Nobody said it would be easy to beat Miguel Indurain in the Tour de France.
That was the lesson Saturday as the Spaniard began defending his title in the world's greatest bicycle race by once again mauling his opponents in a time trial. For the sixth successive time in three years, Indurain coasted home an easy winner in a race against the clock.He was timed in 8 minutes, 12 seconds over the 4.5-mile course, a big 8 seconds faster than his closest rival in the field of 179 other riders. Second place on a sunny and hot day went to Alex Zuelle, the young Swiss who, until Saturday, was considered to be at least as strong as Indurain in a time trial, long or short.
They also finished one-two in the prologue to last year's Tour, and Zuelle, 24, was believed to have made significant progress since then. Indurain seems to have done the same.
Third was Gianni Bugno, another major rival to Indurain as the 80th edition of the Tour started its three-week journey to the finish in Paris on July 25. Bugno, an Italian who rides for Gatorade, was timed in 8:23, 3 seconds slower than Zuelle, who rides for Once.
Wearing the yellow jersey of last year's winner and with a No. 1 on his back, Indurain, who rides for Banesto, did a splendid job of demoralizing the field in his quest for a third successive Tour victory.
On a demanding course with an abrupt climb toward the end, many of Indurain's main opponents were clocked in strong performances. In addition to Zuelle and Bugno, the list includes Tony Rominger, a Swiss with Clas, who finished fifth; Claudio Chiappucci, an Italian with Carrera, who was eighth, and Erik Breukink, a Dutchman with Once, who was 13th.
Setting off a minute apart, they had all finished and many were waiting for the last starter, Indurain. As he came around the final corner like a locomotive and steamed across the line, his time was announced to a roar from the huge crowd and more than one shake of an opponent's head.
The tourist park of Le Puy du Fou was much more relaxed earlier in the afternoon when Francois Lemarchand, 32, a Frenchman who rides for the Gan team, rolled down the starting ramp and began his fourth Tour de France, in which he has never finished higher than 89th.
Lemarchand was the 10th rider to start and the first for his team, which revealed his rank: Leaders go last. Lemarchand is a domestique, a servant, a fetcher of water bottles and raincoats when the weather suddenly changes during a race, a chaser after enemy breakaways.
He is, in short, a day laborer for his leader, usually Greg LeMond, whom he helped win the Tour in 1990. This year, with LeMond ailing and absent, Lemarchand will ride in the service of Eric Boyer, who has just been promoted to Gan's leader.
But in an individual time trial, Lemarchand, like all riders in the Tour, races for himself. His only opponent is the clock.
The Frenchman fought the clock valiantly, swinging hard into the right turn a few dozen yards from the start. As the short course began rolling, he rose from his saddle to dig deeper into the climbs and did not allow himself to coast down any dip.
When he reached the only hill, about three miles into the prologue, he seemed to hit a wall. Behind him, an official in his team car shouted "Allez, allez" - go, go - but for Lemarchand, it was no go. Although the muscles and veins in his legs bulged with his struggle, he moved about as fast as a man could walk.
At the finish, his time was 9:51.88, bad enough for 10th place among the first 10 starters and nearly two minutes slower than the winner. When the afternoon was done, he ranked 157th among the 180.
Long before that, when the Indurains and the Zuelles had not even arrived in the warmup area, Lemarchand pedaled slowly away from the finish and toward the spot where some of his teammates awaited their turn at the prologue.
Sweat dribbled from his chin, his nose ran and his lips were white with evaporated salt. "How was the course?" somebody asked. "Tough," Lemarchand said. "Tough." Four and half miles down, 2,306 and a half to go.