VN Archives: Gearing up for the Tour … on Miguel’s wheel

We dug into the VeloNews archives to bring this blog by Allan Peiper as he recounts racing the 1992 Giro d'Italia with Miguel Indurain.

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It’s been a week since I finished the Tour of Italy, and I was pleased to be coming home – back to my house, my wife, and dog.

Away from the hustle and bustle of a big Tour, and the constant tiredness. Every day since the Giro, I’ve been in bed by 9 p.m., trying to catch up on the lost energy. I’ve had two massages and one acupuncture treatment and I’ve been to the osteopath, to make sure all my bones are in place.

My fifth Giro was one of my most memorable and enjoyable. It’s my favorite stage race. I really believe morale is 90 percent of good form. The early season was a disaster for me I had a virus and knee injury; had my car and suitcase stolen; and, at times, was ready to hang up my wheels.

Eventually, everything fell into place, and my form was on an ever-upward trend. I had my eye on a stage win in the Giro, for which I got a great morale boost when I was allowed to ride Shimano pedals and shoes. I’d been having trouble with the movable pedal system and, after a lot of nagging, I got the permission to switch. Another morale booster: The mechanic agreed to let me ride our lightest tires, Continental 175-gram track tires, for the flatter stages.

One rider who didn’t seem to need his morale lifted was the Giro’s overall winner, Miguel Indurain. I’ve ridden with Hinault, Moser, Kelly, Fignon and LeMond, but in my 10 years of professional cycling, no rider has impressed me the way Indurain has. This isn’t based solely on cycling ability. In my first Milan-San Remo, in 1983, I spent 100km riding behind then-world champion Sarronni – I was so under the spell of that rainbow jersey!

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There were moments in this Giro when I nearly felt the same, on days we’d be lined out on the side of the road, and I would be behind Miguel. I think I must have counted every spoke in his back wheel at least 100 times! Those wheels Campagnolo hubs shining with brilliance; flat spokes, radial on the front and left side at the backcrossed on the right; and Mavic aero’ ceramic rims, with smaller-than-average racing tires.

Then, there was his ceramic Pinarello frame: click shift levers on the down tube, none of this brake-lever shifting for Miguel. The other top riders changed bikes for the mountains … not Miguel, he already had his weapons out.

He’s always so cool, never seems to be nervous I said to one of my teammates that if Indurain weren’t careful, Chiappucci would be gone without him one day. Sure enough, on stage 15, from Riva del Garda, a break went on the opening climb with Chiappucci, Conti and Chioccioli – but no Miguel. The peloton was blown to pieces. From previous experience, I knew a stage like this could be fatal, if you were dropped on the first climb.

I gave it everything and was in the second group at the top. Four Banesto men rode the gap – after their screaming, panic-stricken director came up to tell them to chase. Forty kilometers later, the eight escapees were back in the bunch.

Miguel sat upright, no hands, and clapped, saying, “Come on, boys, attack.” Never ruffled, he always looks cool. He never perspires, his hat is always just right, and he never has marks on his shorts from wiping his hands. Once, on a long descent with Miguel on my wheel, I thought, “l’d better be careful. Miguel is behind me … I’d hate him to crash because of me.”

Miguel has respect in the peloton because he is so normal. He isn’t a loudmouth, and he has respect for all his fellow riders. Maybe his appeal is that he’s so relaxed.

Journalists say he is a dream, so polite and genuinely friendly. He even seems shy! One evening, we were in the same hotel as Banesto, and Miguel came to the table late. Before he sat down, he put his hand on his brother Prudencio’s shoulder, and I saw the light squeeze of his fingers. It moved me to see such brotherly love. But then, that’s Miguel.

What’s most impressive, however, is how strong this man is.

In the time trials, he had no competition; and in the mountains, he just rode the gaps as they attacked. In the longest mountain stage, there was an early break of 25 riders … 220km later, at the foot of the final climb there were still two riders in front. In the vastly diminished front group, attacks were coming fast and furious.

My fellow Australian Neil Stephens (ONCE) asked Miguel if he wanted him to make some tempo to stop the attacks (Indurain’s director had asked Neil if he would be prepared to give a hand, if Miguel got into trouble). Miguel cooly replied, “No, there is 20km uphill, they will come back.”

After the 16th stage to Sondrio, photographer Graham Watson said that Indurain never has to go hard, but when he does, it’s incredible. Indurain had gone with Chiappucci and Cipollini, as they attacked on a wet descent.

