20 Years Have Passed Since Indurain’s Ascent, to his Chagrin

Chiappucci, Indurain, and Mottet ascending Tourmalet in 1991
Chiappucci, Indurain, and Mottet ascending Tourmalet in 1991. Photo by Robert Pratta of Reuters.

20 Years Have Passed Since Indurain’s Ascent, to his Chagrin
The Tour de France makes its annual return to Tourmalet, where in 1991 the Navarrese colossus changed the course of Spanish cycling
El País: Indurain, 20 años a su pesar
C. Arribas reporting from Lavaur, France July 14, 2011

Today the Tour de France returns to Tourmalet, as it does every year, and as it did 20 years ago on July 19, 1991, a Friday that changed the course of Spanish cycling forever and also changed the way we Spaniards look at ourselves. The stars of cycling, a sport which lives on memory like no other, on the stories and myths of its legends, want to revive those days sometimes, but Miguel Indurain, the protagonist, refuses to think back to the day he incarnated a revolution. Winning the Tour, though, is not a burden that is always pleasant to bear. He is the same as always, tranquil, quiet, calm, Miguel Indurain. He doesn’t seem moved by the memory, though he constructed it, and it brought us to where we are now.

In a stupendous interview which appeared some days ago in the Diario de Navarra, he explained his thinking: he isn’t one for anniversaries or memories. What surprises him the most is that twenty years have already passed, which are many, but he still won’t do anything special to record the time. It’s nothing, he insists: 20 years have passed, but he still doesn’t like to revisit this or recall that…

He doesn’t even want to see what he was like then. Some time ago, a friend gave him a compilation of all his victories on the Tour, but he stashed the recordings away and hasn’t seen them. He believes that all cyclists want to win the Tour at some point in their lives, but they don’t know the consequences of it. Everyone’s dream is to win, to arrive in Paris in the yellow jersey, but that’s one thing, and what follows it is another. How they’re related…”if you haven’t lived it, you can’t know it,” he said. But this is sport, this is cycling, and that’s a part of victory. The years of his victories were very intense, very beautiful, but they passed very quickly, and the years continue to pass very quickly for him, but he is in no way nostalgic. The memories of the Tours are there, the maillots (jerseys) and the bicis (bicycles), but he doesn’t have to get them out and polish them every day, and he can’t live on memory. He lived that time. It was beautiful. It happened. Nostalgia is a brake. Memory plays tricks on you.

José Miguel Echávarri, the architect of those five Tour victories, the engineer of his transformation, and Pedro Delgado, the cyclist Spain was anxiously awaiting in Tourmalet when the Navarrese Colossus arrived instead, awoke on July 18 in Jaca, where they had finished a stage that was frustrating for the fans who thought they hadn’t honored their country. The two were preoccupied with two very different questions. The director of Banesto had been, like an oenologist, carefully controlling the maturation of Indurain, convinced for years that he had a great reserve inside him, worried about how the succession would be interpreted, how Delgado would accept that his time was up, how to make the passage fluid and tranquil. The Segovian, the cyclist of the previous decade who had awoken the fans with his attacks, his victories, and his Tour championship in ’88, was worried about his form and afraid of not living up to the high expectations he himself had created. Neither of the two feels vertigo about remembering this.

That night in Jaca, José Miguel Echávarri did not need to see the stars in the clear night sky of the Pyrenees to know that some hours later there would be a convergence of destinies, a crossing of paths which he had been plotting for years. The ’90 Tour had been very important. Delgado finished fourth and Indurain tenth, and Echávarri was criticized for not trusting in the Navarrese; some said he should have been leader of the team even then. But in that Tour most of all, he found the confirmation he was waiting for. That was the Tour in which Miguel said, once and for all, “I’m ready.” He had learned how to see and negotiate the race. He had a photographic memory; he’d memorized all the trajectories and the circumstances. He had all that and also discipline and the respect of Pedro.

On the Trail of Val Louron, the destinies of Miguel and Pedro crossed again in a greater fashion. They were two generations, two presents: in the words of Echávarri, “present preterite and present future.” The ’60 generation of Fignon, LeMond, Delgado, and Roche disappeared, and the ’64 generation of Indurain, Bugno, Chiappucci, Breukink, and Alcalá ascended. The race chose the present future over the present preterite. Echávarri already knew it in Jaca, but he couldn’t say it to Delgado; it was something the Segovian had to discover for himself. Pedro was honest enough to know the Tour had chosen the future. When he awoke that day, Echávarri also carried in his mental luggage the criticism of half of Spain, frustrated because Delgado, Perico de España, did not attack in Jaca, as well as the doubts of the federal Secretary of Sport, Javier Gómez Navarro, a Delgado enthusiast who in the four previous years had seen the Segovian at every stage as he finished 2nd in ’87, 1st in ’88, 3rd in ’89, and 4th in ’90. Echávarri calmed down the media and clarified the future. When Gómez Navarro asked him how Delgado was, he said peacefully that Perico was fine, but Miguel was very good.

For Perico, the night in Jaca was difficult. The Tour had arrived in Spain, and the fans were not happy that a Frenchman (Charly Mottet), not a Spaniard, had won it. The cyclists and Perico were crucified in the media, accused of a lack of patriotism: “Damn it, Perico, why didn’t you do anything?” The situation was complicated for Delgado because he couldn’t see it clearly. The next day, in Tourmalet, his fears were rapidly confirmed as he could not handle the pace of the peloton which still had 60-70 riders. He lost contact and suffered as he thought about what his life would be like from then on and how ferocious the critics would be at the finish line in Val Louron. But when he arrived there, the Spanish press happily received him and asked, “Are you happy about Miguel’s victory and seeing him dressed in yellow?” Pedro, who knew nothing about what had come to pass in front of him (the earpiece hadn’t been invented yet, and no one had said anything to him), accepted with relief that his moment had passed. The end had come when he wasn’t well, when he was sinking, and Miguel’s victory changed the story. He thinks that if Miguel hadn’t won, his failure would have been more difficult to take. After that, he dedicated himself to defending Miguel’s lead, which motivated him after his setback. Miguel’s yellow jersey helped him enormously.

It wasn’t a surprise, either. Delgado had discovered how good Miguel was during the ’88 Tour when they were ordered to set the pace in the Peyresourde, and the peloton fell off from his team. They were going so quickly that Delgado sped up to tell his teammates to slow down. Miguel only heard Perico shouting “Miguel! Miguel!” and was afraid that meant he was going too slowly; he asked Perico if he wanted to speed up. “No! No! Brake!” He would have been ready if Delgado had failed.

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