Miguel Indurain: The man who can read landscapes

Rouleur spends two days with Miguel Indurain, a five-times Tour de France winner, for a relaxing cycling trip around La Rioja Alavesa

This article was produced in association with LeBlanq. 

“Look: in a few weeks, this vineyard will be ready for the grapes to start sprouting.”

The comment is not from a winegrower, but from someone who has been observing landscapes and fields all his life. He is 58 years old, was born in Villava, in the centre of Navarra, into a family of farmers and if he can, he rides his bike every day, just for the sake of doing it. His name is Miguel Indurain, and if you Google it, you will see he is one of the best cyclists there has ever been.

His CV says he won five consecutive Tours de France, he was a two-time champion at the Giro d’Italia and Paris-Nice, an Olympic gold medal winner, and so on, up to 91 victories from 1984 to 1996.

However, we are talking wines, not wins. His CV is less on his mind than the vines and changing weather in the Rioja Alavesa, a region in the south of the Basque Country, as he contributes to one of those spontaneous conversations that arise over the bike, with friends or strangers, and are simultaneously profound and throwaway. Indurain is one of the guests of honour in a four-day cycling experience based at the Hotel Marqués de Riscal in Elciego, organised by LeBlanq. Other former pros like Óscar Freire and Dan Martin are here.

LeBlanq organise themed cycling trips around the world in which the main focus is to live a unique experience around riding, gastronomic culture, landscape and terroir.

The day’s route is a 53-kilometre ride in an area full of twists and turns, a constant leg-breaker, ideal terrain for a Classic, even down to the gusts of wind and steep climbs. “My family has grown barley and wheat, so I’m familiar with watching the landscapes and seeing how they evolve,” says Indurain. “I like to observe, to recognise the crops”.

There will be time later to talk about his career. Actually, the landscapes of La Rioja are not so far away from home. We’re barely 100 kilometres from his native Villava, where he started cycling as a teenager with the Villavés Cycling Club, though he used to train more towards the north. Indurain spent his whole life living in Navarre, just as he spent his entire career with one team (Reynolds/Banesto, now known as Movistar).

“If you are comfortable in one place, why change?” he asks. “The team was good for me. They were and are based in Navarra and the mechanics were close by, everything was close by. I had the chance to go to other teams, and there were teams in Italy who were interested, but why would I go to an Italian team if they didn’t offer me anything different?”

While we are riding next to Indurain within a small peloton of 15 people, a car from LeBlanq supports. After 25 kilometres we stop for a quick break to refill bottles at the top of a hill, and a small army of about 20 people ensures that everything goes smoothly. You can recognise them because they wear black jackets with the slogan ‘Legendary Joyride’ on the back. Among them is Sean Yates, a stage winner in the 1988 Tour de France and wearer of the yellow jersey in one of Indurain’s Tours, 1994, who works as sports director.

In the pre-meeting every morning, he was giving details of the parcours and encouraging everyone to enjoy themselves. Some of the participants are having a small break from their jobs, others have saved for months to enjoy an unforgettable holiday. All are united by their passion for cycling and good food, like Indurain himself. He is working, yes, but also doing what he likes the most.

Indurain recalls that he won La Vuelta a la Rioja in 1995 on those same roads. The next year he decided to retire because he was tired of being away from home, tired of having to train to be at that level and tired of professional sport.

“It was a hard period, of course, but when I retired, I didn’t go through any period without riding my bike,” he says. “Since then, I’ve always ridden as a hobby, because I simply like it. However, when it rains I stay at home. When I was a pro, if it rained, I wouldn’t train. I could go up to four or five days without training. I’ve never had rollers and I don’t have them now, either. I just rested, because it was also good for me. Then when the weather was good, you might also train a bit more.”

When looking at his CV, one thinks that he didn’t do badly using this method. Train as a farmer would: watch the weather and wait patiently for natural cycles to develop.  

Indurain is 58, but he has that characteristic presence that everybody noticed while he was a pro. He’s tall and wide, solid as a rock on the bike. When we stop for a break in the village of San Vicente de Sonsierra, immediately word spreads in the village that Miguel Indurain is having a coffee in the Plaza Mayor. Neighbours and passers-by approach and stop him so their children can have their photos taken with him.

I remember a rare interview with Indurain in the Diario de Navarra, on the 25th anniversary of his retirement, that he was surprised at how people still remembered him in a fast-moving world. A farmer in his late 60s shows up. A neighbour had told him that Miguel was around. He had stopped working in the vineyards in the hills and appeared wearing a faded Castelli winter jacket from the 1980s with the sleeves cut off. He wanted to greet Indurain and tell his own story.

Years ago, the doctor had told him to stop smoking and do sport so he had started riding and had formed a mini peloton of five retired men from the village. “They now have all died, I am now alone and I hardly ride any more,” he tells Indurain. The five-time Tour winner tells him he is sorry, but also encourages him: “Don’t give it up.”

This encounter shows that Indurain is part of the popular imagination of a country. He represents a comforting nostalgia for a time when there were no mobile phones and bikes were made of steel – like the ones from his own collection that he brought to show the attendees at LeBlanq.

“It’s nice to see that people know who you are and value you,” he says with a half- smile, almost oblivious to the aura of myth that many people see around him. It’s true and has always been true that he doesn’t speak so much, but he listens, is an avid observer and can read the faces, excitement and the expectations around him,  even if they speak in English, a language that was not part of cycling when he was a pro.

The competitive instinct is still there somewhere, even on fun rides, like the one today. If someone gets jumpy, there’s a flame that ignites, Indurain switches gears and turns the engine on. “The flame lasts 10 minutes or less,” he jokes. “Yes, I still like playing, but physically I can’t do what I used to be able to do. I’ve wasted my energy already for many years.”  

When the ride resumes, on the way back to the hotel for the post-ride dinner, we are surrounded again by fields full of vines, especially tempranillo and Garnacha grapes, which are typical of La Rioja reds.

“If you ask me if I can drive a tractor, I would say yes,” says Indurain, in his element. We are back into the natural rhythm of things, a situation which Miguel Indurain finds comfortable.

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