Building up to the Tour

Miguel says he is ready

Miguel Indurain faces many arduous climbs on his way to what could be a record sixth triumph in the world's greatest cycle race. The 1996 Tour de France, which starts on Saturday from Den Bosch, in the Netherlands, promises to be particularly strenuous with eight mountain stages and only one rest day. After leaving Den Bosch, the riders will go through Belgium to go to France, then make other cross-border incursions into Italy and Spain before reaching Paris, where the race will end on July 21.

When the itinerary was presented late last year, Spaniard Indurain, who won the race the last five years, understood it would be tough.

``It's a very hard Tour, very complicated,'' he said after discovering the climbs which take the Tour clockwise through France, taking in the Jura, Alps, Massif Central and Pyrenees. ``The really hard part will be the section in the Alps and Massif Central,'' he added.

One good news for Indurain is that the traditional team time-trial has been dropped by the organisers. The undisputed Tour king has often lost a handful of seconds in that exercice in the past as his Banesto team is not quite as strong as the Mapei and Once stables.

Indurain, a master against the clock, could use Saturday's prologue time-trial of 9.4 kms in Den Bosch to underline his claim to an unprecedented sixth win.

The race then moves through Belgium and into eastern France to attack the Jura range as early as the fifth stage before going into the Alps,

The battle for final victory should really start there with the first main time-trial, a 30-km climb from Bourg Saint-Maurice to the ski resort of Val d'Isere on July 7 which looks the most demanding seen in the race for years.

With no time to breathe, the riders will cross four passes in the next day's eighth stage taking them to Sestriere in Italy. After the Alps will come the Massif Central and then the Pyrenees, where the race will pay a special tribute to Indurain with the 17th stage on July 17 ending in Pamplona, Spain, in his home region of Navarre.

If Indurain is not already firmly in command, he will have one last opportunity in the penultimate stage on July 20, a potentially decisive 60-km time-trial through classic vineyards between Bordeaux and Saint-Emilion.

The race finishes on July 21 with the traditional parade on the Champs-Elysees, where the Parisians will watch out for the man in the coveted yellow jersey. It may well be Indurain again.

Jalabert is also ready

nsists he is ready for Tour challenge The best way to upset world number one Laurent Jalabert is to ask him if he is in form for the Tour de France. The 27-year-old Frenchman, regarded as one of the few men capable of defeating Spaniard Miguel Indurain in the world's greatest cycle race which starts on Saturday, feels his wins in this season's Midi Libre and Route du Sud races show how strong he is.

``People keep asking me about my form and I keep telling them that I've won the Midi Libre and the Route du Sud,'' he said. ``My goal is the Tour and I want to be at my best in it.''

Jalabert, who retired from the Dauphine Libere race won by Indurain earlier this month and who did not take part in Sunday's French championships, insisted he felt as good as ever.

``My wins in the Midi Libre and the Route du Sud have given me confidence. What happened in the Dauphine does not worry me. I had only just recovered from an injury break and I had been working a little too hard to come back fast.''

Jalabert, fourth in last year's Tour, has spent the last couple of weeks at home in Mazamet, in southwest France, where he goes on daily rides. The man seeking to hand France their first Tour win since Bernard Hinault in 1985 said he had stopped reading newspaper articles about himself to avoid unwanted pressure.

But he does believe he can win the Tour, which promises to be particularly strenuous with eight mountain stages and only one rest day as it weaves through Belgium, France, Italy and Spain before reaching Paris where it ends on July 21.

``I think I can make it,'' he said. ``My goal is to win the Tour, not to beat Indurain.'' Long considered merely a sprint specialist, Jalabert, who took the points winner's green jersey in the 1992 Tour and again last year, proved he was more than that in the last two seasons by winning prestigious classics like last year's Milan-San Remo. He also showed he was a useful climber with an impressive victory in this season's Classique des Alpes.

This year, he will rely on his strong Once team which features another potential winner in Swiss Alex Zuelle, second to Indurain last year.

``I can't beat him (Indurain) on my own,'' he said. ``But we have an excellent team. We prepared 12 riders for the Tour and we can only enter nine. The choice will not be easy.'' Jalabert said he was not the only one with a chance of beating the mighty Spaniard: ``We are several. There is Alex, but also (Swiss) Tony Rominger, (Russian) Yevgeny Berzin, (Dane) Bjarne Riis and (Frenchmen) Richard Virenque and Luc Leblanc.''

But he did not want to talk too much about the tactics he would use to try to inflict a rare defeat on Indurain.

``All I can say is that it will be necessary to attack him early in the race, as soon as the first climbs,'' he said. ``But perhaps I've said too much already. Just be there from June 29 and you will see.''