HE'S gone. Five months of speculation about the future of Miguel Indurain were resolved in just seven minutes by the five times Tour winner at a packed press conference in a hotel in Pamplona. After politely wishing everybody a happy New Year, the greatest sportsman Spain has ever known announced that he is retiring from professional cycling.
In what was probably the longest unbroken monologue ever made by the normally inarticulate Navarran, Indurain explained a decision which he had taken early last year, but then changed as the season progressed. "Even though I felt good in the spring, I thought it was time to move on. I made an immense effort to win the Tour, but it was impossible. Then winning the Olympic gold medal in time trialling seemed like the perfect way to leave the sport. However, after abandoning the Tour of Spain half way through in September, I felt I ought to go back on my decision to retire."
But the problem of which team to ride with was never resolved and has led inexorably to his decision to quit the sport. His life long loyalty to Banesto, the team which discovered him and built their squad around him and the Tour, had been irreparably undermined by a series of bitter disagreements. On the other hand, the conservative farmer's son proved exceedingly cautious about changing to another squad for his last two seasons.
Indurain insisted on having powerful backing and only ONCE, Banesto's main rival in Spain, were able to guarantee him credible support in terms of riders and technicians for a theoretical assault on the 1997 Tour - a Tour he claims he could have won.
But financially, the Spanish equivalent of the R.N.I.B. were hard put to meet his demands knocking another nail into the chances of Indurain continuing.
"We wanted to sign him, but I think he has become more interested in his personal life than his careers as a sportsman," commented the disappointed ONCE directeur sportif (Manofo Saiz). Put simply, Indurain has become disheartened.
The gap he leaves behind him in cycling is bordering on the unfillable. Only three other riders have won the Tour five times - Hinault, Merckx and Anquetil - and none, apart from the Spaniard, have done so five years on the trot.
While that alone is more than enough to make Indurain one of cycling's legends, an excessive interest placed by the media on the Tour de France in the racing calendar turned a taciturn, straightforward man of the soil into the sportsman of the moment every July for six years running.
Even his two wins in the Tour of Italy and gold medals in the Olympics and World Championship time trial events never gained the full impact they would have had in another, less successful, rider.
Indurain was also partly responsible for the elimination of almost all other races from the mind of the general public. Failing to ride the Tour of Spain for four years put strict limits on its possible interest for his countrymen. Indurain thereby continued a trend in cycling, started by the American Greg Lemond, of focussing on the Tour de France to the point where all other races he rode began to be seen as preparation successful or otherwise - for one glorious month every summer.
The fact that he raced in the Tour 12 years running - every season that he was a professional - merely confirms what he himself described as an obsession.
The tactics employed by Indurain were brutally simple. He used his vast natural strength to create enormous time gaps in the time trials and then sat firmly on his opponents' wheels through the mountains.
Criticised by some for having an unspectacular style of winning, Indurain would reveal his typically rural pragmatism: "Victories are like harvests - it's getting them in that counts".