Words by Peter Cossins | Photos by SWpix.com
I interviewed Miguel Indurain just once, during a Banesto pre-1995 season training camp in Majorca. It must have been one of my first foreign trips as a cycling journalist.
I had all morning to think about what I was planning to ask the then four-time Tour de France champion, and to get nervous. When I asked my first question, nothing came out because my throat was so dry. Big Mig smiled reassuringly, I took a swig of water, and we were off.
I’ve got no memory of what we talked about, but one thing that does still stand out in my mind is Indurain’s courtesy both at that moment and subsequently. Our paths have crossed a few times since, and he always acknowledges me with an ‘Hola!’ and that smile. I’m sure that he’s got no idea who I am, just one of the thousands of faces he encountered in his pomp, but still the acknowledgement comes.
These very fleeting moments offer an insight into one of the Spaniard’s great strengths as a rider. He was like this with everyone, always considerate, handing out favours whenever he could, only asking for them to be repaid at moments of absolute crisis, such as during the 1994 Tour stage to Mende.
That day, ONCE blew the race apart and looked to be on the verge of putting Frenchman Laurent Jalabert into the yellow jersey, and on Bastille Day no less. Banesto tried to quell this attempted coup. When they couldn’t, other riders and teams stepped in to help, and Indurain was saved. As a result his Tour reign, which was characterised by timely displays of unparalleled power on the road and absolute predictability in terms of excitement and the result, continued – until 1995 at least.
Those Indurain years left me with a soft spot for Banesto, and it’s remained as the team has gone through a series of different guises, becoming llles Balears, Caisse d’Epargne and, since 2011, Movistar. Throughout, I’ve been swayed too by the courtesy of the team’s managers, initially José Miguel Echavarri and subsequently Eusebio Unzué.
As a consequence, I felt like I was pedalling with Marc Soler (pictured) when he jumped clear of the red jersey group on today’s second stage of the Vuelta into Lekunberri to give Movistar just their second victory of the season, the first one at the Majorca Challenge in February so far back now that it was in a completely different age.
This was a special moment for cycling’s longest-standing team, not only because they’d waited for it for so long and because it was, at last, the hugely talented Soler’s first win in a Grand Tour, but also because it came on their home terrain in Navarra, and on a stage that started in their home city of Pamplona.
With Soler’s teammates Enric Mas and Alejandro Valverde in the pack that came in not far behind, Movistar appear to be back on song, and now we can all focus once again on the perennial question of how they’re going to manage their “tridente” of leaders. Will their race end in glory or, as it so often seems to, in confusion and recriminations?
As well as Movistar’s return to prominence, the other thing that stood out for me on the Vuelta’s second stage was the majesty of the Navarran terrain and the beauty and frequent difficulty of the roads that criss-cross it.
The undoubted highlight was the cement road to the San Miguel de Aralar Sanctuary, up towards which Soler drove like a demon at the front of the group of favourites, scattering the GC hopes of several Vuelta contenders in the process. Constructed using huge slabs that have a lightly ridged surface that’s vital in order for rubber tyres to gain traction, even when it’s dry, concrete roads like this can be found across the region. In my experience, they’re always steep and there’s a constant vibration that tugs at your rhythm and lucidity. They’re hellish.
These devilish roads apart, this is wonderful cycling terrain, with huge, gently undulating valleys overlooked by towering peaks and bluffs, the roads usually billiard-table smooth and, once you’re away from the few towns and cities, without a great deal of traffic. Riding in Navarra, you quickly realise why it’s long been a hotbed of Spanish cycling, home not only to the regal Indurain and the Movistar men’s and women’s teams, but also to the Caja Rural pro conti team and the Kern Pharma continental outfit.
For those who’d like to explore it a little more, I’d recommend the warren of roads (some of them concrete!) in the Baztán area in northern Navarra, which has become associated with the Baztán trilogy of crime books by Dolores Redondo that have been turned into a Netflix mini-series – in my experience, it doesn’t rain constantly as it seems to in this show.
A little to the south, there are several low passes that run over into France, often through glorious beech woods, luminous green in the spring and summer, all golds, reds and oranges in the autumn. Among them is the Camino de Santiago route used by pilgrims for centuries through the Roncesvalles pass. Then, due east of Pamplona, there are roads into the high mountains of the Pyrenees where Indurain used to train, the pick of them arguably the majestic Puerto de Larrau, where I once forgot the pain of climbing by watching eagles circling on thermals hundreds of feet above me.