Cycling is a sport where you get to witness some tremendous, and some unbelievable feats. Sudden attacks can move you to the edge of your seat and long range attacks can leave you mesmerised, staring at your TV for hours willing a brave rider towards victory. Then there are the times when a rider begins to crack. I wouldn’t say watching these moments are as enjoyable, there is certainly no rejoicing, but I wouldn’t miss them for the world. There is a type of voyeuristic fascination with seeing an old champion or new contender failing in their quest.
When I first started following cycling it was at the start of Miguel Indurain’s five Tours in a row. There was certainly no pizazz about the way he won those titles but I enjoyed watching non the less. The Tour de France was the only race I could watch back then, I hadn’t seen any other way to win a Grand Tour, and the way Indurain powered through the three weeks was impressive to me. That’s why it was so absorbing to watch him fall away from his rivals in 1996 seeing for the first time that what I thought was a machine was in fact human.
Going into stage sixteen Indurain was in 8th, 4 minutes 38 seconds behind the leader Bjarne Riis. He had already had a terrible day, his first at the Tour in over five years, on stage 7 when he bonked on towards the top of the final climb Les Arcs. After a decent time trial, where he equalled Tony Rominger’s time, and finishing with the favourites in Sestriere though his fans hoped that he would preform a miraculous comeback on the final two mountain stages. The first finished on Hautacam and the second, with five major climbs, went past Indurain’s childhood home and ended in Pamplona. But they were hoping for a miracle.
Watching Indurain in his Banesto jersey that deep into the Tour was strange. He wore the yellow jersey in over half of the stages he rode during his winning streak and always from stage 14 on, sometimes even earlier. What was also odd and new was seeing the leader of the race dancing about on his pedals and attacking his rivals in the mountains. Riis was in sprightly form that day and launched a series of moves, seeing if anyone could react and what sort of shape his rivals were in. Indurain seemed up for the challenge and managed to keep the Danish rider in his sight.
With 7 km left Riis suddenly attacked again and and this time he meant it. A trio of riders (Richard Virenque, Luc Leblanc and Laurent Dufaux) were able to react before Riis simply rode them off his wheel. Indurain led the group of chasers, if he was able to stick his head down and power up the mountain he would move up the standings at the end of the stage. He cracked. The Spanish champion was spat out the back of the chasing group and was at once almost at a standstill.
While the cameras showed brief shots of Riis, probably the next tour de France winner, fly up to the finish they lingered on Indurain putting his pain, both physical and mental, on show for everyone to see. It’s engrossing watching his face, wondering what he is thinking as he is losing the stage, the Tour and his godlike status.
Indurain ‘only’ lost 2 minutes 28 seconds on the stage to Riis and dropped down to 11th overall. Worse was to come the following day when he lost over 8 minutes and even though he finished second in the penultimate stage’s time trial his finishing position in Paris was 11th, 14 minutes 14 seconds behind Bjarne Riis.
Later that year and after a strong time trial at the Olympics Indurain was convinced by his team to have a crack at the Vuelta. He climbed off his bike on stage 13 and would never race again. His swift fall from grace was complete.