2 August 2011 0 Comments

Racing through the dark

'David Millar' photo (c) 2007, Frank Steele - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/I have always been a fan of David Millar. Back in the late 90s he was just about the only British hope in the peloton. I even bought the t shirt in the shape of a Team Cofidis cycling jersey that I picked up in the Decathlon store near Fontainebleau on a bouldering road trip. He never seemed a particularly likeable character though, whose occasional interviews seemed to display an arrogance and disinterest, not helped by a slightly odd accent that didn’t really fit in. Then came the drugs ban, and yes, Dave, I did feel personally fucking insulted. I had no right to, I suppose, after all, what did I really understand about the world of professional bike riding beyond the knowledge of the fan? Yet, like so many sports people before and since he seemed to think that normal inconveniences such as tax, responsibility and morals didn’t apply. We see this most obviously with footballers in the Premier League, but lesser sports like cycling and athletics are in many ways more vulnerable as the returns are much smaller for the also rans.

For a couple of dark years the “It’s Millar Time” website was merely a holding page, and when he returned to the peloton it was with the distinctly dodgy Saunier Duval team, hardly the choice of a supposedly reformed character (it never really occurred to me that no-one else would sign him). I used to see him occasionally in his bright yellow kit training on my local roads when i lived in Hazel Grove, but never had the courage to chat. I wanted to know, above all, if all his public pronouncements on doping were for real. Sometimes it seemed that his zeal was that of a born again Christian and a lot of cycling fans I knew weren’t impressed.

So, it was with real interest that I picked up his autobiography. In typical Millar fashion, the cover is adorned with a striking, yet slightly pretentious, portrait. Inside it contains a real baring of the soul, and unlike the vast majority of sports autobiographies, it’s a great read. Millar is clearly an erudite guy and he tells his story well, and yet, and yet… Without a doubt the world in which Millar found himself in the late 90′s was hardly conducive to success as a clean racer. Between the team management and the UCI there seemed to be a collective paralysis, if not tacit encouragement around the subject of “le dopage.” That he managed to race clean for so long is in some ways remarkable, yet I feel the passage in which he recounts his psychoanalysis session with British Cycling’s shrink, Steve Peters, is most revealing. In it, he suggests that the periodic bouts of depression and increased vulnerability when alone are down to his fractured background, and as a result, his descent into a dope cheat was inevitable. Does he use this as an excuse for what happened in 2003? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

Having read the book, does it make me less of a Millar fan? In some ways it does, but I do have to admire the team ethic that he, Jonathan Vaughters and Doug Ellis have built up at Garmin Slipstream and their total rejection of syringes for recovery products, let alone anything else. This year’s Tour de France turned out to be a fantastic race for Garmin Slipstream and the sight of Thor Hushovd winning solo in the World Champion’s jersey on a mountain stage will remain with me for a long time.

As a footnote, it would hardly be possible for Millar to write his biography without mentioning Lance. He frequently talks of the omertà in cycling and his desire to break it. For legal reasons he has to keep some characters anonymous in his book, but on the subject of Lance doping he, somewhat disappointingly, sits on the fence. He never saw Lance dope, he says (why would he, he was never on the same team) and observes that virtually all of Lance’s trusty lieutenants were busted after splitting with Lance. Since Lance is so aggressive in pursuing those who cross him, it’s perhaps no surprise, but if Millar is so insistent that cycling’s code of silence should be smashed then it would have been nice to at least get an opinion instead of having to read between the lines.

Racing Through The Dark is a fascinating read, and I would highly recommend that you do so. I suspect that the writing of it was part redemption, part self justification and part guilt at the way cycling’s fans, as usual, sit at the bottom of the heap when it comes to consideration from the sport’s stars. It’s no lesser a book for these, but I think that fans and detractors alike will find much to support them within its pages.

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