Every year since he took the Tour de France prologue in his first participation in 2000, David Millar has found the targets lined up for him are getting steadily higher. At the same time illness, injury or just plain old-fashioned ill-luck have seen him fighting battles on several fronts, not just the sporting one.
In the 2001 Tour prologue, for example, a double puncture sent Millar flying into the barriers just 1,800 metres from the finish line, his major target for the race - and year - ruined.
A triumphant Tour of Spain that autumn, in which he took the prologue, a stage win and held the lead for three days, together with a silver medal in the World Championships time trial acted as the best of consolation prizes but then in 2002 glandular fever wrecked his early season, briefly putting a question mark over his entire career.
The Scot's one victory that year, a brilliant stage win in the Tour, seemed to put him back the right track. However, ever since that summer's day in Béziers when he crossed the line with his fist raised defiantly in victory, the complications have once more mounted up.
A potentially lethal accident in the Tour of Spain which led to a controversial abandon as a one-man protest against dangerous conditions was followed by a well-publicised spat with his squad, Cofidis, over the team's wage structure. Last but not least, after a motorbike smashed into his handlebars during a two-day race this spring, the resulting injuries meant he has spent six weeks recovering.
Meanwhile, the tide of other people's ambitions centred on Millar continues to rise around him, his own inspired performances on the bike, when in form and not out of luck, by no means easing the pressure.
There is his team owner, François Migraine, who wants the Scot to win the prologue and a stage of the 2003 Tour de France. There is the UK National Road Racing Team Manager, John Herety, who believes he can win a gold medal in the time trial at the Olympics in 2004. There are also those who believe that Britain's most charismatic continental-based pro since the ill-fated Tom Simpson should concentrate on seeing how high up the general classification of the Tour de France he can go.
Just to further complicate matters, at the same time, Millar has been hammered for inconsistency. Migraine recently said the Scot was "in danger of wasting his talent". In January, his directeur sportif, Alain Bondue, insisted "Millar's New Year's resolutions for his career need to begin to last longer than two weeks". The Scot responded in the best style possible, winning the overall classification of the Tour of Picardie last week, but the stakes will be even higher in the Tour de France, where Millar firmly rules himself out of taking on the general classification of a major stage-race.
"I need to produce solid results in week-long events like the Dauphiné Libéré [Millar's last major warm-up race this year prior to the Tour] before thinking about general classification in the Tour de France. And that hasn't happened yet. So I've no delusions of grandeur." Describing himself as someone who has "made more comebacks than Mike Tyson", Millar says his year so far has "been disappointing. I've worked so hard and a lot of freakish things have happened. But all these problems do help you to learn not to put too much pressure on yourself too soon, sacrifice some short-term goals and be flexible."
They have also induced him to flex his muscles a little when pushed by his team. "They're in need of results so wanted me to go for it in the Four Days of Dunkirk [his third race back after the motorbike crash] and basically I told them what I thought. My contract runs out at the end of this season, so I don't need to put myself under any more pressure." He is similarly unphased by Herety's Olympic goals for him, agreeing that "the time trial at Athens is definitely on the programme" but staying more guarded concerning the British team manager's worries that he should specify in any forthcoming contracts that he be allowed to prepare exclusively for the event. "There's enough time between the Tour and the Olympics for that."
At the same time he is optimistic about his chances in the Tour itself, even adding to Migraine's objectives with "a spell in the lead in the first week would be something really special." And if his performances come in for such close scrutiny from the comparatively small but intensely loyal fan-base cycling has in Britain, Millar seems to relish it. "I like all the attention, being the only British pro. in the Tour means everything I do gets observed and commented on, and the fans have always been very understanding."
"After all, whatever happens in the Tour I'm automatically best Brit." Not a bad philosophy for handling the pressure.Reuse content