24
Jul
10

The Day I Beat Miguel Indurain

Author’s Note:  This piece appeared a few years ago in an excellent anthology of cycling stories called “Cycling’s Greatest Misadventures” published by Casagrande Press.  The book is chock full of stories that will amuse and horrify even the most casual cyclist.  Available at Amazon.com.    

My nemisis....and a nice guy. Miguel Indurain, five-time Tour winner.

  

My colleague, who rather reluctantly agreed to look after my cases for me while I was gone, didn’t understand why I was using my vacation time to run off to France to ride in a bicycle race. Most of the attorneys in my office spend their vacations in more time-honored ways, such as relaxing on the beach with a drink in one hand and a Blackberry in the other, obsessively checking e-mail and calling the office to pester the staff.     

“Do you speak French?” my colleague asked.     

“No.”     

“Well, that just takes the cake. How will you get around? How will you order food at a restaurant?  Screw that up and you will wind dining on a very nice sauté of  shallots and pig’s anus if you aren’t careful, bike boy!”     

“Just keep an eye on my cases, okay? I’ll see you in two weeks.”     

Since 1993, the organizers of the Tour de France and the publishers of Vélo Magazine have run an event known as the Etape du Tour, which translates loosely as “A Stage of the Tour.” The premise is simple: during one of the rest days of the Tour de France, the promoters open the roads to riders who want to test their mettle against the clock and get the feel of what a tough day in the Tour de France is like.     

The Etape is the real deal: the roads are completely closed to vehicles, gendarmes man each intersection and crossing, Mavic support cars follow the massive peloton, cheering crowds line the brutal course, and there is a broom wagon ready to sweep up those who aren’t up to the task.  See, this isn’t a run of the mill “century” ride, the time-honored grist for recreational riders everywhere.  Not everyone finishes the Etape du Tour under their own power.  And when they do pull over and surrender to the inevitable, it isn’t pretty; sad hulks of human wreckage deposited on the side of the road.  Others are involuntarily pulled from the race for failing to make the required average speed. Of the 8,500 riders who started the 2003 edition of the Etape, nearly a quarter (2,112) did not reach the finish line.     

At the upper end of the field are the pro and semi-pro riders who show up to stretch their legs and compete for the overall victory. For example, the 1993 Etape winner, Christophe Rinero, actually went on to have a fine career as a professional, placing fourth in the 1998 Tour de France. The list of past winners of the women’s prize is even more impressive; it includes Marion Clignet, a world track cycling champion, and Jeannie Longo, an Olympic gold medalist and woman’s world road-race champion.     

However, with all due respect to Mr. Rinero and the ladies, they are relatively small potatoes compared to the mega-celebrities of cycling who frequently make an appearance at the Etape du Tour starting line.  There’s Abraham Olano, the men’s world champion road cyclist in 1995.  Three-time Tour de France champion, Greg LeMond, rode the Etape in 2000.     

And then of course, there is Miguel Indurain.     

Anyone with even a passing interest in cycling has heard of Miguel Indurain. One of the greatest riders of all time, he utterly dominated the sport during the 1990s, becoming the first man to rack up five consecutive victories in the Tour de France, a feat eclipsed only recently by Lance Armstrong’s seven wins. Indurain’s success came as a result of his being a physical mutant. Large for a cyclist at 6′ 2″, 176-pound, the combination of his massive legs, an eight-liter lung capacity, and a hyper-efficient metabolism (as reflected by his zombie-like resting heart rate of 28 beats per minute, one of the lowest ever recorded by a non-comatose human), allowed Indurain to time-trial with the absolute best and hold his own in the mountains with the waif-like climbers.     

And as he lined up at the start in the city of Pau for the 2003 edition of the Etape du Tour, he was a marked man.     

You see, I was in Pau that day as well, and I had an old score to settle with Senõr Indurain.     

Yes, That Jersey Does Say "Team Lardbutt"

Me, Descending The Col du Soudet. Yes, that jersey does say Team Lardbutt.

