WHEN David Millar began his career as a professional cyclist John Major was prime minister, Bill Clinton was just starting his second term as US President, and Harry Potter existed only in JK Rowling’s imagination.
Eighteen years is a long time to do anything, and about double the average lifespan of a professional bike rider. Few careers are so relentlessly demanding. As Millar’s namesake Robert, the Tour de France star of the 1980s, drily observed, “The Chinese say you only have so many heartbeats. And cycling uses up quite a few of them, eh.”
The curtain isn’t quite falling on Millar’s career yet. There is still the small matter of his 13th Tour de France, starting in Leeds on Saturday, followed by the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.
And as long as he is racing he can’t wind down, do a lap of honour, or, like a footballer in the twilight of his career, be used more sparingly, perhaps as a late substitute. As Millar says: “Pro cycling is funny like that. You can’t sit back on your talent and have a laugh. You can’t go out and enjoy it and have fun. You have to work just as hard as you always did. Harder, actually. It’s one of the reasons to retire – the fact you’re finding it harder.”
So is he enjoying his last year? “Only because it is my last.”
Millar’s selection for the Tour is still not guaranteed. His team, Garmin-Sharp, will announce their nine-man roster tomorrow, which puts a little pressure on him today, in the national road race championship in Monmouthshire. Asked for any personal goals for the Tour, Millar’s response is to the point: “To make the start.”
It would be a huge surprise and as big a shame if he wasn’t part of what is set to be a special occasion. The sense of anticipation around the Yorkshire Grand Départ – after two days in Yorkshire the Tour goes from Cambridge to London, though such is the buzz in Yorkshire that few seem to have noticed – is unprecedented. Yet Millar, such a romantic when it comes to his sport, seems almost unaffected.
It was different in 2007, when London hosted a more straightforward start – a prologue time trial in London and a flat road stage to Canterbury – and Millar seemed to enjoy himself. On the road to Canterbury he attacked early, stayed away most of the day, and was rewarded with a brief stint in the polka-dot King of the Mountains jersey.
The British visit was a huge success, perhaps even a catalyst for much of what has followed, but the atmosphere will be different in Yorkshire.
“Seven years ago, there were big crowds,” Millar remembers, “but most were coming out to watch the spectacle of the Tour de France rather than having a real understanding of it. This time they’ll be coming to watch with a real understanding, even a sense of ownership, given that the last two winners of the Tour are British and there’s such an array of British talent. It’s amazing how quickly that’s come about.
“But, among the riders, everyone’s quite nervous about the two days in Yorkshire. The fact that it’s in the UK is great, but they are two hard stages.”
The first is from Leeds to Harrogate, the second a lumpy one from York to Sheffield that could do real damage. “I’m not saying it’s a recipe for disaster,” Millar continues, “but there’s a high chance there’ll be some pretty big incidents on that second day in particular. So it’s hard for us to sit back and enjoy it. Everyone will be wired and nervous, it’ll be an intense couple of days.”
Millar arrived in the UK on Wednesday, suffering with a bronchial cough that troubled him during Thursday’s national time trial championship, causing him to pull out at half-distance. He blames the illness on stress, not only from racing but also from the trauma of recently returning to Girona, in Spain, to discover that the family home had been burgled.
For his final season, Millar’s wife, Nicole, and their two young sons, Archibald and Harvey, have been travelling to see him race as much as possible. It was while they were all at the Critérium du Dauphiné in France that the house was “ransacked”. Personal items were stolen – watches and many of Millar’s treasured jerseys from his long career. “Even my Team Scotland bag from the Delhi Commonwealth Games,” he says. “I underestimated the amount of stress it caused,” says Millar. “I wasn’t sleeping well, but I carried on training hard and went a bit deep. What I have now is a classic training fatigue-induced cough. But if it goes in time for the Tour I should be immune-strong, so the timing isn’t bad.”
Now the Tour looms like it always does – a vast, exhilarating and debilitating three-week travelling circus. His team’s goals, says Millar, “are pretty clear. We’re doing everything to support [Dauphiné winner Andrew] Talansky for the overall while Tom-Jelte Slagter fits the stage-winning mould, so we have two cards to play.”
In last year’s Tour, and the recent Dauphiné, Millar’s team used tactics akin to guerrilla warfare, attacking all over the place, creating havoc, at the risk of losing everything themselves – though on both occasions the tactic worked spectacularly well, with Dan Martin and Talansky winning.
“That’s how you race Team Sky,” Millar explains. “If you want to beat Sky, you take it to them. You can’t sit and wait for the finale, because they have such a strong arsenal of weaponry for the second half of the race. So in the first half of the race you have to use what you have.”
As they confirmed on Friday, Sky will be without Sir Bradley Wiggins, the 2012 winner; effectively an admission that they cannot accommodate Wiggins and 2013 winner Chris Froome in the same nine-man squad. “I have sympathy for Wiggo for sure,” says Millar. “It must suck to be the first British Tour de France winner and not be picked.
“But there’s a very clear, rational reason for it, and I can imagine it would put the team in turmoil to have Brad there. They know there’s much less chance of [Froome] winning the Tour if Brad is there. Sky have their methods. They have a clear leader who is pampered, and they make allowances for his personality. They did it with Brad in 2012 and now they’re doing it with Froome. You can’t pamper two people in one team.”
Looking beyond the Tour – if that is possible – and beyond his 18-year career as a cyclist, Millar has projects that excite him. There’s a documentary film being made by Edinburgh filmmaker Finlay Pretsell, of the Scottish Documentary Institute, which “will show people cycling in a way they’ve never seen it before”.
Of course, Millar is more than a cyclist. Quite apart from his successes, including spells leading all three Grand Tours, of France, Italy and Spain, there is his drugs ban in 2004, his return in 2006, and subsequent reinvention as an anti-doping campaigner. He has been a controversial figure, but also a significant and influential one.
Now it is almost impossible to imagine the sport without Millar. It is less difficult for Millar to imagine himself without the sport. “I can’t wait to be out of the maelstrom of professional cycling,” he says.
“It does feel like you’re on one of those wheels that mice run round. Every season is the same. The people are the same, the races are the same. I don’t want to disappear completely. But I do need a break.”