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Indurain in Colorado

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When I look at the photograph taken atop Colorado’s Hoosier Pass in September 1995 it brings back a host of great memories. It’s the only photo I have from the three weeks I spent with Miguel Induráin and his Banesto teammates—but that’s all I need. The Spanish team, and especially Big Mig, treated me to the adventure of a lifetime. It all began with an unexpected phone call from Andy Hampsten….

Words: Bruce Hildenbrand
Mountain pass image: Bruce Hildenbrand
Illustrations: Matthew Burton

I first met Andy on the back roads of rural Wisconsin in the summer of 1979. Andy was just 17, but he already had the racing jones—bad. I was a 23-year-old grad student and owned a car that could get us to the races. As Humphrey Bogart says to Claude Rains in “Casablanca”: “This looks like the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

Image: Hildenbrand (far left), Miguel Indurain (2nd, left), Andy Hampsten (far right).

Fast-forward 16 years. Andy—who in the interim had won the Giro d’Italia, a couple of Tours de Suisse and the Alpe d’Huez stage of the Tour de France—had recently changed teams from Motorola to Banesto. With the 1995 world road championships due to be held at an elevation of 2,600 meters (8,500 feet) in Duitama, Colombia, the Banesto boys were looking to do some altitude training on this side of the Atlantic. The team ruled out Colombia because of fears of being kidnapped and held for ransom. So because Andy lives in Boulder, Colorado, it seemed like a perfect solution to bring the squad to his backyard.

Wanting to make sure that Induráin—who’d just won his record fifth consecutive Tour de France—was well taken care of, Andy called me in California to see if I could come out and look after him. Andy knew I could speak Spanish and had an intimate knowledge of the roads in Colorado. I asked my boss if I could take three weeks off to take care of a five-time Tour de France champion. His response was: “What are you still doing here?” I was in!

Anyone who followed bike racing in the early-’90s knows that Miguel Induráin was the man. Besides his five Tour wins, he took a couple of Giro d’Italia victories and the world hour record. He was the star of pro cycling. To say that I was a big fan was an understatement. Now I was on a plane headed to Colorado to spend three weeks with one of my idols! I had some good miles in my legs so hanging with the boys wasn’t going to be a problem. The real concern was could I keep my “fan boy” enthusiasm in check and not come across a total tool?

That concern evaporated the moment I met Miguel. His warm, engaging welcome immediately put me at ease. He wasn’t some larger-than-life figure; he was down to earth, just one of the guys. He seemed happy to be in Boulder. It wasn’t all about making him happy and being the center of everyone’s attention.

I did have to do a bit of the fan boy stuff that first day, so I asked Miguel if he would autograph a few photos I had brought. One particular photo peaked his interest. It showed the tall Spaniard wearing the Giro’s maglia rosa on a very rainy day in northern Italy. Miguel remarked, “I remember that day. We had just had several hard days in the Dolomites and this was supposed to be a transition day, a rest day of sorts for the peloton. Unfortunately, [Claudio] Chiappucci attacked at the start and we had to chase hard for over 80 kilometers to bring him back. I hated when he did things like that, but I guess that’s just bike racing.”

Even at 5,400 feet, Boulder was too low to mimic Duitama’s 3,000-foot-higher elevation, so we headed to the ski resort of Breckenridge at 9,600 feet. At that altitude, even going up stairs seemed to take a major effort, but the team was thrilled to be in such a beautiful setting. Besides Miguel and Andy, the team had brought Miguel’s brother Prudencio, José María “El Chava” Jiménez and Santiago Blanco. It was a formidable group. There were some very strong legs (and lungs) in that gang of five!

Our first big ride was over Hoosier Pass (11,542 feet) to Fairplay then down to Trout Creek Pass (9,346 feet) and return. I didn’t harbor any misconceptions about the pecking order when I came to cycling talent. I was at the bottom, and by that I mean way below the ability of five accomplished professionals. But we were just training, right?

I hung on grimly up Hoosier Pass wisely following wheels—but what wheels!—until about 2 miles from the summit. As I came off the back, the team car, being driven by team doctor Sabino Padilla, pulled up alongside me. Sabino motioned for me to grab onto the door handle, so I complied. Next thing I know we were going 45 miles per hour back up to the group. Even if my mind hadn’t been fogged by the altitude I would still have been horrified, but I somehow managed to hang on and not crash.

