PARIS -- Miguel Indurain rode into Paris in triumph yesterday, celebrating his fourth consecutive victory in the Tour de France.
Just two other riders have recorded four consecutive victories since the world's most difficult, richest and greatest bicycle race began in 1903. Only those two, Jacques Anquetil and Eddy Merckx, in addition to one other rider, Bernard Hinault, have ever won it five times.
"Only the tour counts," the man called Big Mig said in an interview afew days ago. "Every race that comes before it is merely my preparation for the Tour. It will be my major goal again next year."
Despite suspicions this past spring that he was declining, the 30-year-old Spaniard finished first in the race that lasted three weeks and covered 3,978 kilometers (2,474 miles) by the greatest of his four winning margins.
In 1991, the runner-up Gianni Bugno, an Italian, trailed him by 3 minutes 36 seconds; in 1992, Claudio Chiappucci, another Italian, was second by 4:35; last year, Tony Rominger, a Swiss, was second by 4:59. Yesterday, the man on the second step of the victory podium, Pyotr Ugrumov, a Latvian, trailed by 5:39.
Usually with the top order decided, the overall leaders do not try to win the final daily stage. Yesterday, in a rare breakaway on the Champs-Elysees, Eddy Seigneur, a Frenchman, overtook Frankie Andreu, an American, in the final 50 meters and won easily as his exhausted opponent slumped on his handlebars.
In the midst of the trailing pack, 29 seconds behind Seigneur, rode Indurain, who had no more to prove.
"I have nothing to say to those who announced my decline," he remarked at an anticlimactic victory news conference. "I already answered them during the race."
Bugno, Chiappucci and Rominger all started this 81st tour and all withdrew before the strenuous last week in the Alps, victims of days of extreme heat and cold, illness and fatigue.
"Where are they today?" asked Indurain's longtime coach and friend, Jose Miguel Echavarri. "Not one of them finished the tour. Miguel, he's still there. And still on top."
Indeed, Bugno, Chiappucci and Rominger were also victims of Indurain's unvarying formula for success: He builds a big lead in individual time trials, or races against the clock, and then stays with his rivals in the mountains.
At 6 feet 2 inches and 176 pounds his usual weight although he lost almost four and a half pounds in this tour Indurain has the build and extraordinary power to pedal faster than the rest in time trials. He also has an abnormally huge lung capacity to replenish his muscles with oxygen.
What also sets him apart is his ability to climb despite his weight. "A great carcass like that always making it so well over the mountains incredible," Merckx said in tribute.
Indurain's major rivals are all smaller men and should be at least his match in the Pyrenees and Alps. They have lacked his endurance, his ability to recuperate at the end of each stage and the luck that has kept him free of illness or accident.
His total time for this year's tour was 103 hours, 38 minutes, 38 seconds, an average hourly speed of nearly 24 mph. Marco Pantani, an Italian, was third over all, 7:19 slower than the victor.
Other big winners yesterday included Richard Virenque, a Frenchman who won the climbers' king of the mountain jersey, and Djamolidine Abdoujaparaov, an Uzbek, who won the points competition.