Indurain, attempting to win a record sixth Tour in a row, announced his tactics before the Tour started. "The Tour is a three week event and not a sprint. The most important thing is to stay out of trouble on the first few stages and leave the race to the sprinters," the 32-year-old Spaniard said.
His philosophy has been borne out over the early stages as two experienced climbing specialists: Laudelino Cubino, on his last Tour, and Hernan Buenahora of Colombia, awarded the most combative rider of last year's Tour, abandoned after they were brought down in crashes.
Enrico Zaina, second in the Tour of Italy, was another fancied rider to abandon because of injuries sustained in a crash.
On Wednesday's fourth stage the perils of the peloton were illustrated again. There was a mass pile-up as the sprinters engaged in the final sprint finish to gain valuable points towards the green jersey.
Jan Svorada of the Czech Republic, who was in green, went crashing and brought down Laurent Brochard, his second fall in three days, and almost knocked over Danish champion Bjarne Riis.
Svorada limped over the line with an injured right knee -- more with his pride hurt than any serious injury.
Fortunately Gerard Porte, the Tour doctor, said: "All the riders involved in the crash will be able to start tomorrow, as they picked up superficial injuries."
Jalabert and joint Once team leader Alex Zulle suffered a blow as top Australian domestique Neil Stephens fell earlier in the stage and was detached from the peloton -- they will hope that it was only to conserve his energy as he played a large part in Zulle and Jalabert's great Tour last year.
Indurain lost a valuable member of his team when Carmelo Miranda, on his second Tour and strong in the mountains, abandoned during the stage because of illness.
The image of riders pedalling around France for three weeks, climbing awesome mountains and braving the summer heat, is only a part of a spectacular show which could be compared to a huge circus moving from town to town.
The Tour involves 3,500 people, only 198 of whom ride bikes.
Some 1,800 are journalists and around 500 form the caravan, a noisy parade of brightly coloured cars sounding their horns and advertising everything from banks to chocolate.
The caravan, which rolls ahead of the riders, is anxiously awaited by the spectators lining the roads, who risk their lives to pick up the free samples thrown out.
The lucky ones get caps and flags but most of the time they carefully carry home pieces of paper which they would have thrown straight in the dustbin if they had come through the letter-box.
Then there are the team directors, the race officials, the doctors. More than 1,500 vehicles are on the move every day, from the long trucks carrying temporary stands or television equipment to the motorbikes of the press photographers.
There are only 21 stages but more than 80 cities, from tiny villages to large towns, apply every year to have the honour of receiving the Tour.
It has started from many European cities such as Amsterdam, Brussels and Berlin and has made several incursions abroad, including two to Britain in 1974 and 1994. ``They would start it from Alaska if somebody there paid enough money to get the race,'' joked one journalist who has been following the Tour for years.
If the Tour was a film, it would indeed be an expensive one as the race has a total budget of 148 million francs ($28.7 million).
Most of the money comes from sponsors and television stations, who pay 86 per cent of the global amount between them.
Last year's Tour was shown on television in 155 countries, which did not stop 15 million people coming to watch the race in France.
Tour director Jean-Marie Leblanc said the race, which attracted only a handful of people and polite curiosity when it started in 1903, could not be allowed to grow any more. ``The Tour has enjoyed tremendous success in the last few years and it is our duty to make sure it doesn't get any bigger,'' he said. ``We have already limited the number of riders taking part and the number of people following the race.''
The other races, including prestigious ones like the Tour of Spain and the Giro d'Italia, suffer from the Tour's reputation and have to stand in the shadow of the French race. ``We know that and we might be responsible for it but we are not guilty,'' said Leblanc. ``There is no great sport without a great event and if cycling has become so popular it's because of the Tour.''
Despite its spectacular growth, the Tour is still about men on bikes, gruelling climbs and mass sprints. It has its legends and its great moments, which all Tour lovers know by heart.
They might vaguely remember that somebody walked on the moon in 1969 but to them that year evokes chiefly the first of Eddy Merckx's five wins.
The Tour also has its peaks, such as the Galibier and the Izoard in the Alps or the Tourmalet and the Aubisque in the Pyrenees, not to mention the narrow, twisting road leading to the Alpe d'Huez with its 21 bends.
You do not even have to win the Tour to become part of its history. Ask Raymond Poulidor, remembered as the man who always came second.
Now 60, he still travels with the race in the caravan and people stop him to ask for an autograph or chat about his formidable battle with Jacques Anquetil in 1964.
There are former champions everywhere on the Tour, some working with the organisers such as five-times winners Bernard Hinault and others helping to sell tomato sauce.