Nowadays at 44, he lives quietly in Pamplona, serving on the Spanish Olympic Committee and several international cycling panels in an attempt to serve a sport staggered in recent years by illegal drug use.
In the early 1990s, though, Miguel Indurain was the biggest thing to hit competitive cycling since the introduction of multispeed gearshifts. Thirteen years ago this week, he became the first man to win the Tour de France five consecutive times - a mark that stood only until Lance Armstrong went 7-for-7 from 1999 to 2005.
Like many individual sports, the Tour tends to be dominated year after year by one rider. Before Indurain, Greg LeMond won it three times and Bernard Hinault, Eddy Merckx and Jacques Anquetil five each. But never was a superstar racer more popular, at least with his peers, than the extremely modest Indurain.
Even during the peak years when he routed all rivals, Indurain said he “never felt superior to anyone” - which, come to think of it, would be a nice attitude for everyone to have.
“Indurain makes me sick because he’s actually a nice guy,” British cyclist Chris Boardman said. “You can’t actually work yourself up [against him]. There’s no hate involved, no anger. He’s a really nice bloke and a true champion.”
The “nice bloke” wasn’t exactly an overnight sensation after his first Tour appearance in 1985. He dropped out of the race his first two years, then climbed steadily through the ranks until his initial victory in 1991.
Durable and large for his sport at 6-foot-2 and 176 pounds, Indurain was known as “Big Mig” during his career. His technique was to gain great ground in the time-trial stages and ride defensively in the mountain stages, which some critics said made for boring races. Luckily perhaps, Indurain never had a strong rival during his heyday. In his five Tour wins, he beat five different runners-up.
Indurain was 31 when he began the campaign for No. 5 in 1995. He prepared by riding in France’s 10-day Criterium Dauphine event rather than the more grueling Giro d’Italia, a race he had won twice.
This strategy worked nicely as the Spaniard, representing Team Banesto, defeated runner-up Alex Zulle of Switzerland handily despite failing to win any of the stages, The event was marred, however, when Italian rider Fabio Casartelli died following an accident on a Pyrenees descent.
As for many athletes in their 30s, Indurain’s reign ended suddenly. Used to the heat and humidity of Spain, he reacted badly to rain and cold weather during the opening week of the 1996 Tour. In the first major climbing stage, Indurain struggled unbelievably, losing 12 minutes to the leader at one point. He rallied somewhat after that but was unable to catch eventual champion Bjarne Riis of Denmark or the other leaders,
When it was all over, the five-time champion was 11th in the standings. Two months later, after dropping out of Spain’s Vuelta race, he announced his retirement.
In recent years, Indurain has been saddened and angered by the increased use of performance-enhancing substances in cycling - a grim development that reached its peak, if that’s the word, when America’s Floyd Landis was stripped of his 2006 Tour title and banned from competition for two years because a drug test showed elevated levels of testosterone.
Indurain’s name was linked to drug use when former Swiss rider Rolf Jarmann said last year the Spaniard and other Tour winners used the banned substance erythropoietin (EPO) in the 1990s. The charge was deemed ridiculous by Indurain and others in the sport.
Writing in the International Herald Tribune when Indurain was still competing, Samuel Abt dismissed earlier insinuations this way: “Drugs! Indurain! Wow! … Nobody trying to despoil racing could have devised a better way. Indurain has never failed a drug test.”
But, Big Mig said, “the damage has been done. Even if I get all the support in the world, my image has been tainted.”
Fortunately, any taint has long since washed away. Today Indurain is remembered as one of the greatest cyclists ever, and his achievements are legendary to fans of the sport.
During a charity auction last winter in Adelaide, Australia,, Indurain donated a Banesto jersey he wore during one of his Tour victories. It was sold for $12,000 to Aussie cyclist Stuart O’Grady, a four-time Tour runner-up, who obviously felt it was worth every penny.