The Millar's tale

AN Eighties icon and a man of endless contradictions, he was the birdlike climber who hated the press and loved the mountains. And then he just disappeared. Here, in our first exclusive extract from his new book, Richard Moore goes in search of Robert Millar.

I CAN remember, quite clearly, my first encounter with Robert Millar. It was at lunchtime on Saturday, 21 July 1984. I was 11 at the time. Robert Millar will remember the occasion more vividly, because while I was watching television with my dad in my family’s living room, he was in the Haute-Arige area of the Pyrenees, climbing a steep, winding road that ended at the ski station at Guzet Neige – the finish of stage 11 of the Tour de France.

We had recently moved to England from Scotland, and my Scottishness was being pointed out to me repeatedly. A PE teacher nicknamed me ‘Jock’, and it stuck. I hated being singled out. On the other hand, I quite liked it too. But I was desperately, urgently looking for allies – namely, fellow Jocks – wherever I could, even on television, even participating in obscure sporting events.

I asked my dad, receiving his weekly fix of the Tour de France on ITV’s World of Sport, whether any Scottish cyclists were competing in this strange event. “There is one Scot,” he replied, a note of surprise in his voice. “Robert Millar, from Glasgow. That’s him there.”

Now I was interested. I was struck by the name, by its ordinariness. He didn’t sound like he belonged there. “Robert Millar” jarred alongside the exotic-sounding Laurent Fignon, Bernard Hinault, Pedro Delgado, even the American with the French-sounding name, Greg LeMond. And yet, although I didn’t know it at the time, in the wiry, compact form of Robert Millar I had just stumbled upon someone who was not only Scottish but most certainly – and defiantly – different; someone who didn’t just mind standing out, or apart, from the crowd, but actually seemed to want to.

“Will he win?” I asked.

“No,” said my dad, with good old-fashioned Scottish pessimism-realism.

But Dad was wrong, or at least partially wrong. I kept watching. And I remember Millar winning the stage, his second Pyrenean victory in consecutive years, on his way to claiming one of the race’s three great prizes, the title of King of the Mountains. The man from the Gorbals was the first (and to this day remains the only) English speaker ever to wear the fabled polka-dot jersey all the way to the finish in Paris.

There was something about Millar, quite apart from his nationality and the fact that he was beating these foreigners at their own game, on their own turf, to the top of their own mountains, that was instantly fascinating. As he climbed the mountain his head bobbed gently and easily to the rhythm of the pedals. His style was unusual but fluid and efficient. His left knee flicked in and then out at the top of the pedal stroke, following a consistent, smooth pattern. His eyes were focused a few yards in front, yet they also appeared vacant, expressionless, drawn with the effort – “the face of a hungry man”, according to the TV commentator, Phil Liggett.

That Saturday afternoon Millar was in the company of three other cyclists, but when the slope reared up, he was the one doing most of the pace setting. He seemed to be teeming with nervous energy, repeatedly looking over his shoulder, checking the others, cajoling them even. While he was fleet of foot, they were leaden by comparison; the slender, lightweight Scot looked as if he might fly off at any moment, the others as if they would be dragged back down the hill by the pull of gravity. “I hope he doesn’t overdo it with his confidence,” said the partisan Liggett, as if trying to send the Brit subliminal messages.

Then, as they approached a sweeping left bend, Millar took flight. He stood up on the pedals and accelerated into the crowd, his bike swinging violently from side to side, his body bobbing up and down with urgency, releasing all that pent-up energy in a bid to shake off his companions, now down to two, a Frenchman and a Dutchman. Neither reacted; if anything, they seemed relieved to see him flee, glad of an excuse to slow down. Ahead of them Millar forged on, relaxing into that gentle, easy rhythm. In the commentary box, Liggett wasn’t so calm: “He’s not a big-headed man at all, but when you speak to him confidence oozes out of him.” Several times he highlighted the incongruity of a cyclist from Glasgow excelling amid such company, and in such terrain. “He was a little worried that this stage wouldn’t be hard enough for him,” Liggett added with a chuckle.

Inside the final kilometre of the 226.5km stage, Millar’s hand dipped inside the back pocket of his jersey and emerged clasping a white cap bearing the name of his team sponsor, Peugeot, which he then stuck on his head in one fluid movement. “The little man from the Gorbals with the big heart and the powerful legs,” screamed Liggett, his voice crackling with emotion, as Millar climbed towards the finish. “Millar has unleashed all his anger today on the Tour de France.”

