of his body’s potential and wasn’t much interested in anything else. His world was made of silence and gestures that very few people were able to understand. Echávarri got used to his silence and supported him up to the point that he was able to make him the strongest trialist ever. The sports discipline of silence was the one that Indurain could dominate the most, not just because of his body potential but thanks to the freedom of feeling at peace with himself.

A giant
Early nineties road cycling experts know that Miguelon was more than a champion. He was like a verdict. When he participated in the Tour de France, he'd win. Even if his worse rivals raised their fans' enthusiasm - from Chiappucci's lively performances to Pantani's sublime elegance, the latter being able to uncover some of Indurain's weaknesses - it would eventually stop as it could not change their fate. They called him The Alien. 

In the eyes of his rivals, Indurain was a giant as Chiappucci defined him in an old interview to Bicisport: “When we try to attack Indurain, I always think of King Kong battling the airplanes on the Empire State Building. Well, Chioccioli, Giovannetti and I are the airplanes". In the eyes of journalists, Indurain was a mystery, as he sometimes said just one word, “Bueno...”. His silence could never be broken, as the announcement of his withdrawal shows. Miguel read it in a flat tone from a piece of paper. He was barely able to lift up his eyes. 

It was summer when Indurain started to participate in top-level road cycling races, and he never stopped. He wasn’t handsome and smiling like Castilian Perico Delgado. He was unattractive and silent, came from the outskirts of a remote Empire, and dragged his name as if it were Barbarian. He was a hunter, a farmer, and a horse breeder, in other words nothing that could resemble a genius. However, all toreo’s enthusiasts agree that there is only one place where bullfighting is at its purest essence: not a bullring but el campo.

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