Farewell David Millar, the last of the pioneers

The talented rider has had a mixed career with his drugs ban and rehabilitation as an anti-doping campaigner, yet, he tells Alasdair Fotheringham, his time has seen a transformation in British cycling

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The Independent Online

Just before David Millar rode the final time trial of the last Grand Tour of his 18-year career in the Tour of Spain on Sunday, he tweeted: “I think today, for the first time in my life, I’m not going to make myself hurt in a TT.”

It was a singularly apt way of signing off from a career in part shaped by the mastering of physical and mental pain. Time trialling was one of Millar’s strongest suits and the key to his success was learning to tolerate otherwise unbearably high lactic acid levels. And then, of course, there was the anguish caused by his now distant doping past.

After his two-year suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs ended in 2006, it led to his vocal and charismatic insistence on learning from past errors, which developed into becoming one of sport’s most valued anti-doping crusaders.

The Team sky principal, Sir Dave Brailsford, told The Independent: “The way he dealt with his past and spoke so openly about it and became such an ardent anti-doping campaigner, that’s genuine.

“It’s nice when you feel you can believe in somebody when they say something should be done the right way, and you know they have the knowledge of the wrong way and how to avoid it. He can help other people avoid it, too. He’s a big character, he’ll be missed.”

Millar is realistic to know that, for better and worse, his name has a stand-out association with banned drugs. “I doped, then I didn’t, I turned that around and went into anti-doping,” he said. “You can’t pick and choose. That’s my career, my legacy, that I went in two different directions.”

But there are other lasting memories of Millar. As Brailsford pointed out: “If you think of Dave, you think of racing and panache, the victories he’s had, his ability to time trial was incredible. He was very talented, very gifted.”

Millar is also what Brailsford calls the “last of the pioneers”, the half-century tradition of post-war British racers who – with zero backing from their federation, unlike today – made their own way to amateur clubs in mainland Europe to try to forge their careers. An 18-year-old Millar went to the VC St Quentin in northern France in the mid 1990s.

“It wasn’t a shot in the dark, I had a very clear goal, which was to turn pro. I was super-ambitious and driven, got that place at the last minute,”  he said.

“British cycling was very different, closed then... [the advice in British cycling circles was] ‘don’t go across there. It’s not possible to turn pro’. And I didn’t understand, French amateurs had to turn pro somewhere, so why not me?

“Not coming from a British cycling background, I didn’t understand people being so closed-minded.”

Millar’s determination to turn pro predated the great rise in cycling’s popularity in the UK, which he has witnessed from the start. However, as he points out, the sport did have strong roots even then: it is just they were not that visible.

“Cycling was always a very British sport, but from the early 20th century when road racing was banned here, it created this cult status – clubby and, in a parochial way, it had an inverse snobbery.

“Kids would go to cycling clubs and the older guys would take them out on 200-kilometre rides and smash them. It was like, just to prove how hard cycling was.

“I was very lucky that High Wycombe, the club I went to, was one of the few that was the antithesis of that, they understood my naivety and I never was ‘initiated’.

“But either way, that cycling culture existed, the foundations were always there and now we’re building on it. And it’s really impressive.

“There’s a love of cycling that’s always been there, but now – through the Tour de France success, the Olympic success, with a top-tier British team [Sky] and London pushing hard for cycling – it’s been rediscovered.

“It’s where it should be, because it’s an eccentric sport and the British are eccentric, it’s a mad sport that fits into our psyche.”

Other Millar legacies include being the first Briton to lead all three Grand Tours, the Tour de France in 2000, the Vuelta a Espana in 2001 and the Giro d’Italia in 2011. He said: “Those three jerseys [of race leader] are what I’ll put on my wall when we finally move into our home,” – a farmhouse in Catalonia.

There are four Tour de France stage wins, too, as well as ones in the Giro and Vuelta. Equally importantly he has been a driving force since the early days of the Garmin-Sharp team, who, like Millar, are pioneers of modern anti-doping campaigning in the sport. While Millar does not plan to stay in cycling – “I need to move on, expand my horizons slightly, grow up” –he certainly doesn’t regret, he says, not having a career today, even if doping is far less widespread.

“The sport is hard, and it’s always been hard. Although it was fucked up in the past, we could have fun, it wasn’t as tight as it is now.

“You could race all season in say, Spain, in races nobody had even heard of. Now every race has become an objective. All the races riders go to now, there’s pressure, there’s a reason for it, and their data’s being collected and everything analysed.

“It’s a very intense environment. I don’t know how long you can have a career at that level, it’d be very difficult to have an 18-year career like mine. It’d just frazzle you.”

One last racing appearance for Millar, at the World Championships on 28 September, is on the cards despite two broken fingers and a broken rib caused by a crash in the Vuelta. But Millar’s farewell to his trademark event of Grand Tours came with Sunday’s time trial finishing, again appropriately, outside the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, a location known in Spanish as El final del Camino [The End of the Road].

Santiago Cathedral in northwest Spain is the last stop on a trail taken by  pilgrims, sometimes for months, on backlanes and forest paths across Europe. But when it comes to the decade-long trail Millar has helped blaze in cycling’s fight against doping, hopefully the sport will continue on the same path for many years after the Scot has reached the final del camino of his career.