Memo to the nice lady at the car-rental counter at the Charles De Gaulle Airport in Paris:
Sorry about the car. The yellow light in the middle of the dashboard has been flickering for a while now, since somewhere in the middle of the Pyrenees. I am not sure exactly what that means, because the owner's manual is written in French, but there has also been an intermittent ta-chickada, ta-chickada noise upon acceleration. Sorry. I was following Miguel Induràin.
He won his fourth consecutive Tour de France on Sunday, as you might know, coasting down the Champs Elysèes to finish five minutes and 39 seconds in front of his nearest competitor. It was quite a feat, and I have to say that the condition of your car—this 1994 Peugeot 306 gray compact—will explain his win far better than any of the accounts you might have read in L'Equipe or seen on channel 2. Sorry. That is 23 days of dirt on top of the car, collected in more than 3,000 miles of unlimited-mileage driving.
There is dirt from the Pyrenees on the car, dirt from the Alps, dirt from the Massif Central and from Provence, dirt from Brittany and Normandy and from Dunkirk and even Euro Disney and, of course, from Paris. Also, I must admit, there is dirt from England in the mix. This car has been under the Channel in a tunnel and over it on a huge ferryboat. Was there anything in the rental agreement against that? I hope not. If so, sorry.
Induràin, 30 years old, a native of the tiny province of Navarre, Spain, destroyed the field in 2,472 miles of racing. He rode so well that virtually every other notable rider quit for one reason or another before the race reached its final eight days. Induràin's main competition, Tony Rominger of Switzerland, retired eight days before the end, simply pulling to the side of the road on the way to Albi, over and out. A field of 189 was reduced to 117 by the end, and everyone remaining was a mere participant in a brutal parade to honor Induràin.
"He is the greatest sportsman, the greatest athlete, in the history of Spain," journalist Luis Gómez of El País in Madrid said. "For a while, there was a debate between Induràin and Seve Ballesteros, but that is finished. Golf is a rich man's sport. Cycling is for everyone. We have never had an athlete who was Number 1 in the world, who has come out year after year and just killed people. Induràin has done that."
I was just trying to keep pace during this year's killing. Sorry.
I forgot to mention when I rented your car that I am a sportswriter from the United States. The way you cover the Tour de France is quite different from the way you cover any other sporting event in the world. The organizers give you a large blue sticker that you affix to the top of your windshield. The sticker, which reads PRESSE TECHNIQUE in large black letters next to an official Tour logo, allows you to drive the same tortuous roads that the cyclists ride every day.
You appear in the vicinity of the starting line in the morning in some French city or town, usually around nine o'clock, maybe 10, to leave perhaps an hour before the racers leave. The roads have been blocked oil' for the entire route, people waving from behind barriers as if every day were the Fourth of July. Or maybe the 14th of July. Whatever. There is a crowd of advertising vehicles and press vehicles and official vehicles leaving at the same time. It is something like a Le Mans start. You jump in your vehicle. You crank the radio to some French station that plays American pop music you haven't heard for a long time (if ever), and off you go.
The goal, it seems, is to drive the daily course—as many as 168 back-roads miles—as quickly as possible in order to see as much of the race as possible on TV in a high school gym that has been converted into a pressroom, then witness the actual finish outside on the streets. You roll up mountains, down mountains, around mountains, past the seaside, through vineyards, around castles and cathedrals and over bridges, all the time with a carload of reporters from Le Figaro trying to pass you on the left, an Italian TV crew trying to pass you on the right, photographers on motorcycles playing out musical sounds on their horns in full pursuit, and Coca-Cola trucks and a large float from a French committee against AIDS, accompanied by workers who distribute free condoms, dead ahead. It is a four-hour, live-hour, sometimes even six-hour driving workout for man and—I must admit—machine.
Unfortunately, I drove your car daily under this regimen. This was the same sort of relentless driving in a car that Induràin was doing on the bike.
I thought about him a lot. How could anyone following the route not think about him? He was the race. He owned it. The daily press reports in my country, where cycling is not all that important, undoubtedly made his victory seem so very easy. I am sure, from the time he opened up his fist lead at two minutes, 28 seconds in the time trial from Pèrigueux to Bergerac, then lengthened the lead to four minutes and 47 seconds two days later, that his efforts were restricted to a little line in a column of "Other Sports News" that read something like, "And in the Tour de France, Miguel Induràin maintained his lead...," the information sandwiched between the hiring of some assistant basketball coach at the local junior college and the arrest of some former athlete on a DUI charge. Hah.
