When David Millar rolled down the start ramp of the 2006 Tour de France, he was little more than an internal exile in cycling, fresh from a two-year suspension for confessing to using the banned drug EPO and clutching at any shreds of credibility.
Five years later, as the Garmin-Cervélo rider eyes his 10th crack at cycling's blue riband event, Millar, at 34, is now one of the peloton's unappointed elder statesmen and an unofficial spokesman on everything from rider safety to doping.
In some ways it was logical that Millar, as Giro d'Italia leader, largely represented the peloton when Wouter Weylandt's death in a downhill crash in the race's first week sent shockwaves through the sport. But why did Millar form part of the handful of top riders, together with Alberto Contador and Tour of Spain winner, Vincenzo Nibali, who five days later held a meeting with Giro organisers to discuss rider safety? Because across the sport he has earned a high level of respect.
Given his chequered past, not to mention breaking cycling's omerta about banned drug use, Millar's spokesman role – a first for a Briton – is a sign of successful reintegration into the peloton. But it also shows a willingness to stick his head above the parapet with no reward, and that, with this year's Tour being the 20th three-week stage race of his career, the "Boy Dave", as he used to be nicknamed, has been around the block more than a couple of times.
"It's not a role I dislike but it's definitely not one I'd push to have. It's a thankless job," Millar tells The Independent from a ski station high in the Pyrenees, where he is on the point of completing a block of altitude training.
"I think the bottom line is it's been an organic progression. I'm now just one of the oldest guys in the peloton and I have that crossover relationship with the organisers, the UCI [International Cycling Union] and even the media, and they do need somebody who can speak up for all of us in a measured way – which hopefully I'm learning to do in my old age.
"I've always been at the right place at the right time, or the wrong place at the wrong time, depending on how you look at it."
Weylandt's death, Millar believes, focused riders on the issue of needing a common voice to get out messages about rider safety if nothing else. "It showed us it's not all fun and games, we have to look after ourselves, and nobody else will. Teams won't, and the UCI often won't.
"Regrettably it took a tragedy like that to wake up the organisers and the people around us. It opened the door to a discussion with Angelo Zomegnan [Giro d'Italia race organiser] which would never have happened before.
"Long-term, if it means we grow up slightly, that'll be a good thing. It would be nice if we did progress and we could thank Wouter's memory for it."
Millar knows it is a given that his spokesman skills will also be much in demand at the Tour. Alberto Contador's unresolved positive test for the banned substance clenbuterol will mean cycling's fight against drugs will once again be at the top of the media agenda. The Scot's outspoken anti-doping stance, and past misdemeanours, will – again – make him a natural conduit.
Those that believe Contador should not be racing – like some French team directors and riders, while even the World Anti-Doping Agency director, David Howman, has said he doesn't recommend it – may be in for a shock, though, given Millar – interestingly – takes completely the opposite stance.
"Whatever happens, it's going to overshadow the Tour," Millar says, "and in all honesty I don't think we can put all the blame for that on Alberto. He deserves the presumption of innocence and because of this ridiculous system we have it's going to be over a year before we find out whether it was unintentional or deliberate."
Contador tested positive for a minuscule quantity of clenbuterol – a 40th of the minimum that a laboratory is legally required to report – in the last week of last year's Tour de France. Cleared by his federation after he alleged food contamination as the cause, an appeal by the UCI and Wada against that suspension being lifted will not be held until August.
"Hopefully, this case will wake the world up to seeing there are large gaps in the way that anti-doping law still works," Millar says. "But as regards the Tour, it's going to be very difficult for it not to be a negative affair. Alberto is going to be very hard to beat so he'll be dominating the news.
"It's going to be very confusing for everybody and that doesn't help cycling in the slightest. But the bottom line is he has the right to race, and if it is a contamination, why would he not race?"
As Millar points out, after so many doping cases, in cycling the presumption of innocence has been lost "and for many he's already guilty. It's a tragedy. Contador is a phenomenal cyclist and neither the sport nor he deserves this ridiculous kerfuffle."
Like Weylandt's death, although obviously on a far less serious register, the Scot says one of the few benefits of Contador's case is that it could wake up the sporting world "to the bigger issues and what has to be changed. "For example, it's crazy that a country's federation decides about doping cases. We're an international peloton and we should be judged internationally. But again, that part of the process is not Contador's fault. He's doing what his rights as an athlete allow him to do."
Although Millar coincides with Contador on some big issues, when the two line up at the Passage du Gois at the start of the Tour next weekend they will have very different goals.
The Garmin-Cervélo rider does not rule out taking yellow – 11 years after he last wore it – in next Sunday's team time trial, although as he guardedly points out: "That right in our squad traditionally goes to whoever's contributed the most to the overall performance."
However, Millar's main mission will be supporting his squad's GC contenders, Tom Danielson, Ryder Hesjedal and Christian Vande Velde, as well as their two sprinters, the world champion Thor Hushovd and Tyler Farrar. "Being pragmatic, our best card we've got is the team time trial, we are all very passionate about it, and on paper we have a very strong team. We'll be working on the sprints for Tyler and Thor – he's got a very good chance on the first uphill sprint, with Tyler going for the flatter ones. Then, with three overall contenders, the team prize is another possible target, too."
Whatever the outcome, 2011 is already a red-letter year for Millar, given that his Giro lead in May made him the first Briton ever to have held the top spot in all three major Tours – Italy, France and Spain. Also a Giro stage win in the final time trial makes Millar one of just three Britons to have taken victories in all three.
Shortly afterwards, he published his autobiography, Racing Through The Dark, and in September Millar will make an attempt to turn last year's silver medal in the World's Time Trial into gold.
Whatever he achieves on two wheels, though, impending first-time fatherhood in September is – understandably – what is uppermost in Millar's mind in 2011. Asked for his feelings about it, Millar hesitates before saying, rather predictably: "It's going to be awesome, a massive change, like I'm growing up."
For once, Millar the spokesman is all but lost for the right words. But given what the Scot is doing for cycling's peloton right now, that's very much the exception that proves the rule.Reuse content