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The fall and rise of David Millar

Joseph Delves
3 May 2016

David Millar tells us about getting caught, missing the Tour and helping juniors avoid his mistakes.

At 8.25pm on June 23rd 2004, David Millar was sitting in a restaurant near Biarritz in southwest France having dinner with Team GB coach David Brailsford, when he was approached by three suited men. They revealed themselves to be plain-clothes policemen working for the French drug squad, and escorted him to his flat. They searched it, found two used syringes, and then took Millar to prison where his shoelaces, keys, phone and watch were all taken from him, and he was thrown into a cell alone, the door clanging shut behind him. It was the lowest point of Millar’s career – one that had started so brilliantly just a few years before.

‘When I look back at the results I was getting early in my career, it was pretty bonkers,’ an older, wiser David Millar – now 39 –  reveals. ‘Particularly in the first Tour. I was on the right trajectory but I just wasn’t patient enough. Expectations of me were high, which would have been a very hard thing to deal with in any era, but back then? Well, let’s just say it was a different time.’

It was a different time indeed. In the late 1990s when Millar turned pro, rider welfare consisted of little more than the odd vitamin injection and Millar found himself thrown in at the deep end. Aged just 20, he signed his first contract with French team Cofidis in 1997. Even in a period known for its hard living, the Cofidis team were notorious for their excesses, with some riders regularly bingeing on sleeping pills and amphetamines, and on one occasion stealing a team bus to visit a local brothel. Several of Cofidis’ talented yet troubled stars – such as Frank Vandenbroucke and Philippe Gaumont – went on to struggle with addiction before preventable and premature deaths.

It didn’t take long for Millar to become aware of the peloton’s dark secret – that doping was everywhere. But the idealistic, young rider was determined to ride clean, and initially he scored some major successes, including winning the Prologue stage of the Tour in 2000. However, as he rose through the ranks and became fêted as a future Tour winner, expectations began to weigh heavily. Struggling with a huge workload, and having to watch doped riders breezing past him, Millar finally relented to team requests that he ‘prepare properly’.

‘The pressure of expectation was one of the reasons I ended up getting into drugs,’ Miller reveals. ‘Because it was this era of mass doping and I wasn’t using drugs, I felt hindered. I didn’t believe it’d be possible for me to win because I saw that all the people who were winning the Tour were on drugs. You knew there was only one way you were ever going to fulfil those expectations.’

While Millar’s two years competing as a doped rider brought him success, including the individual time trial title at the UCI Road World Championships in 2003, keeping up the deceit started to take its toll on his emotional wellbeing. Unhappy and blighted by guilt, he became increasingly reliant on sleeping pills and alcohol. Disillusionment was setting in, too, until the possibility of a spot on the GB team based in Manchester seemed to offer him a potential escape route out of the continental scene, and a chance to quit doping. But it wasn’t to be, the French police were already on to him and their net was closing fast.  

The fall and rise

Under questioning by the French police, Millar soon confessed to using the performance-enhancing drug EPO. This crime would see him fined and banned from professional riding for two years. He also received a lifetime ban from the British Olympic Association (BOA), and was stripped of his world title. The next two years also saw him lose his home as he tried to find solace at the bottom of a bottle. When his ban was finally lifted in 2006, however, Millar saw an opportunity for redemption.

‘I’d been given this second chance,’ he reveals, ‘and felt I had a debt to pay in honour of that. I wasn’t going to be able to hide from my past and knew that I was going to have to talk about it. I wanted to prevent some younger version of myself going through the same things. Then the [Spanish police’s anti-doping sting] Operación Puerto affair exploded and I became the go-to guy for all the journalists, because I was the only one prepared to talk about what was going on. I’d become this spokesman on doping.’

Millar became the highest-profile rider to admit to doping and talk candidly about the culture of drugs within the sport, although he refused to implicate any of his peers – a shrewd move that ensured he remained popular within the pro peloton. No longer regarded as a potential Tour winner, but riding clean and free of the burden of secrecy and guilt, he felt more at peace with himself.

‘I enjoyed the second part of my career a lot more than the first. Especially at Slipstream [the Garmin-sponsored team Millar joined in 2007, now operating as Cannondale Pro Cycling]. I loved that team,’ Millar admits. ‘We had such a clear mission statement with regards to rider welfare. We were ethical and had a fantastic bunch of guys. I found a real passion for cycling again, and I didn’t have these expectations to live up to. When I was there, all the mistakes I’d made helped me approach things with a little more wisdom. I was able to do what I wanted, rather than having to do what was expected. It was liberating.’

It was during this time that Millar became a vocal spokesperson for reform in pro cycling and wrote one of the great cycling biographies Racing Through The Dark  (Orion, £9.98) – an unflinching account of his early career and doping. Meanwhile, in the saddle, he began grinding out clean victory after clean victory, gaining a formidable reputation as a breakaway specialist and a tireless worker. He also became known as one of the pro peloton’s most respected road captains – the rider whose job it is to marshal the team during the race. In 2011, as captain of Team GB, he helped to guide Mark Cavendish to glory at that year’s World Championships.