  

This was not the first time that I had gone head-to-head on a bicycle with Miguel Indurain. No, we had met several years earlier in a more social setting—a Lance Armstrong Foundation cancer fundraiser. We chatted briefly, his poor English skills matching my utter lack of fluency in Spanish.  Nevertheless he was unfailingly nice, a true gentleman. The highlight of that weekend was a 25-mile group ride with Lance and Miguel and about a hundred other riders over hilly back roads outside Austin, Texas. It was cold, and the wind was horrific, and my main memory of that morning was struggling along hunched over on an uphill section of the route, plodding into the teeth of a gale, only to watch in disbelief as Indurain sat up, took off his jacket, and calmly spun away from the group, riding with no hands.     

 Okay, I realize that he’s a five-time Tour winner and I’m just an overly competitive attorney who likes to ride his bike, but on that windy morning in Austin I swore on a stack of Vélo Magazines that somehow I would return the favor and put the hurt on Indurain some day.     

As fate would have it, the next time that Indurain and I would meet mano-a-mano on two wheels would be nearly 4,000 miles from Texas, in the Pyrenees mountains during the 2003 edition of the Etape du Tour.  I had already signed up for the race, but I could not help smiling to myself when the race organizers announced that Indurain would be among the honored guests, along with Abraham Olano and Formula One star Alain Prost. Me? I fancied myself as a dark-horse threat in “Category C”—men aged 40 to 49.     

Dark-horse threat? Yes. When I signed up to do the race, I honestly thought I would be a genuine force to be reckoned with over the roads of France. And what was the key to my stunning overconfidence? Well, based on the map and route profiles provided by the organizers, I was able to convince myself early on that the route actually played to my “strengths” as a rider.     

We would be contesting Stage 16 of the Tour, the roads between Pau and Bayonne. It was the same stage that Tyler Hamilton would capture later in the week with an amazing solo ride while nursing a broken collarbone.  Vélo Magazine reported that Stage 16 featured three categorized climbs: the Col du Soudet, the Col Bagargui, and the relatively minor Côte du Aubertin.  The first major effort of the day, the Col du Soudet, was listed by the organizers as a “First Category” climb, 8.75 miles in length with an average grade of 7.5 percent. I’d done climbs with nearly identical average statistics in the United States with little problem. Ditto the other “First Category” climb, the Col Bagargui, 5.5 miles with an average grade of 9.2 percent.      

On paper, it didn’t look that hard. It never does.     

Sitting there in my coach-class seat on the flight to France, I was confident that the mountains would hold no terrors for me. I was going to kick ass.  Best of all, I was going to make sure that the only glimpse that Miguel Indurain would have of me on the road would be of a solitary rider in the distance ahead of him, soaring through the snow-capped peaks like an eagle. Yes, sipping that third glass of Air France merlot, I couldn’t think of a better place on the planet than the unforgiving Pyrenees for a beefy amateur racer who lives hundreds of miles from any actual mountains to show his stuff and drop the hammer on a five-time Tour de France champion.     

The first glimmers of the horror that awaited me out on the road began to intrude on my rather pleasant delusions when I lined up for the start of the Etape in the city of Pau. It was a gorgeous morning, dewy and mild, and there were thousands of riders jammed into side streets around the square, waiting for the start. Somewhere up front, rubbing elbows with the mayor of Pau, was the guest of honor, my bête noire, Miguel Indurain.  As befitted his exalted status, Big Mig, or Miguelón, was at the front of the massive pack, ceremonially given race number 1.     

Looking over the crowd, I noticed everyone was sitting on a bike equipped to tackle some serious hills; bikes fitted with triple cranksets or big-ass mountain cassettes. And when I say “everyone” had a rig like this, I really do mean everyone—with the notable exception of me.     

Having convinced myself that the Etape route would be just like my normal Sunday group ride, only a little hillier, like Tour founder Henri Desgranges I decided bail-out gears and all those other fancy mountain-climbing doo-dads simply were anathema— mechanical artifices that would only detract from the glory of catching and dropping Indurain on his home turf. In short, I didn’t need that stuff. I had spent the spring sprinting up any hill I could find, and damned if I didn’t think I was ready for whatever France had to throw at me.     

