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Last Time in Liege
By Andy McGrath
Date: 7/2/2004
Last Time in Liege

The last time the Tour de France visited Liege was 1995 - and it coincided with the only surprise move by Miguel Indurain in 'La Grande Boucle', which paved the way for his record-equalling fifth victory. For a rider so very meticulous in his planning, who had tended to choose the right wheels in the mountains before smashing the opposition in time-trials, his move was totally unexpected, especially considering it came in the lumps of the Ardennes rather than the Alps or Pyrenees. And with it the day before a long individual time-trial, it was probably the most risky, yet also most audicious move Indurain ever made.

In the prologue in St. Briec, Jacky Durand ripped around the 7.3km in 9 minutes early on, before the rain dissolved the chances of favourites and some prologue specialists, who preferred to stay safe. Chris Boardman, prologue winner of the previous year, was not so lucky, and broke his wrist and ankle as he skidded on the wet roads. Indurain himself finished 35th, 0'31" down. However, his move in Liege was to come seven days later.

The Cote des Forges was perfect for Indurain's big-gear power-grinding - not long enough to exhaust him, but with enough length to put chasers in difficulty. As 'Big Mig' tore out of the bunch, only ONCE man Johan Bruyneel (now Lance Armstrong's main directeur sportif at US Postal) and Polti veteran Eric Boyer could stay with him. Bruyneel gamely took the wheel of Indurain to the top of the climb, where they had an advantage of 50 seconds on a pannicking peloton, with 15km to the finish in Liege. However, Boyer fell back to the peloton, unable to keep pace with his two big-name companions. Downhill and then on the flats into the city, the 'Silent Terminator' went into time-trial mode and motored along 'a bloc', with Bruyneel knowing that if he relinquished the four-time champion's wheel, he'd never get it back. Needless to say the gap stuck, and Bruyneel - with an adept tactical display - snuck past Indurain in the final metres for home victory. Jesper Skibby, the veteran Dane, led the bunch home for third, 50 seconds down, having attacked in the final metres with Jens Heppner. At the finish, Bruyneel said about Indurain: "It was like riding behind a motorbike."

Bruyneel now had yellow, 31 seconds ahead of second-placed Indurain, after ONCE's second in the TTT. Nonetheless, the next day, Indurain - maybe a little worse for wear from his efforts - still took the yellow jersey with victory against the clock in Seraing, after 54km in blisteringly hot weather. Bjarne Riis, the man who would topple him the next year, took a narrow second 11 seconds back. The next day, on the road to La Plagne, ONCE man Alex Zulle looked like he was going to take the maillot jaune, as he attacked up the road. But Indurain gave chase, and left many other Tour hopefuls in his wake. Only 'Il Pirata' Marco Pantani and a determined Zulle could hold his wheel, as the man from Navarra tried to limit his losses. The three finished behind 5'44" behind Jaja, but the yellow jersey was safe. From then on, Indurain never lost his grip on the maillot jaune - despite a scare from ONCE and Laurent Jalabert on the climb to Mende, who attacked en masse in a daring attempt to crack him.

However, there was tragedy when Olympic champion Fabio Casartelli of Motorola crashed on a sharp bend of the Col de Portet d'Aspet, and died in hospital. Lance Armstrong went on to win the stage that Casartelli had been aiming for, in Limoges, one of the last of the Tour. The next day, Indurain confirmed victory with a crushing victory against the clock at Lac de Vassiviere, crouched aerodynamically on his ultra-streamline Pinarello time-trial bike. He rode into Paris for his fifth and final victory - undeniably, one of the stars of the Tour de France. He hadn't had the fire of Hinault, nor the overbearing will to win of Anquetil, nor the crushing need to not just beat, but smash the opposition, endowed by Merckx. But his preparation, pure power against the clock and calmness were never matched by five-time winners before. They say that if you complete the Tour de France, you are a Giant of the Road. Well, Indurain won. Five times. Not a Giant - a Colossus of the Road.

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