I would roll out of the car nightly, weary and stiff, and wonder how Induràin felt. The weather was a prolonged stretch of summer misery, big fat suns painted across the nightly forecast map of France, humidity at knockout levels. The hotels were heavy on 12th-century architecture, low—very low, nonexistent—on air-conditioning. How could Induràin handle all this? I lay sleepless and sweaty in a tiny bed in Lille at three o'clock in the morning, listening to a French wedding-reception party phonetically sing a Joan Jett song ("I love rock 'n' roll/Put another dime in zee jukebox, baby") and wondering if Induràin also was sleepless. Was he awakened early by the singing penitents and seekers of miracles in Lourdes? Did he just about lose it in Montpellier, finding his room on the fifth floor of an elevatorless hotel, the walls about three feet thick, the temperature hot enough to cook a large pizza with anchovies?
Every time I saw him he seemed to be the coolest guy in the neighborhood. He was wearing the yellow jersey, le maillot jaune, which signified he was the overall race leader. Once he established his early lead, he controlled everything that happened. He rode in the center of the pack, the peloton, usually surrounded by his Banesto teammates. If one or two of the lesser lights from some other team whipped out in a breakaway, he let them go. What did they matter? They were down in the standings, no threat. If anyone within, say, 10 minutes offered a challenge, out came Induràin in his yellow shirt. He answered with authority. Much of the time he was still sitting on his seat, pedaling, while the competition was standing, pumping as if the highway patrol were involved in the chase.
Induràin is 6'2" and 175 pounds, with the resting pulse of an oak tree. Although he is worth more than $4 million and his feats are celebrated widely in Spain, he still is a quiet mystery. He says little, and when he does talk, it is always in clichès and platitudes. His mantra for this race, once he took early control, was, "I just want to keep the yellow jersey." Period. Although he comes from a region of Spain that is contested by the Basques and the Spanish, he has never taken a side in the debate. He is Basque for the Basques, Spanish for the Spaniards. He has been married for two years and lives most of the time near Pamplona. End of quiet public story.
"Write whatever you want," he tells reporters. "That will be fine."
"How do you explain him?" said Jim Ochowicz, manager of the U.S. team, Motorola. "He is Gretzky or Michael Jordan, just better than everyone. He doesn't care what he does in the other races. He points for this race. That is for sure. And he wins. And he'll probably win again next year too."
"I don't know much about him," said Frankie Andreu, the lone American left at the end, after three-time winner Greg LeMond dropped out early and future hope Lance Armstrong dropped out too, as planned, two thirds of the way through the race. "He has to be some kind of genetic freak with great lung and heart capacity. I see him in the peloton every day, then we hit the first hill, and I don't see him anymore."
A win next year would put Induràin at the top of Tour history. Three men—Jacques Anquetil, Bernard Hinault and Eddy Merckx—have won the event five times. None won five times in succession. Induràin, as he proved this year, is this generation's answer to the cycling legends. He rode this year's course, considered difficult even by Tour standards, in 103 hours, 38 minutes and 38 seconds.
Which brings us back to the car. Things could have been much worse. I saw windshield-sticker cars following Induràin in the Alps during the last week that were spewing black smoke, cars that were pulled to the sides of the roads, cars that were being towed away in disgrace. I saw at least three-tractor trailers out of commission, dead. Your vehicle did not meet that fate. It was still running at the end, though with that yellow light flashing and the ta-chickada noise upon acceleration.
I should point out a small scratch on the passenger's side, for which I am truly sorry. That happened in a parking lot in Albi, a bit of business involving a Fiat, and could not be helped. The brakes certainly need a check after coming down all of those mountains. (Do you know that smell when the brakes are burning? Sorry.) I would check the transmission, too. I don't know how that chewing gum became lodged next to the gas pedal, but the rest of the debris—the soda cans, the newspapers and race results, the paper bags and plastic bags, whatever you find—certainly is disposable.
I was going to clean all this up—indeed, I was going to stop at one of your many agencies around France (I think I passed them all) and at least see if the car needed oil, but there never seemed to be any time. Induràin was working 22 of the 23 days. The car was working 22 of 23 days. There were too many miles in too little time. Sorry. The car is tired. The driver is tired.
Induràin, no doubt, feels just fine.