I will admit, however, that the contrast in the equipment caused a brief moment of doubt. I mean, it was pretty obvious that someone had gotten it wrong here.  It’s just that sitting on my bike at the start line in Pau, fully occupied with my normal pre-race routine of looking cool and exuding confidence, I was damn sure it wasn’t me. I remember thinking, “How hard can these climbs be? How can eight thousand Frenchmen be so wrong?”     

Mercifully, there was no time to think about it, because the race soon began. I threw my leg over my bike (a titanium Dean road bike, powder- coated an attention-grabbing shade of canary yellow) and took off with the pack. The first twenty miles or so passed effortlessly, riding along in a huge group at a steady 25-plus miles per hour. The massive peloton negotiated innumerable small villages, each gaily decorated in our honor.  The entire population of each town we flashed through turned out to greet us, and we all pedaled a little harder with every “Allez!” shouted from the crowd. As we received the good wishes of the townspeople, I got the sense that, yes, this was a small taste of what the Tour de France must be like.     

With the first climb looming, my pre-race plan of knifing through the pack and rocketing away from Indurain as the road angled up was quickly going by the board. My planned progress through the peloton was more fizzle than fireworks, and I was having trouble making up ground on Indurain. In the criteriums that I used to occasionally race in, moving up through 50 or 70 riders is one thing. Moving up through 8,500 riders who are all frantically racing to be at the head of the pack is something altogether different. There was an unexpected element of danger here: in addition to trying to pass my competitors, I spent a lot of time and energy dodging water bottles, arm-warmers, and extra clothing that were being tossed away as people started getting warmer and peeling off layers on the fly. You could have stocked a pretty nice bike shop with what was left behind.     

Twenty-five miles into the race, and Indurain was clearly making good time. Given my starting position at the back of the group, there were still several thousand bug-eyed and flailing riders between Miguel and me. An obvious sign that my plan to avenge my humiliation in Texas was about to go horribly wrong was just that: a road sign, warning of the extremely steep gradient ahead.  Any hope that I would simply fly up and over the mountains (hopes that were fosteredby the correct-but-amusingly-misleading statistics for the stage provided
by those wacky jokesters at Vélo Magazine) expired as I pedaled past the road sign and began my climb up to the Col du Soudet.     

A relatively benign-sounding “average” grade for a climb can, and often does, mask a complete horror show out on the road. So it was a rookie mistake on my part not to recognize that, although the evil geniuses at Vélo Magazine could truthfully say that the climb up the Col du Soudet “averages” a reasonable-sounding 7.5-percent grade, big chunks of it were in fact much steeper. Try 15 percent for the first couple of kilometers, leveling off to a ripping 10 percent for the first half of the climb.     

Somewhere, off in the distance, I faintly heard those eight thousand Frenchmen snickering.     

In hindsight, I can take some comfort in the fact that even some of the pro riders in the Tour were just as surprised as I was by this nasty little shocker. Of course, the ever efficient, always in control Lance Armstrong was completely aware of the road between Pau and Bayonne before the Tour hit the mountains. In the days leading up to the Tour, Lance had targeted this stage as a potential ball-breaker:     

In the Pyrenees they look to the Tourmalet and Luz Ardiden. They
look to the legendary stages, but they forget about the stage to Bayonne,
which goes over two climbs that are probably the steepest climbs
in the Tour de France. So for me, there are the famous climbs, but
there are also these ones that nobody thinks about and I’m glad we
saw, because they’re very difficult, and they could change the results
of the race.     

Others who were less prepared, like Michael Rogers of the Quickstep-Davitamon team.  Like me, Rogers was flabbergasted by the apparent disconnect between the race-book’s description and the actual difficulty of the route:     

I can honestly say I have never, ever climbed up a road as steep as that
one—let alone raced up it like we did in today’s 16th stage. It felt like
we were pedaling up one giant wall forever and ever. . . . We all knew it
was a steep climb, but we never expected it to be that steep.     

