"He plans everything around the Tour and doesn't let anything else -- business commitments, for instance -- distract him," Hinault added. "And you can't find a better tactician on the Tour. It's true he did get caught out badly last year when Laurent Jalabert's team had him chasing like mad on the 12th stage but he learnt the lesson and never let anyone take him by surprise again," Hinault went on.
Jalabert, fourth last year when he also won the points title, awarded for sprints during each stage, has told French fans not to expect too much. "Indurain is the strongest, he's the favourite, but that doesn't mean I won't be giving everything to beat him," he said. "But there's a lot more pressure on me this year and I just hope the fans don't take a win for granted."
Richard Virenque, the King of the Mountains for the last two years, claims the race organisers have mapped out a race to suit Indurain. "When they presented the itinerary last October it looked like a real challenge but when I tried out the big climbs I found out they were no big deal," he said. "The last but one stage, a 60km time-trial, is over just the sort of terrain Indurain likes. Quite frankly, I expected a lot of this Tour but it seems they have mapped it all out for Indurain," he added.
Chris Boardman, who broke his ankle when he crashed on a rain-lashed opening time-trial last year, has set his sights on riding in the top ten when the Tour finishes on the Champs Elysees. "Realistically, I will have done well to finish in the top ten," said the British Olympic pursuit champion.
Boardman sees Jalabert and the Swiss duo of Alex Zuelle and Tony Rominger as Indurain's main challengers. "Indurain can time-trial, but he can also climb. And after a couple of days he destroys the morale of the other riders," said Boardman, who meets him in the Olympic time-trial in Atlanta next month.
Hinault believes Abraham Olano, whom Indurain helped win the world championship in Colombia last year, could be Indurain's biggest threat -- if he avoids injury which has struck him down in his two previous Tours. "He looks like an Indurain clone. It's only a matter of time before he shows us what he's capable of," Hinault said.
Olano's first job is to help team leader Tony Rominger but if the Swiss rider again fails to cope then the Spaniard could be given a free rein. Denmark's
Bjarne Riis, third last year when he ran Indurain desperately close in both time-trials, should benefit from a change of teams. He has been made leader of the German Telekom team.
Russians Yevgeny Berzin, unable to cope with the Alps in his Tour debut last year, and Piotr Ugrumov will be in the running. The 35-year-old Ugrumov, whose two wins in the Alps and time-trial triumph earned him the runner-up spot in 1994, was injured last year. He has since split teams with Berzin, which should benefit both men.
Lance Armstrong is trying to emulate triple-winner Greg Lemond and Hinault believes the Texan will be in the running if he can stay with Indurain on the big climbs. "What impresses me most is he is as determined as Indurain but the Tour is all about stamina. Can he stay with Indurain and company day after day for three weeks?" he asked.
Miguel Indurain? No, Abraham Olano.
The man who handed Spain their first world championship title last year in Colombia is every bit like Indurain. And to many he could be the successor of the five-times Tour winner. ``I'm here to learn,'' Olano, a team mate of Switzerland's Tony Rominger in the formidable Mapei stable, said on Friday the day before the start of the Tour. ``Of course I'd love to win but I'm here to help Tony.''
But if Rominger, 35, suffered in high climbs and lost time, 26-year-old Olano would be ready. ``The circumstances of the race will dictate what happens,'' Rominger said. ``Abraham certainly has the ability to be a Tour leader.'' It has not all been easy for Olano, who has often been injured and struggled to win a place in a professional team.
In 1991, he signed his first contract with a brand new Spanish team, Caja Hipotecaria, which collapsed a few months later. He had to return to the amateur ranks before finding another team, Lotus, and then joining Clas, now called Mapei. Olano made his Tour debut in 1993 but fell heavily in the second stage and had to retire with a broken hand. His season was over. Like Indurain, the soft-spoken Olano never complains. He just kept working hard and in 1995 made his big breakthrough with second place in the Tour of Spain.
Then came the world championships, which he started with a silver medal behind Indurain in the time-trial event. He went on to win the road race title, beating Indurain into second place despite riding the last kilometre with a punctured back tyre. Olano, who had never won a major title before, showed he was a true champion in that race, opening up a 35-second gap in the descent of the penultimate lap and holding it up the punishing final climb.
When he returned home he was met with whistles and boos from some Spanish fans who could not accept that somebody had beaten the great Indurain. But his victory could well have provided a symbol and a sign of things to come as Olano has all the qualities required to become the new Indurain.