Richard Moore: Film on David Millar’s decline shows there’s no sentiment in sport

Finlay Pretsell's movie gives us an up-close view of cyclist David Millar in the latter part of his career.
Finlay Pretsell's movie gives us an up-close view of cyclist David Millar in the latter part of his career.
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An athlete, said Roger Kahn in The Boys of Summer, “must 
confront two deaths.” Kahn was 
talking about baseball players, but of course the same is true of any sportsperson

“First, between the ages of 30 and 40 he perishes as an athlete,” wrote Kahn. “At 35 he is experiencing the truth of finality.” As it happens, David Millar was 35 when he had his last major success, a stage win at the Tour de France. He continued for two more years, but these turned into a losing battle against time.

As it also happens, he had a film crew shadowing him for those final two years. Time Trial, directed by Finlay Pretsell of the Scottish Documentary Institute, will screen today at the Edinburgh International Film Festival before a cinema release that will coincide with the start of the Tour de France.

It is not a standard documentary, more an under-the-skin, or behind-the-curtains glimpse at a sport that can seem impenetrable. Millar is the vehicle – more subject than star – and yet the most powerful theme is his decline, which occurs before our eyes. “I’m too old, I’ve been around too long,” he says to a fellow rider during an early-season stage race in Italy. “David is just getting angry at his age,” observes his team-mate and room-mate, Thomas Dekker. “The biggest highlights are already past.”

There is no sentiment in professional sport. A week before what he hoped would have been his final Tour, Millar is dropped by his team. Although there are other races, missing the Tour really hurts, maybe because it represents “the truth of finality”.

The film captures this emotional low, but doesn’t go too much into Millar’s back story – which of course means his two-year ban for doping. When asked about this, Millar’s body slumps, his batteries go flat: “I don’t think I can talk about it any more,” he says. “I’ve literally exhausted it”.

“Immersive” is the word that will feature in reviews of this film. Televising bike racing is complicated. Typically we see helicopter shots of a peloton sweeping around corners and flowing through roundabouts, or motorbike pictures of the front of the bunch or the breakaway. As viewers we are kept at a distance. But thanks to the cameras Pretsell put on bikes – up to three at a time on Millar’s bike – inside cars and on motorbikes, and also the microphones he fitted to the riders, Time Trial offers a rare and privileged glimpse inside the peloton.

At times, such as the early time trial sequence, it looks glorious and glamorous, thanks to cinematographer Martin Radich, with Dan Deacon providing a stirring soundtrack. But it is intimate, too. We eavesdrop on conversations – from the mundane to the exasperated and expletive-laden – and in one scene, we see and hear how road racing is organised when Millar, Mark Cavendish and the other leaders fan across the road to shut the race down, literally blocking riders who might want to join the break.

For Pretsell, Millar’s exclusion from the Tour “is the best thing that happened for the film. It’s not a film about David Millar the great cyclist, and how good he was. It captures a very specific, brief moment in time. It’s actually about his career fizzling out. That’s how most sporting careers end, not in a blaze of glory. Hopefully it’s quite subtle, but it’s really about the realisation that it’s all coming to an end, and him fighting that realisation.”

Millar, who will be at today’s screening in Edinburgh, says he isn’t sure what he feels when watching it, other than “impressed and over the moon that Finlay pulled it off”. The cyclist and the film maker got in touch after Millar watched Pretsell’s 2006 film, Standing Start, about the track cyclist Craig MacLean. “It was always about trying to convey what it feels like to be a professional cyclist,” says Millar. “But the fact I was in my downward spiral makes it more authentic.

“Sport is usually glorified in films, but being a professional cyclist is mainly a headbanging experience. I did enjoy racing for 95 per cent of my career, but the film captures the other 5 per cent of it, when I sucked.”

Not that he could admit that at the time. An athlete in decline has to be in denial. Millar’s anger and tears when he learns that he isn’t going to the Tour stem from disappointment but also a sense of loss – of the physical ability he had taken for granted, which was now deserting him.

Millar retired more than three years ago. “I’m coming out of mourning now,” he says. “You go through stages of grief without being aware of it and you do it on your own. You’re told your whole career that the suffering won’t last forever, which is supposed to help you.

“Then it ends, and we’re expected to be fine, to be made of the right stuff. But we’re made of the right stuff to do one thing very well and when you can’t do it any more, it’s a big loss.”