When the pro riders say it sucked, believe them—it sucked.     

Back on the Soudet, no one was having an easy time of it. Even if your bike had a triple chainring – and mine did not – there was no getting around the fact this bad boy was steep.  Complicating matters at the bottom of the mountain was the fact that the grade went from relatively flat to near vertical almost immediately.  The change was so abrupt that a small traffic jam formed as the entire peloton struggled to find a gear that would allow them to stay upright. For those of us who were bold enough (read “stupid enough”) to have come to the Pyrenees with gearing more appropriate for a flat criterium, we were shot out of the back of the pack like we were fired from a cannon. I quickly crunched down into my lowest cog.  Finding myself out of gears, there was nothing left to do but try and grunt my way up the mountain with brute strength.     

Well, actually there was one, less dignified option that I was trying to avoid. I really didn’t want to do it, but there was simply no other way. Yes, I got off and pushed my bike for a short distance up the Col du Soudet.     

Push or no push, I did make it over the Soudet well ahead of the time cut, a moral victory of sorts. I stopped at the feed station near the top of the pass, elbowed my way through the stiff-legged, panting crowd, and downed two or three energy drinks along with handfuls of orange slices. My thighs and calves were twitching like Shakira’s hips, just waiting to curl me up into the fetal position if I so much as even thought about getting back on my bike.     

Worse yet, there was no sign of Indurain.     

One mountain pass down, one more to go.     

Recovering my strength and a few shreds of my dignity, I tried to make up some time and hopefully catch the ever-elusive Indurain on the descent.  Dropping down the Soudet was a complete hoot, but having just been bitch-slapped into reality by the climb, I was concerned about my ability to get over the second of the big climbs, the Col Bagargui.     

My concerns were well founded; if the passage over the Soudet was an undignified interlude in my cycling career, the subsequent ascent of the Bagargui thoroughly eclipsed it in terms of animal suffering. Everybody struggled up the Bagargui.     

We inched our way up the mountain, kilometer markers passing like kidney stones. Emerging from the tree line I was disheartened to see at least  another 3,000 feet of climbing. Neck craned skyward, I saw what appeared to be a slow-moving caterpillar of cyclists strung out over an endless series of switchbacks all the way up to the Col.     

The carnage up the Bagargui was unspeakable. The switchbacks were  the worst. Riders trying to negotiate the turns were often overcome by the grade and not able to unclip from their pedals. They simply flopped over onto the asphalt. Rows of exhausted riders perched like gaunt crows atop the guardrails. Those who weren’t completely blown sucked on water bottles and nervously fiddled with their bikes as they contemplated remounting and completing the climb. Some, catatonic from the effort, sat silent and glassy-eyed, staring vacantly at the endless stream of riders grunting past.  A few wept quietly while waiting for the broom wagon to take them back down the mountain.     

Somewhere along the climb, I was passed by a petite woman who punctuated each turn of the pedals with an obscenity.  Her cursing match her pedals strokes, slowing as she negotiated the switchbacks, and then picking back up as the effort eased slightly on the straight runs between the corners.     

“Shitshitshit . . . shit . . . shit . . . shit . . . shitshitsthitshitshit . . .”     

What was even worse than the carnage was that I had no idea how my main competition was doing. I had failed to catch Indurain on the flat section before the mountains. My theory that Indurain had gotten fat in retirement eating tapas and drinking sangria – making him a ripe target for some good ol’ bike lawyer smackdown —hadn’t panned out either.     

I eventually crested the Bagargui amid polite applause from the surprisingly large number of spectators parked at the top of the Col. It was clearly time to unleash “Plan B”—hang it out on the descent without killing myself and, if I still had the legs, sprint like hell to Bayonne.     

After the mountains, the last third of the race consisted of terrain that is my meat and potatoes: rolling hills. Determined to try and salvage a little pride and glory, I was on a search-and-destroy mission to pick off as many riders as I could. With each rider I passed I received an appreciative “Allez!” from the crowd.     

How cool is that? A crowd cheering for a 42-year-old guyon a bike? Only at the Etape.     

