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A day in a solo break: David Millar's Tour de France memories

Joe Robinson
2 Jul 2019

Talking to David Millar about what it is like to ride alone at the Tour de France

The Tour de France starts for the 106th time in the Belgian capital of Brussels this weekend with two road stages and a team time trial. Defending champion Geraint Thomas will aim for a seventh Tour title for British riders in eight years, challenging the likes of Adam Yates of Bury for the title.

Yet, rewind 12 years and you will remember a time quite different to today. The Tour was visiting British shores for the first time in 13 years with a historic prologue through the streets of London before a road stage down to Chaucer's city, Canterbury.

It happened before 2012, before the cycling boom, before Wiggins, before Froome, before Cavendish's 30 stage wins and before Cyclist even existed (subscribe here). 

Nonetheless, thousands lined the streets through places like Woolwich, Gravesend and Sittingbourne to catch a glimpse of this alien sport with its lycra-clad Europeans and circus of motor cars.

Anyone on the roadside would have taken one main abiding memory from that day, David Millar - now almost a household name in the UK - riding in a solo breakaway.

The controversial Scot not long back from a doping ban rode most of that day's stage in a solo, kamikaze break, shouted on by the roaring fans until eventually being caught and passed by the peloton and stage winner Robbie McEwan.

Recently, we sat down with Millar at the Brompton store in London to get all nostalgic about this moment in Tour history.

Cyclist: I remember you riding past my house in Kent at the 2007 Tour de France, on a solo breakaway. What possessed you to do that?

David Millar: I remember being on the bus before the start of the stage incredibly angry that I had underperformed in the prologue. All I wanted to do on that first stage out of London was redeem myself as I felt like I hadn’t flown the flag.

I was thinking irrationally, I knew it was a kamikaze move but I also thought to myself ‘I’m going to have fun here’.

When you race in front of your home fans you are given this boost. I felt like I had the strength of 10 men that day. You don’t have to win to have a life-affirming experience.

Being off the front that day, I knew it was going to be impossible to win, which is the weirdest thing, but I enjoyed it. I mean it was mental. I was all alone in front of those crowds, something I never saw happening.

And then to finish the day in the polka dot jersey, that was special.

Cyc: The crowds were huge that weekend despite cycling not being the biggest sport. Were you surprised?

DM: The number of people there was truly insane. We have grown accustomed to it now after the Tour in 2014, the Tour de Yorkshire, Tour of Britain but back then it was completely alien.

It was the biggest crowds I had ever seen in my life. I was riding into towns and there were people swinging from lampposts and just people wherever I looked.

It was strange because I had dreamt about riding the Tour but as a Brit, you would have never expected such an experience. It ended up being the perfect storm, it was almost surreal.

Cyc: Of course, this moment came after you had returned from a doping ban. Did that affect how you felt on the day?

DM: For me, it gave an added layer. I felt like a pariah before that day because of what had happened. So being out the front that day, being cheered like I was, it almost felt like I was being apologised to. I was riding and suddenly all my anger turned into this joyful experience.

Cyc: Lastly, what was your first memory of the Tour de France?

DM: My first Tour de France experience was 25 years ago in 1994. I saw Chris Boardman come past me watching on the roadside in Sussex. I will always remember how that stayed with me and ultimately inspired me.