Now, the Belgian is awaiting his fate after testing positive for drugs and his young team-mate is struggling for form and, on bad days, questioning his future in a discredited sport. "There are a lot of stupid guys in cycling," Millar says. "You really have to question whether they have any ethics at all. Before last year's Tour you could understand why people were taking drugs, but since then we've crossed the line. We've got to a point where we can say `OK, let's stop it'. It's become a moral issue. Before it could be called professionalism, now it's just plain cheating and that's what gets me down."
Millar is the most naturally gifted rider to emerge from this country since Tommy Simpson: a good enough time triallist to finish second in the Criterium International earlier this year, by two hundredths of a second, an agile enough climber to match wheels with Michael Boogerd in the Tour of Valencia and a sharp enough sprinter to consider a challenge for the Olympic pursuit gold in Sydney next year. Steady development of any or all of those disciplines, plus the lassooing of an occasionally wayward temperament, would put the 22-year-old in contention for the yellow jersey early in the next millennium.
Millar is a throwback to the days of the glorious amateur. His love of cycling was casually developed on holidays with his mother in Maidenhead. Mostly, he lived with his father in Hong Kong where cyclists need to have suicidal tendencies. Three years ago, he faced a curious career option: art college or professional cycling. He was two weeks away from picking up the brush when he decided to turn to sport's equivalent of heavyduty decorating.
Now his hair has to absorb the artistic tendency - it has been dyed an imaginative shade of blond - and his regular column in Cycle Sport has become his creative canvas. "The trainer was laughing at me the other day," he wrote. "He said the only time I look happy is when I'm on the bike. The rest of the time I'm tired and pissed off."
The presumption of most of his friends that he must be on performance- enhancing chemicals is a source of frustration, aimed not at them but at his sport. "You're considered guilty if you're a pro cyclist, which is hard if you've sacrificed a lot to be there," he says. "You know guys who shouldn't be climbing as well as they are or time trialling as strongly and they're knocking hell out of you, but you can't say anything. You've got to live with it."
As a fancy "foreigner" coming home, Millar can expect no help from his countrymen in Birmingham today. But his form is starting to return, a reassuring heart-to-heart with his boss has boosted morale and there is that holiday to enjoy. The Tour can wait for another year.Reuse content