As the route entered the city of Bayonne, our final destination, I was in my element and riding strong. There were a few guys stuck to my wheel as I passed underneath the red “1 Kilometer to Go” sign. I decided the only appropriate way to end the ride was a sprint to the finish.     

After blowing up in the mountains, I knew that I was probably sprinting for five thousandth place in the overall standings.  It didn’t matter; I was going to attack right up to the end and, more importantly, I was not going to allow anyone to pass me in the last kilometer.     

As I passed under the flamme rouge, I was suddenly struck by the thought that maybe the reason I hadn’t seen Indurain all through the race was because I was looking in the wrong spot. Maybe Indurain had somehow managed to sneak up behind me, and he was just biding his time in my draft before making his final move at the finish. Yes! There was a chance that I had unwittingly caught and passed the five-time Tour de France champion somewhere on the road, and he was now sucking my wheel, poised to settle our grudge match with a final dash to the line!     

At that point I was so tired that I was willing to believe that the entire Spanish Armada was on my wheel, so the possibilty that the great Spanish Tour Champion might be back there as well didn’t seem so far fetched.  So up and out of the saddle I went, pushing for all I was worth. I dropped whoever or whatever it was on my wheel and passed a surprised group of racers ahead of me . . . and then over the line! Finished!     

I hobbled around the finish line village in Bayonne on two rather sore legs, chewing a jambon et fromage sandwich and looking for any sign that Indurain had arrived ahead of me. As the adrenaline rush from the day’s events slowly ebbed, I realized it was probably time to admit to myself that Indurain was the better rider, always had been the better rider and, given his physical gifts, was likely to always remain the better rider. I merely wanted to shake his hand and wish him well, humbled by the fact that yet again I felt his sting.     

The road imposes its own truth, as harsh as it may be, on even the most ardent wishful thinker. As I walked among the tired and happy finishers I felt sure the final results of the Etape, when they were announced, would provide all of the participants, me included, with a true and objective measure of ourselves against the unforgiving mountains and the accomplishments of our cycling heroes. Today, it was enough to have ridden the same roads as the champions and finished the race.     

Yes, I was willing to concede all this and possibly more—until I walked over to the scoring table where the race results were being posted.     

If one were to check the results of the 2003 Etape du Tour, as I did on that fine July day, one would find that Miguel Indurain abandoned the race in the tiny mountain village of Larrau, which is in the shadow of the Col Bagargui.     

I had beaten Indurain.     

I bought myself the biggest beer I could find, declared victory, and announced my immediate retirement from international competition.     

As a postscript to the events of the day, I eventually found out the reason why Indurain stepped off his bike in Larrau. It wasn’t because he found the pace too fast or the course too difficult. No, it was because his family and friends threw him a party in the village near the Spanish border. Indurain turned 39 on July 16, 2003, the day of the Etape. In other words, I beat a five-time Tour de France winner because he stopped to eat birthday cake.     

Back in the office, I was catching up on my e-mail when my colleague poked his head in my doorway.     

“So, bike boy, did you win the Tour de France? That was the race you went to go ride in, wasn’t it?”     

“Not quite. But I did okay. I beat Miguel Indurain.”     

“Indurain? I’ve heard of him. He plays for the Yankees, right?”     

“No. He’s won the Tour de France five times.”     

“How did you pull that off?”      

To paraphrase Marie Antoinette: “I let him eat cake.”

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2 Responses to “The Day I Beat Miguel Indurain”


  1. 1 PlatyPius
    July 24, 2010 at 6:39 pm

    And what place DID you get, challenger to the Almighty Big Mig?

    :p

    Excellent writing.

    • July 25, 2010 at 2:17 pm

      I finished waaaaay down in the standings. At the finish I was handed a ham sandwich, a medal, and a certificate saying that I had finished in the “Bronze” category. If I read the certificate correctly (it is in French), a “Bronze” finisher is encouraged to keep his day job and is strongly advised to save our money and stay away from the replica team kit because we aren’t fooling anybody.

      Greg


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