Tour de France: Millar slips further into the shadows of history

Biographer of Scottish rider considers a loner's climb to the heights in the Tour de France and subsequent descent to the margins

For seven more days, Robert Millar will be able to claim an unofficial title that has been his for 28 years. But by next Sunday, if Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome hold on to their current positions, he will cease to be Britain's greatest Tour de France cyclist, slipping back into the margins, where, in truth, he has always seemed more comfortable.

It is tantalising to imagine Millar in the position Wiggins is now in. Wiggins and Mark Cavendish are major names in British sport, along with a veritable peloton of others, from Sir Chris Hoy to Victoria Pendleton, with all the honours and accolades bestowed upon them. Millar was a pioneer, his fourth place and King of the Mountains title in the 1984 Tour an historic achievement, yet the summons from Buckingham Palace has never come.

Cycling occupied a tiny niche in the UK in the 1980s, and Millar was a cult hero. Since then he has all but slipped from view. Millar's greatest feats were in the Pyrenees; he is synonymous with such iconic climbs as the Col d'Aubisque, Col du Tourmalet, Col d'Aspin and Col de Peyresourde, all of which will feature on Wednesday's 16th stage, from Pau to Luchon: a stage identical to the one Millar won in 1983.

There are other faint echoes. Last Saturday, Froome became the first British rider to win a mountain stage since Millar, whose third and final stage win in the Tour came in 1989. But the 1984 race was the Scotsman's crowning glory. In 98 Tours de France, Millar is the only English-speaking rider ever to ride into Paris in the polka-dot jersey of King of the Mountains.

Millar's ascent to such a lofty summit was as unlikely as it was impressive. Born in the notorious Gorbals district of Glasgow, he embodied a Glasgow paradox: he rejected the city's macho, football-obsessed culture yet was unmistakably a product of his home city, frequently coming across as hard, spiky, with a dry and razor-sharp sense of humour.

It was another Glaswegian, Billy Connolly, a keen cyclist in his youth, who coined the term "sociable loners" to describe those who were part of the city's cycling culture. It was a working man's pastime, with the countryside easily reached by bike to provide nourishing respite from the factories and shipyards. A lively club scene flourished in the Sixties and Seventies.

Millar was more loner than sociable. On club rides he was one of the strongest, but when it came to the "drum up" – when the riders would sit around a fire, brewing tea, usually by the banks of Loch Lomond – he would disappear. "Robert would go away on his own, maybe 50 yards away, and light his own fire," said John Storrie, who introduced Millar to club cycling. "He did that every time. He never gave us an explanation. I don't remember him not liking people; he was just a loner."

But self-sufficiency was perhaps his greatest asset when, aged 20, he left for France. Millar arrived in Paris to join the prestigious ACBB club and settled quickly. He also cut his ties with Glasgow. "I think he didn't want to be missing his pals," said one former friend.

Many British riders tried to follow the same path to a career as a professional on the Continent, but most failed. English-speaking riders were outsiders; they had to be better than their continental peers. But Millar seemed driven by his ambition and by the negativity he had encountered in Glasgow, where, as he later said, "most people belonged to the 'You'll never do that' school of thought. It was as if they thought you had to be born in Europe to be a pro bike rider."

Millar won the Palme d'Or as France's top amateur in his first year, 1979, and turned professional for Peugeot the following season. Then came the Tour and his stage wins in the Pyrenees in 1983 and 1984; second overall in the 1985 Tour of Spain and second again in 1986. Then he was second to Stephen Roche in the 1987 Giro d'Italia, won his third Tour stage in 1989, and won the Dauphiné Libéré, which Wiggins has won for the last two years, in 1990.

In the same year I went to a training camp in Stirling where the star attraction was Millar. During a question-and-answer session, in which the questions were overwhelmingly about the Tour de France, he cut his young audience dead. "I think you should ask some different questions," deadpanned Millar. "None of you are riding the Tour de France, so I don't think it's relevant me talking about it, eh."

Typical Millar: perhaps tactless, but direct and honest. He began coaching after he retired, in 1995, and was briefly British road coach, but he was an early victim of the "revolution" in the sport prompted by lottery funding, which led indirectly, 13 years later, to the launch of Team Sky.

There are rumours as to his whereabouts, and there were tabloid stories about him in 2000 and 2007, claiming he was undergoing a sex change. The reports were never substantiated and Millar remained steadfastly quiet. There seemed a danger that his achievements would be overshadowed by salacious gossip. Five years ago, when I researched and wrote a biography, In Search of Robert Millar, I was curious about what had become of him but also, I hope, respectful of his desire for privacy.

Since then, Millar has partially re-emerged, writing a weekly blog during the Tour for the Cyclingnews website in his trademark dry, humorous style. During my research I had an email exchange with him – over several days he answered my questions, usually cryptically – and that became the epilogue to my book, giving the former cyclist the last word. Or three words, to be precise: as terse and cutting as he had been to that roomful of teenagers in 1990: "No more questions."

'In Search of Robert Millar' (Harper-Sport) by Richard Moore, £8.99

How they compare

Bradley Wiggins

Major wins

2012 – Paris-Nice (First British winner in 45 years), Critérium du Dauphiné, Tour de Romandie, one stage so far in Tour de France; 2011 – Critérium du Dauphiné, national road race champion; 2010 – national time trial champion, one stage in the Giro d'Italia; 2009 – national time trial champion.

Best finishes in Grand Tours

3rd Vuelta a España 2011; 4th Tour de France 2009; 40th Giro 2010

Two Olympic, six world gold medals.

Robert Millar

Major wins

1984 – King of the Mountains, Tour de France (only British winner); 1985 – Volta a Catalunya; 1987 – King of the Mountains, Giro d'Italia; 1989 – Tour of Britain; 1990 – Critérium du Dauphiné, Stage 4, Tour de Romandie; 1995 – British champion

Best finishes in Grand Tours

2nd Vuelta 1985, 86; 2nd Giro 1987; (highest finish by a Briton); 4th Tour de France 1984 (joint-highest finish by a Briton, with Wiggins)

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