At the bottom, the gap was 40 seconds. Thirty of us were in the group behind. Motorola (Hampsten) and GB-MG (Chioccioli) chased for 20km through the valley to the last climb, and didn’t make any impression on the lead trio … such was Indurain’s riding. SeanYates (Motorola) said he was “screwing his legs off” trying to get on the wheel, after a stint on the front chasing – and there were seven or eight chasing. Believe me, it’s not who will win the Tour de France, it’s who can race Miguel Indurain …

I love racing the Giro for a few reasons: The weather, on average, is sunny; the food is not often bad-whereas in France, it’s not often good; and the mentality of the riders is more relaxed – there is more of a oneness. The 14th stage featured two ascents of Monte Bondone, a 20km climb that goes on forever. It had rained for 100km – from the top of the Passo Pordoi to the foot of Monte Bondone – freezing everybody. Miguel got one arm of his raincoat caught in his (flat-spoked) front wheel. He came past me like a TGV passing a freight train.

Anyway, back with the non-climbers in the last group of 20 riders, Adriano Baffi and I were the drivers of the laughing group . . . but we weren’t laughing much.

I had my arm warmers around my wrists, my leg warmers around my ankles, and two raincoats and another pair of arm warmers up the back of my jersey from teammates who expected me to see the team car fin (where they got that idea from, I’ll never know).The zip of my jersey was wide open, Greg style, not so much to cool me off, but so I didn’t get strangled by all that clothing. I must have looked really cool! Miguel at the front, me at the back!

In the laughing group, my motto is slower than slow – if you have enough time. Anyway, Cipollini and a few others were yelling that Baffi and I were going too hard. I couldn’t believe it. We slackened the pace so we were nearly track-standing, 10km from the top. By the summit, we had lost 18 minutes – not bad, hey!

The laughing group rules are: Share drinks; wait for everybody (because tomorrow it may be you); and everybody works together after the top. By the time we hit the valley, 20km later, Baffi and I were still alone at the front. Mr. “Four Stage wins” Cipollini with his too-long teeth and slicked-back head of hair – played it cool at the back, until Baffi attacked!

At the bottom of the final climb, we caught a group of 40 riders. I looked around to see Cipollini and four teammates chasing at l00 meters. They had been there for 10km. Shortly afterward, the last group caught us. Two of Cipollini’s teammates said we were crazy old riders. I had to step back and take a look at that.

Anyway, I said we all had to ride. Five kilometers later, the climb got steep. The whistling and moaning from the back now began to say slow down. Baffi blew a head gasket and while he spoke in Italian, I think everybody got the message: “You call out to slow down on the climb and you want to sit on the wheel in the descend and valley. You call us crazy old riders, but we have respect for each other, you have to respect each other.” In this era of FICP points and dog-eat-dog, the rules don’t change when it comes down to tin tacks.

Without a doubt, the most enjoyable part of my Giro day was always the hour before the start, when, after signing on, I’d meet Yates and Stephens, and go to a cafe.

We could find each other in a crowd of thousands. Every third day, it was my tum to pay. I kept my money in the door of my director’s car. The size of the town would determine the state of the cafe. Outside the barriers and away from the crowds, we could relax for five minutes and discuss many mundane things – such as our hotels from the night before, or the Australian football scores (Steve listened to Radio Australia on short wave).

Sean usually went for two cappuccinos, and Steve would have a caffe dopio (double coffee), which made his need for hair gel unnecessary. I generally drank cold apricot tea. But once, I had one of Steve’s favorite brews – and was found 20 minutes before the start, on the line with both feet clipped in, frothing at the mouth…

You may think that all I did in Italy was laugh, drink tea, climb or ride on some flat-spoked rider’s wheel. I also raced. My morale was great. I finished 18th in the prologue. I rode well, but lost it on the comers, and in the last two kilometers, I thought I could push a false flat out of the way with a 54-12 … but it didn’t work. Since the 1987 Tour de France stage to Bordeaux, I’ve been trying to get Yates to do a two-up attack with me.

In the second stage of this year’s Giro, after an hour of constant attacking and speeds of up to 65 kph on the flat, I clipped off. I got 100 meters on a group of five, glanced back and saw a 6-foot 3-inch hulk of a man out of his saddle and hunched over the ban, pushing what looked like 57×11. It was Yates.

Within seconds, he was with me. The group he had been with was eaten up by the bunch, and for the next five kilometers, we rode our eyeballs out on the 12. I had one thought: Give it everything. If they gave us an inch, we’d take more than a mile. The bunch was at 200 meters, and across came four rides – led by that Russian bombshell Abdujaparov. He groveled for every centimeter, until he got to my back wheel. At that moment, I eased … and Sean rode away.

