Rival Says Indurain Should Reign Again

PARIS -- Twenty-one days in the saddle and 3,500 gruelling kilometers over French plains and mountains stand between Miguel Indurain and one of the greatest sporting achievements ever when the Tour de France starts Saturday.

The Spanish strongman, whose crushing supremacy has left him unrivalled in the world's top cycle race since 1991, is in line to become the first rider to win five times in a row.

Can Indurain, 31, do it or, more pertinently, who can stop him?

Ask the Spaniard's principle rival, Tony Rominger of Switzerland, and you get an answer which gives no hope for any of his opponents.

"I believe we are going to see a very open Tour de France -- with a tremendous battle for second place," he said. "There's Indurain and then there's me and the rest."

Rominger, 34, said Indurain's overwhelming dominance in time trials gave him a virtually impregnable advantage.

"How does he always manage to be on top form for the first Tour time trial?" he asked. "He puts us all under terrible pressure. I am full of admiration for him, really."

The dour Indurain, whose brilliance is unquestioned but whose robotic riding and defensive tactics prevent him from becoming a popular sporting hero outside Spain, appeared as cool and composed as ever.

"I'm quite happy to start as favorite and really, this is just one more Tour for me," he said.

Everything will depend on whether the younger generation of riders are ready to take him on.

Best-of-the-breed is undoubtedly Russian Yevgeny Berzin, 25, who won his first Giro last year and who now tackles his first Tour.

The Tour opens with a short race-against-the-clock prologue in the Breton port of St. Brieuc before crossing the flat plains of the north and crossing into Belgium for three stages, the last of which is the opening major time trial.

From then on, the race moves into the Alps for the serious mountain business and continues to the Pyrenees before heading north for the traditional finish on the Champs Elysees in Paris on July 23.