For the duration of the 2014 Vuelta a España, Cyclingnews is taking a look back at some of the most iconic stages of the Spanish Grand Tour. In the first of this series, Peter Cossins remembers the day that Miguel Indurain climbed off his bike for good in 1996.
After Miguel Indurain’s run of five successive Tour de France wins had been ended in July 1996 by Bjarne Riis, the management of the Spaniard’s Banesto team endeavoured to convince Indurain to take part in that September’s Vuelta. Indurain hadn’t participated in his national tour since finishing second in 1991, and initially rebuffed the idea. But, lifted by his Olympic time trial success in Atlanta, in the wake of his dismal 11th place finish at the Tour, Indurain eventually agreed to line up at the start in Valencia.
He began well. When ONCE decimated the prospects of several contenders on the wind-hit third stage to Albacete, Indurain was wise to their ruse and infiltrated the lead group. Third place in the technical mid-race time trial to Avila pushed him up to second overall behind ONCE’s Alex Zülle. However, when, two days later, ONCE raised the pace on the short but steep climb of the Alto del Naranco, Indurain slipped back just as he had at Les Arcs two months earlier.
Although he only dropped to third overall, next up was the key mountain stage to Lagos de Covadonga. Before it, the riders tackled the first-category Fito pass. When Tony Rominger attacked, provoking a response from race leader Zülle and his ONCE team, Indurain drifted backwards once again, the TV cameras tracking his every pedal stroke. For a while, Marino Alonso stayed with his team leader, until Indurain urged him to press on, insisting he couldn’t follow.
More than four minutes in arrears as he crossed the Fito, Indurain descended the pass with his former team-mate Herminio Díaz Zabala, who tried to encourage him. But down in the valley, soon after the gruppetto had ridden up to him and after consulting his stage map several times, Indurain pulled over to the right-hand side of the road and stopped, before crossing the road and heading straight into the lobby of the Hotel El Capitán, Banesto’s home for the night.
A statement from team doctor Sabino Padilla said that Indurain had been affected by sinusitis and bronchitis, while the rider himself later admitted he simply expended his physical resources and had nothing left to give. The Vuelta had been a race too far.
Writing in El País, Carlos Arribas explained how this outcome had always been on the cards. “In the end, it was all a matter of faith, of wanting to believe that what had happened in the Tour was no more than a temporary loss of form… that the improbable challenge of riding and winning the Vuelta in September would be feasible for him by a mere act of will, despite the fact that he’d always restricted his best form to three months of the year to long his career.”
At that point, there was little suggestion that Indurain would retire, but it quickly became apparent that the rancour he felt towards Banesto’s management had resulted in the breakdown of their relationship. For a few weeks it appeared that Indurain might be tempted into a move to arch-rivals ONCE, but ONCE boss Manolo Saiz was unable to pull off that incredible coup. Instead Indurain retired, fully aware that his decline was imminent, unwilling to put himself through any further humiliations.