I regained the group only to be dropped again less than a mile from the summit. This time I wisely refused the door handle and just asked that they wait for me on top. When I rode up they were all waiting at the summit sign. I walked over to Miguel and squeezed his thigh saying “professional.” Then I squeezed my thigh and said “turista.” He broke into laughter, but it was a critical point. He knew I wasn’t going to spend the rest of the trip trying to prove myself to him on the bike.

I actually made it halfway, 45 miles, to the top of Trout Creek Pass, before climbing into the team car. As Clint Eastwood said in “Magnum Force”: “a man’s got to know his limitations.” It turns out that Sabino Padilla is a very interesting character. We had our first of many great chats that day. Coming back over Hoosier Pass I watched the guys put on jackets, gloves and hats while steering through the hairpins turns with their knees on their top tubes. Impressive!

Back at the hotel it was time to start having some fun with the team. Andy and I got Prudencio to let us into the room he shared with Miguel and we quickly short-sheeted the Tour champion’s bed. I am not sure we got it done properly because the next day all he could say is that we were a bunch of amateurs!

Of course, it didn’t take the local television stations to realize that they had a big-time celebrity in residence. One of my duties was to do English-Spanish translation for Miguel who spoke no English. It was pretty funny to see Miguel on the evening news and hearing my voice, in English, apparently coming out of his mouth. Luckily, he always had good things to say about Colorado so I didn’t need to modify any of his answers.

Another of my duties was to plan the routes for our daily rides. But it quickly became apparent that Miguel really liked looking over maps and planning rides on roads that looked interesting to him. And he had a knack for picking out the best roads! I usually ceded to his choices, but there was one time when we had a bit of a disagreement.

Okay, I know that the guys were there to train for the worlds, but on that day Miguel had picked a climb that was particularly, um, well, uh, unfriendly to Bruce—and I really wanted to finish a ride with the team. So I vetoed the choice and Miguel was not pleased. Given that Big Mig got gold and silver medals in Colombia probably means that I didn’t ruin everything with my small bit of selfish behavior.

There was one incident when it was not apparent who was taking care of whom. I came by Miguel’s room to get him for our daily ride. When he opened the door he took one look up at the weather then a look down at my hands. He went back into his room and came out with a pair of warm gloves. He handed them to me saying, “It’s cold out. You should wear these for your hands.” What a guy!

A couple of weeks in, Miguel’s wife Marissa arrived for a short vacation. She was five months pregnant with their first child, a boy. As is custom in Spanish families, the first boy is named after the father. Miguel and Marissa were very concerned about the effects of naming the baby Miguel. We had several long, serious after-dinner conversations on the pros and cons of following the tradition. Clearly, both of them were very concerned about not handicapping their child with unwanted expectations. With much trepidation they did end up naming him Miguel.

Back then the world hour record was very popular. Miguel had held the record, but it had since been broken by Tony Rominger. Big Mig wanted it back and was scouting locations, including the velodrome in Colorado Springs at an elevation of 6,000 feet. Rumor had it that Café de Colombia, the Colombian coffee cartel, had offered Miguel $500,000 to attempt the record on their high-altitude velodrome in Bogotá after the worlds.

Miguel did a recon ride on the Colorado Springs velodrome. One day on a ride he told me that there was a bump coming out of turn three at the velodrome that would need to be fixed and also asked me what he thought the locals would pay him to attempt the record there. I had to steel my courage and with a straight face, I told him that not only would nobody pay him to attempt the record in the Springs, he would probably have to pay to get the track fixed and to use it. Miguel took it all in stride; maybe he had already realized that cycling wasn’t a mainstream sport in America.

TOUR DE FRANCE CHAMPION
1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995

GIRO D’ITALIA CHAMPION
1992, 1993

The three weeks passed way too quickly and it was soon time for us to go our separate ways. Me back to 100-hour weeks in high tech and the boys off to Colombia to win some medals. But I left Colorado with a much better understanding of the personality of one of cycling’s all-time greats. Over the years, I’ve continued to see Miguel at races and other cycling events. We talk about the time in Colorado when it was just about friendship and riding the bike with all the distractions of fame left behind. It’s clear that those three weeks were a special time for Miguel too….

From issue 56. Buy it here.