This is an extract from a feature which first appeared in issue 17.6 of Rouleur magazine.
These days, Fabrizio Guidi is best known as a sports director with Cannondale-Drapac. But rewind 20 years and the tall Italian with a fashionably disheveled mass of curly hair was a strong sprinter who could also drag himself over the climbs well enough to win a few minor stage races, briefly lead the Vuelta a España (twice) and capture the Giro d’Italia’s points jersey.
Guidi was also, as it happens, a deadly serious Indurain fan: for who else in their right minds would sacrifice their chances in a top home race like the Giro del Veneto, purely to be able to say he’d once ridden directly alongside the five-times Tour winner?
“He was my champion: tall, super-strong, never complained, a nice guy, a great time triallist,” Guidi recollects one morning at the Giro d’Italia as he leans back against his team car, his heftily-built figure clad in Cannondale green. And, towards the end of Guidi’s second year as a pro, in August 1996, “I finally had the opportunity to be in a race with him.
“He wasn’t in great shape and on one of the last climbs, he got dropped. So I stayed with him. I deliberately got dropped too, just to be able to follow Miguel. It was the kid in me that wanted to do that,” Guidi recognises, with a slightly guilty-looking smile, even now. Finally, having cracked, Guidi rolled across the Giro del Veneto’s finish line more than five minutes down.
Meanwhile, as he continued his gradual slide towards the exit door that autumn, Indurain came home 24th of 27 finishers in Veneto, his last ever one-day race. A week later, Indurain started his last ever Grand Tour, the 1996 Vuelta a España, only to abandon.
Three months later he’d quit the sport altogether. “It was a sad way for him to go,” says Guidi, before reflecting, “but you can’t be sure you’ll find a good way to leave anything, can you?”
Not every fan of Spanish cycling will go to such extremes as Guidi and sacrifice a slice of personal glory in exchange for a few minutes pedalling alongside their sporting hero.
Even in Spain, where he’s widely considered one of the country’s top two athletes along with Rafa Nadal, Miguel Indurain is probably not his country’s most popular cyclist. (That unofficial honour goes to the far more charismatic and outgoing Pedro Delgado.)
But tellingly, when interviewing and talking to Spanish people about Indurain, time after time, whatever they say isn’t immediately laced with fulsome praise for his record of five successive Tours, and still less the back-to-back Giro d’Italia wins, the Hour Record or the Olympic and Worlds gold time-trial medals. Rather they’ll just insist on what a genuinely nice bloke he is.
And it’s not just the Spanish. “I think he’s the only rider I’ve ever come across who didn’t make a single enemy in the peloton,” says Giovanni Lombardi.
Lombardi, as Mario Cipollini’s lead-out man, raced alongside Indurain before turning rider’s agent and race organiser. He’s had a spell living in Madrid’s Chueca district, where he once ran a boutique shoe shop, so he knows Spain well, too. “It’s not something only I say, everybody says it: he was a señor.”
Indeed, Jim Ochowicz the manager of America’s top teams, 7-Eleven and Motorola, during Indurain’s professional career, prefers to call Indurain a caballero, a gentleman. But he means much the same thing as Lombardi.
“He was always kind. I remember seeing him in charity rides after [he retired], he was always nice to me, he knew who I was – sort of. He’d not be part of our group, but he’d still come over and say hi.”
Indurain’s lack of any kind of inflated self-esteem, despite what he’d done, helped win people over as well. Pierre Carrey, the cycling correspondent of Libération, remembers organising a town hall screening of a documentary to which Indurain had been invited and how, after the show had ended, the champion began, unasked, helping out and stacking away all the chairs.
“Can you imagine Bernard Hinault doing that?” Carrey asks.
Despite his shock of dark hair, spectacularly thick eyebrows and towering 6’2” figure – until Bradley Wiggins’s victory in 2012, Indurain was the Tour’s tallest champion – the Spaniard rarely acted like the huge star he was. His almost unnervingly placid approach to everything had much to do with that.
“He’d always say tranquilo to everything that happened in a race, no matter how good or bad,” said his former Reynolds team-mate Dominique Arnaud, who died last year.
Also, there were no histrionics or verbal attacks on rivals, never any tears on the winner’s podium or furious outbursts by the team car after a defeat.
There were no off-race scandals, as there had been for years with all three of the previous Tour winners in Spain: the lovable but outspoken Pedro Delgado, Luis Ocaña – whose tumultuous life was such that he killed himself in 1994, when Indurain was aiming for a fourth Tour – and the firebrand Federico Martín Bahamontes.
