As much as I love a new time trial bike, they just aren’t what they used to be. When Pinarello’s new Bolide made its debut at the Tour de Suisse over the weekend its wild camo paint job was perhaps the most exciting thing about it. It’s a far cry from the mid-90s when Miguel Indurain rocked up on his Pinarello Espada a bike truly jaw-dropping at the time and with a paint job to match.
In the first of our pre-Tour classic tech series, we take a look at that very bike.
Crushing time trial performances served as the cornerstone for Big Mig’s five consecutive Tour victories in the early to mid-90s. The powerhouse Spaniard would put minutes into his rivals in the race against the clock, and seemingly defy physics to defend in the high mountains. It was a winning and almost unbeatable combination that no one had an answer to. (All this happened at the peak of the EPO era, though Indurain has always vociferously denied doping and was never banned.)
With such time trial dominance came the inevitable questions of an Hour Record attempt. After time trial specialists Obree and Boardman had exchanged the Hour record back and forth several times, Big Mig was seen as the natural heir to the throne and set his sights on bringing the record back to the Grand Tour winners club. To do so he would need a new bike and Pinarello duly obliged with the Espada.
Espada, the Spanish word for sword, was initially designed as a track bike specifically for Indurain’s Hour Record attempt. Mind-blowing even at the height of pre-Lugano Charter and best human effort beam bikes, Pinarello developed the Espada in partnership with the University of Florence, Lamborghini, and Bugatti. Pinarello had enlisted the aerodynamic expertise of Formula One aerodynamicist Ing Giacchi and while Boardman had recently broken the Hour Record on the similar Lotus Sport. Pinarello’s Espada upped the ante once again.
Here was a futuristic monocoque carbon frame that looked fast standing still, designed by motor racing experts, tested in something called a wind tunnel, to be ridden by one of the best time triallists ever. It must have seemed like not even the stopwatch timing the Hour attempt was properly equipped to keep up with Indurain.
We are told this terrible footage shows Indurain’s record-breaking ride on the original Espada.
Indurain did break the Hour Record, but his stint at the top was short-lived. Within a matter of months, Tony Rominger had twice beaten Big-Mig’s record, adding over two kilometers to the benchmark.
Nevertheless, the time trial king had felt the power of a new sword and set his sights on a fifth Tour de France. Pinarello set about adapting the track-specific bike into a road-going time trial machine retaining almost all of the Espada’s character while adding brakes, gears, and internal cable routing.
As imposing as Indurain’s Hour Record must have seemed less than a year earlier, spare a thought for his rivals at Le Grande Boucle. Here was a rider who had dominated the past four Tours de France, grasping a stranglehold on each edition in the race against the clock, about to set off in pursuit of a fifth straight victory aboard a bike that looked like it was plucked straight out of the future.
Indurain’s setup featured the iconic Espada Y-shaped frame and classic Banesto and speed-inspired paint job. Up front, Big Mig had a small 650c Campagnolo Shamal aero wheel and ITM time trial bars, both revolutionary at the time. The forks featured an aero profile to match the rest of the bike, and the rear stays featured a cut-out for the chain to pass through.
The derailleur cables flowed from the rear of the aero extensions, into the frame before exiting at the derailleurs. Big Mig raced with 180mm crank arms, enormous by today’s standards, and had a water bottle behind his saddle. Paired with the 700c disc wheel and a teardrop profile aero helmet, Indurain was the best Grand Tour time triallist of his generation and now seemingly had the equipment to crack his opponents before they even got to the start ramp.
A thunderstorm temporarily derailed the road going Espada’s Tour debut, but Big Mig won both the remaining individual time trials on the way to the last of his five GC victories.
Although Indurain and the Espada returned for the 1996 Tour, the glory days had passed with second place on the 63.5 km stage 20 time trial, almost a minute down on a young Jan Ullrich, the best the reigning champion could manage in his final Tour de France. Still, the images of those ’95 and ’96 Tour time trials and the combination of man and machine, both born to time trial faster than seemingly possible, live large in the memories of those around at that time and in the imaginations of those like me, too young to truly remember.
In total, Pinarello created just four Espada frames, all of which were custom-made for Miguel Indurain. There was the original Hour Record bike, the 1995 Tour de France dominating bike, and two updated Swords with less successful storylines.
There was an update to the road-going Espada for the 1996 season which included rear-facing front brakes and new handlebars. An argument between team/rider and sponsors over these new, non-sponsor correct, handlebars meant the updated Espada never made it to the start line of a Tour de France time trial.
There was also an updated track-specific Espada for Indurain’s 1995 attempt to re-claim the Hour Record at altitude in Colombia. Unfortunately for Big Mig, this attempt was unsuccessful despite updates including the redesigned fork featuring an aero profiled crown and rear tire hugging extension to the frame.
Sword sightings are extremely rare, with Indurain, Pinarello, and a lucky collector or two keeping a firm hold on the select few that ever existed.
Indurain’s 1996 retirement showed no signs of slowing Pinarello, as it kept up its radical new time trial frame designs. First with the Parigina for Italian 1996 Olympic champion Andrea Collinelli and later with unnamed prototype road-going versions of the same Parigina concept.
Finally, though, when such frame designs were outlawed by the UCI’s Lugano charter in 2000, radical time trial frames from Pinarello and others all but disappeared. Reportedly, the Espada is still Fausto Pinarello’s all-time favorite bike, explaining “You can characterize me as the Sword,” he says. “And Miguel is Pinarello.”