Interview: David Millar on fighting for cyclists’ rights

David Millar wants to represent the peloton as head of the cyclists' union. Picture: Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/GettyImages
David Millar wants to represent the peloton as head of the cyclists' union. Picture: Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/GettyImages
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David Millar is both angry and animated, which is unusual. The former cyclist, who won ten grand tour stages in all, projects a public persona of zen-like calm but someone has pressed all his buttons and the Scot is spoiling for a fight.

Millar is running for the presidency of the Cyclistes Professionnels Associés (CPA), the body that represents the interests of the peloton, or so we imagined.

Millar is up against the former Italian cyclist Gianni Bugno, who has been in situ for the last eight years, but more importantly the Scot finds himself raging against an antediluvian voting system that owes more to the rotten boroughs of 18th century England than modern day Europe.

Riders from the six biggest nations, France, Italy, Spain, USA, Switzerland and Portugal, are represented by one vote per nation. Cyclists from other countries can vote individually but only if they show up in person, in Innsbruck, on Thursday, when anyone involved in the World Championships time trial the day before will likely have left and another pro-race is taking place in Belgium on the same day. Democracy for a digital age it ain’t.

France and Italy have already stated that they are backing Bugno without, Millar claims, having the courtesy to even inform the 274 riders from those two nations that they allegedly represent, let alone canvas their opinions. He is fighting what looks to be a lost cause. So why bother?

“In a nutshell, because if I didn’t do it nobody else would,” he replies. “Over the last two or three years I have been working behind the scenes. This isn’t me just throwing my hand up out of the blue and doing it. I have actually been to CPA committee meetings, I have worked with WADA [the World Anti-Doping Agency], the Olympic federation.

“I actually put my arm up 18 months ago to be the next president. I remember asking them, ‘How does it work, next time, if I want to be president?’”

Since the post was set up in 1999 there has never been a contested election and, according to Millar, when he first showed interest his Italian rival Bugno agreed to step down and everything was arranged as it ever was, behind closed doors. Millar would be anointed president this year uncontested.

That all changed when David Lappartient took over the presidency of the sport’s governing body, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI). According to Millar, Bugno was persuaded to run again by the Frenchman, which is a little like having the boss of the CBI select the head of the TUC.

“I thought, I don’t want to have anything to do with this,” says Millar. “This is weird, that the UCI president decides who the cyclists’ union president is! Then, about five weeks ago, I found out that they have to have a voting-in for the president, so I thought, you know what, f*** it, I am going to put my hand up and I am going to disrupt it all because I could see it had turned into a hegemony of committees and it didn’t actually represent the cyclists.

“I want to change the whole system, change the statutes; it’s wrong, it’s fundamentally wrong. It’s the worst of sports politics, what’s going on in the CPA, they have a hegemony of self interest.”

The question remains why did Lappartient urge Bugno to run again? The Frenchman presumably wants a stooge as head of the CPA but Lappartient also has history when it comes to the Brits, questioning Team Sky’s hiring of expensive lawyers to defend Chris Froome from the charge of abusing the asthma drug Salbutamol.

“My main concern is that Lappartient thinks Bugno is doing a good job,” says Millar. “If Lappartient thinks Bugno is doing a good job, holy sh*t, Lappartient shouldn’t be doing his job!”

Cycling is a little like football, weighted down so heavily by an illustrious past that it is reluctant to modernise its institutions, and former Giro winner Bugno has been pushing back against his detractors.

“I am a fan of Froome, a fan of Team Sky,” he said in one interview, “but it bothers me that they are writing bad things about me when the CPA can defend their rights.”

Millar accepts that the CPA have done some good, the domestiques now get minimum wages for the grand tours, but Bugno appears to be little more than a useful idiot and an absent one at that.

“Nobody knows Gianni Bugno,” insists Millar. “I have spoken to some of the younger riders, they don’t even know what he looks like. They would not recognise him if they bumped into him in the street now. He never comes to races.

“We are seeing athletes who go on social media, they cry for help, they go to interviews because they have nobody to go to.

“The amount of riders that I have met who have sent emails and got no response and now we are seeing, in the last two weeks, the CPA attacking the riders that they represent on social media! I simply can’t understand it and Gianni Bugno remains invisible.”

The Scot insists he has the broad backing of the peloton, some of whom have been firing warning shots over the CPA bow. Froome tweeted: “Seems to me the CPA is running a dictatorship not a democracy”. The Dutch riders’ association, who have already withdrawn from the CPA, offered Millar their support as did the women’s Cyclists’ Alliance.

“I can get Chris Froome to call you and give you a quote. He will [he does], and Geraint Thomas,” Millar warms to the task. “It’s firing up now. Most of the peloton are not even aware that they have a union that can defend their rights because it’s been passive for so long and complacent.”

I can’t let Millar go without asking the one question everyone wants answered by one of cycling’s prodigal sons, a poacher turned tireless gamekeeper after copping a two-year ban for drug abuse in his early years. Is the modern peloton clean?

“We are now the best sport when it comes to anti-doping and a culture of anti-doping, but that is because we used to be the worst,” he replies. “Hopefully this is an opportunity to do the same with the politics.

“Cyclists have been winning the biggest races consistently clean now for years. That is happening and I know the riders. We have had a doping culture and an anti-doping culture. In the past it was an anomaly for a clean rider to win a big race. Now it’s an anomaly for a doping rider to win a big race...and if they do they are going to get caught.

“Geraint Thomas could never have won the Tour de France [in the doping era] for f***’s sake. It’s f***ing insane. Geraint Thomas won the Tour de France and that is down to talent and hard work.”

And with that thought Millar goes back to fight the good fight.