Nearing the end

The following year, at what was to be his penultimate Tour de France, Millar won his last ever stage in the race, which Bradley Wiggins famously went on to win. British cycling, under the guidance of David Brailsford – the man who’d been with Millar the night of his arrest – was heading towards the London Olympics in world-beating shape. As Britain’s most experienced rider, Millar should have been a shoo-in for the role of road captain on the five-man Olympic squad, but his past would come back to haunt him when the BOA insisted that his lifetime ban was just that – a lifetime ban. Salvation, however, was at hand. Just weeks before the Games began, the Court of Arbitration in Sport ruled that lifetime sanctions imposed by the BOA (the only Olympic association in the world to dole out such a draconian punishment) were unlawful. Millar’s ban was overturned. 

‘It was the weekend of my mum’s 60th birthday,’ Millar recalls, ‘so the whole family were at my home in Girona. My sister came in and told me she’d just heard on the news that the BOA’s lifetime ban was going to be jettisoned. I lost it emotionally. I had to go upstairs and have a little cry because it was like, “What the fuck? This isn’t supposed to be happening.”

‘It was amazing then getting the selection,’ he grins. ‘We were on such a high with Bradley winning the Tour and between us having won seven stages. Mark [Cavendish] was reigning World Champ and it was the home Olympics. I only found out I’d be competing two weeks before, so perhaps I wasn’t really in the right mental place. I don’t think any of us were really rational. In hindsight, we shouldn’t have been so publicly confident because it meant everyone raced against us, although that was going to happen anyway. Really we were fucked either way, everyone wanted to beat us rather than win the race. I’m still very proud of how we rode and it was an amazing thing to have been part of. It would have been extremely hard for me if I hadn’t been there.’

Despite not winning, Millar’s inclusion felt like something of a homecoming after years in the wilderness, especially given his long-standing friendship with Cavendish and his slightly less easy relationship with ex-team-mate Wiggins.

While the Olympics were an undoubted high-point, however, having spent 15 years on the road as a professional racer, the day when he’d cross his final finish line was fast approaching. ‘Racing always came easily because I’ve always just really loved it, says Millar. ‘That’s why I stuck at it so long. But then you have children and get older and lose that edge. I lost the chip on my shoulder and some of the need to prove myself, bash myself and suffer. I think that was the biggest thing, I stopped enjoying hurting myself! That’s when I knew it was time to think about how long I might continue racing for.’

An unexpected farewell

Preparation for a final Tour de France is at the heart of his second book, The Rider (Yellow Jersey, £9.28) but his time as a pro held one last twist.  Slipstream – the team that he’d helped to build –failed to select him for the race. Discussing the way he was denied a final farewell lap, the hurt is still very much evident.  

‘I’d always envisioned my final Tour de France with the team,’ Millar admits. ‘To not be included created this massive hole. It was devastating. It was sad and I still don’t really understand why they’d do that to me. It is what it is. I’m over it now, but I’m still pissed off with a few people. Cycling is really a rollercoaster. You go so deep physically, I think it affects your mind as well. There are no gifts. You’re only as good as your last race.’

I wasn’t always off the wall. I think the sport just fucked my mind

An outspoken introvert, even in retirement, Millar seems a little too thoughtful to be happy in the uncomplicated way that some athletes manage, and still carries some of the bruises accumulated over the years. Despite describing the world of cycling as ‘a cruel place’, leaving the sport that he’d served for almost two decades presented its own challenges.

‘No one’s prepared for the end and all riders struggle. When you stop, you suddenly don’t have the clear objectives you had previously, in my case for the past 18 years. Your life’s been dictated by the race calendar and suddenly that disappears and it’s got no ending. It takes a good few years to stabilise and realise it’s finished, and you’ve got to start all over again. There are still decades left and it’s not easy.’

Back in the fold

Since retiring, Millar’s found a role working with the Great Britain cycling team, mentoring young riders not only on the skills needed to perform at the highest level, but also on dealing with the potential temptation or pressure to dope.

‘British riders are very privileged. Once in the programme, they’re protected and given every opportunity to get the best out of themselves in a very ethical environment. It’s amazing now for neo-pros, they can have this junior Tour de France and not have this black cloud hanging over it, knowing that if they’re going to fulfil their potential, they’re going to have to dope. Instead, now you just work hard and see where your genetics take you, but that’s all it’s going to be. There’s no event-horizon of doping. They’re not going to see syringes or hear rumours about who’s on what, what doctors are doing whatever. It’s a healthy environment compared to what it used to be, thank god!’

Unsurprisingly, his appointment to Team GB cycling has proved controversial.

‘There are people who slag me off on Twitter, but few with the courage to say anything to my face. Oddly, it doesn’t bother me. They’ve not been able to handle what I’ve been through. They’re not the ones trying to rectify things and I’ve got no time for them.’

His claims to be untroubled by his detractors feels at odds with a personality that mixes equal parts self-belief and sensitivity. While Millar continues to divide opinion, there’s no denying that he’s served his time unflinchingly. During his career the sport has changed for the better, something that Millar can claim some credit for. Whatever your opinion of him it’s hard not to think that the era of watt counting, marginal gains and superteams has squeezed some of the colour from the sport. There certainly aren’t many riders as exciting to watch as he once was, or as eloquently outspoken as he continues to be.  

‘There are a few wild characters left, but not many, in fact I’m struggling to think of any,’ he says. ‘Sport generally has changed, it’s all very professional now. Nineteen-year-old me would have fitted in so well with the modern sport. I wasn’t always off the wall. I think the sport just fucked my mind, and my whole generation really. I don’t think I was bonkers when I started, but over the years it’s twisted me slightly. Riders won’t go through that now. I don’t think it’s a bad thing. The sport will settle down, find its routine, then the eccentrics will find a way back in!’

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