Yet Indurain’s warmhearted affection and loyalty for his family, friends and his ugly little dormitory hometown of Villava, and his plain, straightforward approach to the rest of the world, earned him a great deal of affection in Spain.
As his first (and only) club president in Villava, Pepe Barruso, likes to say, “what you saw about Indurain was what you got” – and in a world of media darlings and sporting drama queens, Indurain’s supremely understated style as a champion put him in a class of his own. It still does.
Appreciation of his personality was so deep-rooted in the peloton, for example, that it completely surpassed some long-established boundaries, official and unofficial.
In the 1996 Vuelta, top cycling photographer Graham Watson recalls watching Herminio Díaz Zabala, theoretically a rival racer with arch-enemy team ONCE, clapping a friendly arm round Indurain’s shoulder as they rode down the Fito climb, moments after Indurain had been dropped en route to an abandon and, simultaneously, the end of his career.
“I was too far away to hear him, but Herminio literally would have been saying ‘goodbye, it’s been nice racing with you.’”
In a Q and A for Cycle Sport magazine back in the 1990s, Indurain said his idea of heaven, was “to live and live well”, his idea of hell was “the bad things one has to live through”, his favourite music “songs where you can understand the words”, favourite food “whatever there is going”, and his only desire for his gravestone inscription to say nothing about him at all. (“When you’re gone, you’re gone,” he helpfully pointed out.)
The answers were stunning both for their lack of pretentiousness and their equally breathtaking total lack of originality: literally anybody Spanish could have said that.
If Indurain managed to stay so straightforward and – in the best sense – normal for so long, much of it came down to his ability to assume success without it really changing him.
That went right the way back to when he was a teenager with a lethal sprint (on finishes with right-hand bends only, mind. For some reason he couldn’t do left-hand ones) winning race after race across Navarre.
His club president, Pepe Barruso, recalls how, as a sports director with no race radio in junior events, he would never know what the result of an event would be. But he walked up to Indurain afterwards to ask how he’d got on, “he’d just say, in a really quiet voice, ‘first’. Others would be bragging about it. But Miguel –never.”
Indurain grew famous and wealthy as the Tours stacked up. But unlike the hordes of nouveau riche in any walk of life who make a beeline for tax-friendly Monaco or Andorra, he never moved on.
He remained in or near his hometown of Pamplona with his wife Marisa (who has never given an interview, another sign of their determination to keep their private life private) even though he once joked “one of my legs belongs to the Spanish Inland Revenue”.
He kept close to his roots in other ways. His son, also Miguel, went to the same cycling club as he did, the CC Villaves, as does one of his nephews, the son of his brother, Prudencio – also a racer and who also went to CC Villaves.
Indurain might not be a complicated social animal, and he rarely gives interviews these days, but he’s not elusive. Cannondale-Drapac’s Hugh Carthy, who lives in Pamplona, regularly runs into Indurain on training rides, as does Luis Guinea, the longstanding cycling correspondent for the local paper, El Diario de Navarra.
“The nice thing is that you can ride alongside and chat to him about the usual stuff bike riders do, without any sense that he won five Tours,” Guinea says. “It’s what makes him so special.”
Indurain’s “normality” not only meant he belied the classic image of a cycling champion as automatically having a deeply complex inner self that was racked with self-doubt, insecurity and self-criticism. You could even argue that nobody, certainly in cycling and particularly in sport, has ever managed to stay so unchanged by success.
Indurain’s apparent normality also overshadowed other talents of his, which – as was so often the case with him – actually gained him an enormous advantage. He was, for example, an exceptionally skilled bike handler who avoided, somehow, any of the usual July pile-ups, not once, but for 12 years.
“I never saw him crash, never heard of him crashing. Who doesn’t crash in the Tour? Most everybody crashes in the Tour – look at last year,” points out Ochowicz. “It was like ‘oh shit, how come he doesn’t do that?’ It wasn’t like he was hiding somewhere. Sometimes it’s just luck and that’s an advantage in itself, too. It was something miraculous.”
Ochowicz brushes away the idea that “whether it’s clipless pedals or aero helmets or skinsuits,” Indurain’s team’s efforts to provide him with state-of-the-art aerodynamic material made much difference. Rather, he argues, long-term it was his strength as a racer that counted.
“Within three or four weeks, everyone’s got the same stuff. It only had a small lifespan before everything evened out again. But some things you can’t mimic, and Indurain, he had that power.”