Is Miguel Indurain the Greatest Spanish Cyclist Ever?

If you had been asked, before you saw the name at the top of the page, who had been voted by the Spanish public as the outstanding native sporting personality of the twentieth century, I wonder how many people would have answered correctly. Most people with an interest in sport will be aware of Miguel Induarin’s achievements but, in a country as football crazy as Spain, to receive such an accolade shows not only the strength of interest in cycling in the country, but also the deeply held affection he still commands there.

Miguel Indurain
Miguel Indurain – Photo: Wikimedia

Miguel Angel Indurain Larraya, born in the small village of Villava, in the province of Navarre in July, 1964, was to become the first rider to win the Tour de France in five consecutive years, from 1991 to 1995, and consequently became a national icon throughout Spain. Indurain, though, was not brought up in a sporting environment, or nurtured as a cycling prodigy. Indeed, he grew up on his parents’ farm with his three sisters and one brother and, until he was sixteen, was far more interested in football and athletics than in the gruelling sport of road racing. But, having started serious cycling in 1980, within 3 years Miguel was Spanish Amateur Road Racing champion and, in 1984, after winning 14 races, he turned professional and joined a team based in Pamplona run by a former coach of the national team.

Miguel Indurain does not have the physique normally associated with long distance cyclists – at his peak he was 6’ 2” and weighed 176 lbs, leading to his nickname of Miguelón – Big Miguel, but mostly shortened by the English language press to BigMig. In addition to his size and strength, though, Indurain had a phenomenal lung capacity of 8 litres and a resting pulse of 29 beats per minute – he was ideally suited for the arduous endurance trials of the Tour de France.

Indurain’s first Tour was that of 1985 and his standing in the event gradually increased until his first victory in 1991. He was especially known for his ability in time trials and his basic strategy for winning the tour was simple – win the time trials and then try to hold on and maintain that position in the mountain stages. In both 1992 and the following year, Miguel also won the Giro d’Italia and his other major title was to win the inaugural time trial in the Olympics in 1996. Indurain’s reign as Tour de France champion ended in 1996 when he suffered badly with bronchitis during the race – which ironically passed through his home village in northern Spain that year. The fact that his successor, Bjarne Riis of Denmark was later found to have been drug assisted and is no longer recognized as the winner by the Tour authorities, made the end of the era even sadder.

For someone who enjoyed the success he did, Miguel Indurain was not always highly regarded by cycling commentators or spectators. Many detractors point out that Indurain appeared to focus almost solely on the Tour de France, often not participating in any of the other major events in a season, and this, coupled with his more natural liking for the time trial sections of the race, caused a degree of antipathy towards him. It could also have been, of course, that Miguel’s naturally quiet, undemonstrative personality did not offer much to journalists searching for copy!

This antipathy was never shared by his fellow riders, however, who always respected his modesty, his sportsmanship and his appreciation of the value of his teammates.

Miguel Indurain retired in 1997 and, with his wife Marisa and his family he is now back in the Basque country which he loves so dearly. He still has close connections with sport, however, by serving on the Professional Cycling Council and the Spanish Olympic Committee. In addition, he is a very active president of the Miguel Indurain Foundation, which he established to help promote sport in the Navarre region and which gives considerable help to the young sporting talent there trying to emulate his considerable achievements.

Miguel Indurain was undoubtedly a likeable, generous sportsman who always worked to the utmost of his ability in order to achieve his ambitions and who maintained his integrity in a sport where that has not always been the case. He would be a good role model for any young sporting aspirant and was, to my mind, a worthy choice as Spanish Sports Personality of the Twentieth Century.