Behind Millar, Luis Herrera and Pedro Delgado, late attackers, had leapfrogged his earlier companions; Millar had escaped at just the right time. But now they were chasing, and closing. They were within a minute; Millar had to sprint as if he was launching his initial attack all over again. But in the final metres, when he knew he had won, Millar appeared to relax, sitting upright, taking his hands off the handlebars, raising them, allowing his clenched fists to fall behind his head, then pumping them back into the air, palms open, eyes looking down rather than at the photographers, but face smiling. The clock stopped at seven hours, three minutes and forty-one seconds as he crossed the line.

Then, his peaked cap framing his gaunt face, giving him the appearance of a jockey in need of a good feed, Millar faced what was for him the bigger ordeal: the post-race interview. Liggett asked the questions. What had gone through his mind on that final climb? “That I was gonna win, that I knew I was gonna win, and that I was really happy,” mumbled Millar, wearing a blank expression apart from the thinnest of smiles forming on his lips. He had known virtually the whole stage that he was going to win, he added. At the end of each sentence he seemed to add an ‘eh’ – virtually the only trace of a Scottish accent in his curious hybrid drawl. He proved as fascinating to watch during this interview as he had been during the race. He was a mass of contradictions, appearing self-assured yet nervous; possessed of steely confidence yet impossibly shy; in control yet awkward. He spent much of the interview looking away from the camera, away from his interrogator, but when he briefly glanced up his eyes burned with intensity. Or was it anger, as Liggett had suggested? At the same time his face twitched and his brow contorted with apparent nervousness.

Cycling became my sport, Robert Millar my hero.

There is no debate over whether or not Millar is Britain’s greatest ever Tour de France cyclist – and that, in many people’s eyes, makes him Britain’s best ever cyclist. Supporters of Tom Simpson, the Englishman who died on the slopes of Mont Ventoux during the 1967 Tour de France, might disagree. But Simpson was a one-day specialist: he excelled in the ‘classics’ and the world road race championship, which he won – the only British rider ever to do so – in 1965. Millar, on the other hand, was a man for the major tours, of France, Italy and Spain. For many, these three races are the pinnacle of the sport, and in these events Millar stands head and shoulders above any other cyclist from these islands, which is not bad for someone who grew up in Glasgow, whose frame extended (when he wasn’t crouched over his bike) to five feet six inches, and who tipped the scales at just nine stone.

Millar was an outstanding cyclist, clearly, but he also had style and class. He was cool, enigmatic, aloof, and quietly determined. His obsessive quest for perfection was awesome. It could be quite terrifying, too. After one stage of the Tour de France the television cameras caught him removing his racing jersey to reveal a painfully skinny upper body, arms as brown as barbecued steak, and torso, with ribs protruding, translucent white. “Ooooh,” said my mum, recoiling in horror. Not mock horror. Everything about him – his self-contained manner, his appearance – screamed absolute dedication, and of an extreme way of living.

When, in the early 1980s, Millar emerged as one of the world’s leading cyclists, his sport, to most in Britain, was as colourful, intriguing and impenetrable as a foreign language, and those who enjoyed it were fed only on scraps of coverage. It couldn’t have been further removed from the arenas where we traditionally watched and enjoyed sport. The Tour de France was on another scale; it belonged in a different dimension; it represented something other, something more, than sport. You didn’t enjoy the Tour de France, you marvelled at it.

The mountains, especially, were where the Tour de France was transformed from being merely a sport into something bigger, more significant. And it was here, in the thin air and against the jagged backdrop of the Alps and the Pyrenees, that Millar excelled. His gifts in such an environment, his ability to dance with smooth grace up such steep mountains, seemed an extravagantly, exotically impressive, not to say surreal, talent for somebody raised in one of Europe’s most industrialised and impoverished cities. The Tour’s profile in Britain increased through the 1980s, thanks in large part to the growing impact of English speakers such as Millar.

For Millar that proved a mixed blessing. He did not court fame, and there were those who claimed that in his apparent desperation not to engage with the media, Millar was his own worst enemy. Many said that he lacked charisma; others complained that he had no personality. They were wrong. He was the Morrissey of the sporting world: enigmatic, complex, sardonic; unconventional yet cool; hopelessly shy but at the same time absolutely sure of himself. Oh, and a vegetarian. Confidence, as Phil Liggett said, oozed from Robert Millar, but it was a curious kind of confidence. He was an outsider, always. Watching him race could be as exasperating as it could be exhilarating. He lost the 1985 Tour of Spain on the penultimate day, having been the outstanding rider in the race, when the Spanish teams ganged up to ensure a home victory, but also, and equally importantly, to deny Millar. He was certainly alone there. At the roadside the Spanish fans held up banners expressing their contempt for the strange Scot, for the crimes of (in no particular order) not being Spanish, wearing an earring, and having permed hair.

