Frustrated Millar vows to fight to the finish

EACH morning, roughly an hour before the start of the day's stage, David Millar has appeared in the Village Départ. Some riders visit this large cordoned off area of stands and stalls, which includes a barber's salon - the Tour de France being of such duration that a mid-race haircut can be necessary - while most others prefer to remain billeted in their air-conditioned team buses.

For Millar it has become a daily routine to weave his bike through the stalls and make for the multi-national newspaper rack, to catch up with the British papers. But yesterday, as the heat in Morzine soared to 37 degrees, he was less relaxed than he'd been on other days. He frowned and poked his lip which, it was observed, was a sign that he was preparing, after three days of suffering through the Alps, to play a full part in the day's racing.

''I don't have a chance of winning tomorrow's time trial," he explained, "but I do have a chance of winning today. I'm sure the move will go early and I'm going to try and be in it. I've come out of the Alps feeling good."

Sure enough, the 197km stage to Macon was barely 15 minutes' old when Radio Tour crackled with its first broadcast of the day: "Echappe: deux coureurs: Meellar, Grande Bretagne; Popoveech, Ukraine."

It was a good combination, but light in numbers. Yaroslav Popovych, with a stage in the bag already, would be a good ally for Millar but, unless you are a rampaging Floyd Landis, there is greater strength in numbers. The pair's lead stretched to a promising 1 minute, 30 seconds, but it didn't last and, when they were reeled in, a bigger 15-man counter-attack was launched. If Millar had waited and gone with this one, his ambition of a stage win might have been fulfilled.

Yet the Scot, returning from a two-year doping ban, can be satisfied. With only today's 57km time trial and tomorrow's stage to Paris, it is virtually certain that he will finish the Tour for the fourth time, and possibly in a similar overall position to his best of 55th in 2003. After yesterday's stage, he sits 61st with every chance of moving up after today's time trial - the stage he won in his last Tour in 2003 but which, as he subsequently admitted, was drug- assisted.

That result has been wiped from his record, as have the others that were drug-enhanced, but at Millar's own request. As far as the Union Cycliste International is concerned, they still stand.

Which is just one example of the mixed messages that the sport continues to send out on doping. While the decision to exclude favourites Ivan Basso and Jan Ullrich was applauded as a courageous step, ghosts of the past continue to haunt the Tour. Easily the most popular figure at the daily starts is Richard Virenque, a central figure in the 1998 drugs scandal that brought the race to its knees.

Millar and the other British rider, Bradley Wiggins, admitted yesterday that they simply don't know whether - as some are suggesting - this is a cleaner Tour. The evidence most frequently cited is that each of the contenders has suffered at least one bad day and, in an editorial this week, L'Equipe declared its optimism. "The Tour de France retains the extraordinary faculty to instantly transform very good cyclists into magnificent champions and heroes; it is rejuvenated. We have new heroes."

''I really don't know if it's cleaner," said Wiggins. "I thought it was before we had all the trouble at the start of the Tour, so I've given up guessing. As a rider you have to put it out your mind and get on with it and I honestly haven't thought about it in the last three weeks."

Millar cautioned against simple equations. "People look at the way some of the riders have cracked and said, 'obviously there's no doping.' Then they look at other performances and said, 'obviously there is.' But it's more complicated than that.

''Landis's attack on Thursday was like something by the great champions, [Fausto] Coppi, [Eddy] Merckx or [Bernard] Hinault. It was unbelievable; there wasn't one person in the race who could stay on his wheel. It was phenomenal, but I doubt if Landis can explain it, and I doubt he could do it again. It will be the defining moment of his career."

The frustration for Millar stems from spending much of the race as a spectator. "I didn't doubt that I would finish; you can't doubt it or you'll be in trouble. It's a state of mind, but I'm also lucky that I recover well, and every day I've been getting better.

''Coming back, I had a great response from the peloton - people said they had a lot of respect for what I'd done. I think most of them are surprised I'm still here, having not raced for two years, but I've trained harder than ever. The regrets I had from the past made me train hard.

''The disappointing thing has been that I've not really felt part of the race. I finish stages then find out the results in the evening. But I think getting through it will make me stronger for the rest of the season, and I'm really looking forward to [September's] Tour of Spain."

T-Mobile sack Ullrich

JAN Ullrich, the 1997 Tour de France winner, has been sacked by his T-Mobile team.

Ullrich, 32, was withdrawn from this year's Tour by his team before it started when he was linked by the media to an investigation in Spain into alleged blood doping.

Ullrich announced his dismissal on his personal website and has contacted his lawyer to discuss taking legal action.

"The sacking by T-Mobile is not acceptable for me," Ullrich told the website. "I am very disappointed that I was not informed personally of this decision but only by fax."

The rider denies any wrongdoing in connection with the allegations.