After a meaningless stage for most cyclists from Blois to Nanterre on Saturday, won by Belgian Peter Le Clercq, Miguel Indurain of Spain will ride into Paris today as the winner of his second consecutive Tour de France, more than four minutes ahead of his closest competitor, Claudio Chiappucci of Italy.
"I know I can win and I go out and display it," said Indurain, with typical confidence. "I'm intent on confirming my win Sunday."
Indurain is part of the new generation of cyclists. Only physiology--or maybe science--can explain his complete domination of this year's 2,490-mile Tour of France and parts of six neighboring countries.
"He is part-machine, I am pretty sure," said Peter Post, who has ridden in six Tours and coached in 19, the past nine as director of Team Panasonic.
In 1986, 25-year-old Greg LeMond shocked the sport of cycling and the greater portion of Europe by becoming the first American to win the Tour de France.
LeMond's victory was the equivalent of Croatia or Lithuania beating the United States in the Olympic basketball finals.
No American was supposed to win cycling's most famous race.
Immediately, LeMond was branded as a new breed of cyclist, a better model than five-time champion Bernard Hinault of France, who supposedly was better than five-time winner Eddy Mercyx of Belgium. Mercyx was said to be better than Jacques Anquetil, another five-time winner.
Times and technology have changed drastically since the days of Mercyx and even Hinault. LeMond proved that with his technologically advanced bike in a time-trial victory over Laurent Fignon in 1989 on the race's final day.
Indurain is redefining cycling. In the race against the clock, the time trial, no one is comparable to him.
Over the course of the two time trials in the Tour this year, each more than 39 miles long, he averaged 32 m.p.h.
"He rides like glass and never shatters," Post said. "He may be one of the greatest I've seen. He is like Michael Tyson. Unbeatable."
"Miguel is Carl Lewis on a bicycle," said Jose-Miguel Echavarri, Indurain's coach since age 16. "He's like Carl Lewis at the summit of his art. When he wins, he's not surprised. He has everything. Everything is balanced and in harmony in his life."
Indurain is the son of a Basque farmer. He still lives with his parents in Vallaha, outside Pampalona. Journalists who have visited his home said the only sign that he makes more than $1.5 million per year, his current contract with his Banesto team, is his Mercedes. He even changes his own tires.
He is a man of simple ways, which many say is the key to his success. He does not possess the charisma of LeMond or the flamboyance of Chiappucci, and therefore, he does not draw their fanfare.
One Spanish reporter said: "I have reported on Miguel for seven years and still know nothing about him. He lives the life of a professional bike racer and has no other focus in life."
Mercyx said: "He lives like a monk, the way a professional must live to be the Tour de France champion now. He eats, sleeps and rides 12 months a year. Perhaps that is why he does better than LeMond."
Friday, Indurain added 2:53 to his lead over Chiappucci of Italy to clinch the individual title of the 79th edition of the Tour de France easily.
"I intimidate my adversaries," Indurain said, without hesitation. "I know my abilities and am not afraid of my opponents. People have said I do not ride with panache. But I ride to win. The Tour is about winning. Why waste unneeded energy?"
A former support rider for 1988 Tour winner Pedro Delgado, Indurain knows nothing but hard work.
He is devoutly Catholic and returns each year from major races, such as the Tour de France and Tour of Italy, and spends hours praying in thanks in the church in a nearby village. This year, he will return to a country in an Olympic frenzy, but still will be welcomed as a national hero. He has had a fan club of more than 500 from Spain following him since the Alpine stages last week.
According to Sergi Lopez Erea of a Barcelona newspaper, Mundo Deportivo, he will be an honored guest next week in Barcelona and has been front-page news since July 13.
This year seems to be one of the least spectacular finishes of a race many said was finished after the Luxembourg time trial July 13, mainly because of Indurain's superiority.
At Luxembourg, Indurain beat his closest competitor by three minutes and was more than four ahead of LeMond and Gianni Bugno, two riders who have consistently beaten Indurain in the past in time trials.
It demoralized the remaining riders, enough for the likes of Bugno and LeMond to make concessions early. "I don't see how he did that," LeMond said. "I can't see how he took four minutes out of me and Bugno. That's almost superhuman."
Bugno said Friday: "Maybe he is from another planet."
Indurain will waltz through today's stage and garner the $300,000-plus winner's check and the promise of major endorsements in his sport.
So, the question remains, what will stop him?
Chiappucci might have found out during the stage to Sestries, Italy, last Saturday when he defeated Indurain by more than three minutes in a mountain stage. Indurain faltered in the final climb, finally showing signs of fatigue. Andy Hampsten of Boulder, Colo., who will finish fourth as the top American this year, repeated that feat the next day at Alpes d'Huez, defeating Indurain by more than three minutes.
Indurain said almost honorably: "I permitted Chiappucci to win in Italy. It was his home country and it was the right thing."
Two days ago, Chiappucci rode up to Indurain and said: "Miguel, I'm going to win the world championship in your house."
This September, the cycling world championships are in Spain, with the men's professional road race south of Valencia, not too far from Indurain's home area in the Basque country. Chiappucci would like nothing more than to beat Indurain on his own soil.
Finally, Indurain conceded Friday, after three weeks of paying respect to his competitors: "I'm not a machine. I'm a human being."
AFTER 20 OF 21 STAGES
1. Miguel Indurain (Spain), 97 hours 20 minutes 53 seconds.
2. Claudio Chiappucci (Italy), 4 minutes 35 seconds behind.
3. Gianni Bugno (Italy), 10:49.
4. Andy Hampsten (United States), 13:40.
5. Pascal Lino (France), 14:37.
6. Pedro Delgado (Spain), 15:16.
7. Erik Breukink (Netherlands), 18:51.
8. Giancarlo Perini (Italy), 19:16.
9. Stephen Roche (Ireland), 20:23.
10. Jens Heppner (Germany), 25:30.