Millar was different. He rubbed people up the wrong way. The director of the Tour de France nicknamed him the asticot – maggot – of professional cycling. To professional observers he was the “weedy Woody Allen lookalike, with spectacles, pony tail, and balancing chips on each shoulder”; he looked “more like a Dickensian chimney sweep” than a man who made his name and his fortune in such a brutal and unforgiving sport.

In June 1995 Millar’s career ended abruptly, ignominiously, and without fanfare. His French team went bust on the eve of what would have been his twelfth Tour de France, and that was it. The end. Millar disappeared.

He didn’t literally disappear, at least not at first. But one by one his ties with the cycling world were severed. He seemed to want nothing to do with the sport anymore.

Rumours began to swirl around Millar. Some were cruel, some were downright vicious, but they were fuelled by gossip, not least because they went unchecked by Millar. One tabloid newspaper, upon hearing the rumour that this famous cyclist might be having a sex change, camped outside his door for a week. In 2000 the story was published and Millar was, according to some who knew him, devastated. Yet, in keeping with the cyclist who had pursued his career with singular focus and stubborn self-containment, he did not respond. He said nothing.

Then he really did disappear. All his ties with the cycling world were severed. He appears to want nothing to do with the sport any more. He has next to no contact with any of the people he knew through cycling, only the occasional email – usually one or two lines, often terse, cryptic, sometimes humorous. Every year, especially before the Tour de France, hordes of people try to get in touch with Millar, wanting to speak to him about the race, or wanting him to write about it. If they ever manage to reach him – and email is the only known method – he doesn’t respond.

Initially I felt a little uneasy about trying to find Robert Millar – not just the Millar of today, but the young Millar who grew up in Glasgow; who in his teenage years sought escape on his bicycle; who finally left the city for good, and used his bike to pursue a cycling career on the continent; who lived in France, on and off, for fifteen years, most of them with his wife and son, from whom he fled when his career ended in 1995; who then went to England, where he lived for several post-retirement years before disappearing from the sport and the public spotlight.

I made email contact with Millar through a third party, one of only two people I knew who were still in very occasional contact with him, and who were as exasperated as others by his apparent ‘disappearance’. I wasn’t seeking Millar’s approval, exactly, because I didn’t think he’d willingly endorse a book, but the response – communicated through the third party – was surprisingly positive. By which I mean that he didn’t tell me to f**k off. Yet all it amounted to was that he knew I was trying to write a book.

I met people, and spoke to them about Millar. Many said the same things. Yes, he was a bit strange, eccentric, stubborn, likeable when you got to know him – and special, that was the word that kept being repeated. I lost count of the number of times a former team-mate said “Robert’s special” with a knowing, enigmatic smile. Naturally, this only made me more curious, but also slightly wary. It was a euphemism, but for what?

Then I travelled to Ninove, in Belgium, to see Allan Peiper, one of the more thoughtful of Millar’s former team-mates. Initially Peiper didn’t adjust well to retirement, as he explained in his autobiography. But after staring into the void of life after cycling and eventually finding a new sense of purpose, it was clear that he had been thinking quite a bit about Millar too. “Rob was very intellectual compared to most cyclists,” said Peiper. “He thought about life and had it figured out, to some extent, but that didn’t make him any less complicated. There was anger inside him. It’s the same with a lot of top sportsmen, especially top cyclists. They have some emotional chinks that create the drive to want to be good. Whether it’s Lance Armstrong growing up in a trailer park, or Robert Millar growing up in Glasgow, I think for a lot of us there was a definite cause there, something that caused them to be angry. Something that made them need to succeed and prove themselves. Or just be accepted.”

For some reason, Peiper’s words, and his obvious enthusiasm for the task of trying to decipher the character of his old team-mate, fired my own enthusiasm. Somehow, talking to Peiper also made me less wary, less scared of the task of trying to unravel the Robert Millar enigma. I returned to my hotel room and wrote a second email, hoping that he would reply to this one directly.

From 'In Search of Robert Millar' by Richard Moore. To order copies of the book at the special price of 13.99 each, postage and packaging free, please call 0870 7871724, quoting reference 851Z.