Cycling: Millar time for the road crew

Andrew Longmore says Britain's cyclists are now following a genuine leader

At the head of the British team in cycling's world road-race championships in San Sebastian this week will be a slight, craggy, figure respected, beloved even, by cycling's true followers. A few might blink at the sight of it. Robert Millar never had much time for officialdom, either on the bike or off it. He was one of life's loners, slow to trust, quick to question, entirely unpredictable.

So perhaps it should be true to form that in retirement he should become national road-race coach for the British Cycling Federation, a role few who knew him would have chosen for his post-retirement cv. "I think there were two reactions to Robert's appointment," John Herety, an old team- mate of Millar's, said. "The first was 'Wow, that's strange' and the second was 'Hey, that's good'. He was a very anti-establishment figure, but he always had a lot to give, it was just a question of asking him to give it."

As the manager of the Adidas-Scicon team, run by Chris Boardman's Level Four company, Herety has seen at first-hand the effect Millar's laid-back Scottish drawl has already had on his young riders. "They treated what Rob said as almost Godlike. It was only what I'd been telling them for weeks, but he's held in such high esteem, it meant more."

For the BCF, the appointment of the most respected British road-racer of the past 30 years signalled a change of attitude and, after a year of political turmoil, a fresh start. The membership wanted a big name and, as regular Tour contender and one-time king of the mountains, Millar's was the biggest in the land. The surprise was that the Scot with the irascible reputation was open to offers. "It was the only job available," he said. "I didn't want it to be seen as an official thing, with blazer and tie and all that crap. I don't do that stuff and it's not what I presume the job to be. But, equally, I've got to learn how the job is done. The cycling bit I know about, it's the administration and fitting into places I don't know much about."

This week, in his first official non-blazered assignment as team manager, Millar will fetch the right start numbers, advise the 29-strong team of juniors and seniors on tactics, schedules and diet, drive the team car and busy himself with all the minutiae of life on the road which others took care of in his career. "That's the way I look at it. What did I want as a cyclist? You don't want to be thinking of how you're going to get home or what the family's doing or whatever, you just want to concentrate on racing. A lot of it is just listening and talking to people, sorting out their problems. That's a bit new to me. Before, I only had to worry about myself."

Millar has already targeted the junior squad for special attention. When his juniors compete in senior races, Millar rides too. His initial introductions were made to groups of riders in the car parks after races where the message was typically spartan. You will only get out of this sport what you put in. True to his belief that "you don't have to speak much to be a bike rider," talk will not be cheap. Journalists who spent a decade trying to extract a pearl from Millar's lips will not be shocked to hear that some of the more senior riders have yet to hear a word from their new boss. Over-23s, Millar says, know where to find him. Thrust at an early age into the hurly-burly of continental professional cycling, Millar had to fend for himself and expects others to do the same.

The current state of Britain's road-racing resources will be revealed to the new coach this week. Medals will be the measure of success, but attitudes will be equally critical as Millar assesses the extent of the talent and outlines plans for the future. "The sport needs more money thrown at it," he said. "We have to get the set-up more professional and the promotion better. The talent is out there. It's getting the thing presented right so we get more kids on to bikes." When six or seven British riders line up for the start of the Tour, Millar believes, cycling will command the attention of the media and big business. The boom will follow.

If anyone can set the wheel turning, it is Millar, who still keeps fit by racing mountain bikes. "People won't agree with all Rob's ideas," Herety added. "But at least he's got some ideas. He's not afraid to give opinions and then see what the effects are. I hope he sticks it because he's got so much to offer."

An inspiration or a good idea that wasn't? The winter will be telling, when the riders follow Millar's training schedules for the first time. "It'll be good to see if something that worked for me will work for them. The satisfaction will come if they get it right. If it's crap, then I'll be crap."

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