Not one of the chasers blinked, least of all Abdu’ – who looked like he was intermeshed with his bar tape and cables, he was so low.

Sean was caught, but they’d better be ready for us in the Tour: Last 10km attack, all out, no matter who is on the wheels. Then we’ll deal with them for the finish.

Sounds crazy, but why not? I had three tries at a stage win, but all to no avail. One lasted 45km, in which GBMG-Bianchi rode themselves to pieces to catch me, which led to a large group riding away after I was caught. Another attempt was of 100km duration, with a Frenchman, Z’s Christophe Cappelle. This guy was a real crystal-cranker, who did 20-meter turns on the front. We got a maximum lead of 4:30 – not nearly enough. GB-MG and Jolly-Club 88 gave chase for Cipollini and Leoni. We were reeled in, with 12km to go.

That day, I won the Inter-Giro sprint. Inter-Giro is a stage during the stage, with prize money half of that of the finish. Over the three weeks, there is a general classification for the Inter-Giro as well … it was won by Indurain.

Stage 10 was from Latina to Terminillo, an undulating stage with a 6000-foot mountaintop finish. The final 40km were gradually uphill, and Bontempi made serious tempo on the front.

In the downhill, there was a sprint. I went for it and won (this sprint made me ride a whole day alone, for a load of salami). I looked back and saw I had a break, so I kept going. Twenty kilometers later, I had three minutes. It was so hot, but I thought, “l’ll go as hard as I can for the Inter-Giro, then sit up.” At 90km, I had seven minutes and won the Inter-Giro. Our second team car had come up to give me assistance, then they left me to drive to the feed.

In the next 20km, I nearly died. I ran out of water and it was like I was in Death Valley, it was so hot. The profile of the stage looked flat, but the Ged was on a gradual climb of about six kilometers. I was using 39×16, and lost two minutes from my lead of nine minutes. After the feed, I poured a full water bottle over my head, had an energy drink, and felt good again.

Meanwhile, Banesto had been riding tempo on the front, at 38 to 40kph. And no amount of explaining by my director to the Banesto director could get his riders from the front. Like I was going to steal Miguel’s jersey: I was more than an hour behind on general classification. Journalists later told me that it was great to see the whole bunch strung out for 160km, chasing one rider.

With 40km to go, the chopper arrived and we went into TV time. This means speed up in the bunch. There were many special sprints this day.

As I rode, I was adding up. Before the climb up the Terminillo, there was a third-category climb. At the bottom, I still had 3:30. There was a special prime of two-million lire at the top, and I hadn’t ridden so hard to give this away. I gave my last bit of energy. The motorbike kept returning with time checks: 2:30, then l:30, then 0:45. One kilometer to the top, I changed to my 52 ring, got the sprint, and the mountain prize as well.

Looking back, I saw that the pack was 200 meters behind, all on the edge of the road. Down the descent and at the bottom, I was caught as we passed the sign: “GPM l8km.” I went from group to group, in a trance of sweat and aches and tiredness. But as group after group passed, so many said, “Great ride.”

At this point, I changed rear wheels and got a 24 instead of 23 sprocket. My legs were so empty. After three kilometers of climbing, I was reeled in by the last group . . . my group. I was in pieces like never before, but for every three pedal strokes I did, one of my fellow riders gave me a push. Not just riders from my team, but from all teams – Ariostea, Jolly- Club 88, MG-GB-Bianchi, Z, Telekom.

This is really what it boils down to, what they think of you. They wouldn’t leave me behind … I wouldn’t leave them behind. Without their help, I would never have made the finish – and that’s a fact. The next day, I constantly had my hand shaken by directors, managers and press, and fellow riders asked if I were OK.

On the last road stage, I hit a spectator at 50 kph, as he ran across the road. I was on the right of the bunch when the elderly man and his wife ran out from the left. The lady flitzed before my eyes, but I got the man full on. I flipped, smashing my head on the ground and giving myself the shock of my life. I had been planning at the end of the stage, to give my last try for a win, but my bike was a mess. However, when I remounted, I saw the man still lying there. Anger at these people soon turned to concern for his welfare …

The next day was the final stage, a time trial over 66km to Milan. I started early, being at the end of the general classification. And there was an elderly man, who came looking for me. He inquired after my health, offering his apologies for his stupidity – while he had a broken arm and three broken ribs. How could you not forgive such pure emotion?

And now, the big one: the Tour de France, I’ll be trying for a stage win, and I’m getting a pair of wheels like … Miguel’s.

An American in France

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