Saturday Interview: Millar still peddling an anti-drugs message

KEEP IT CLEAN: After being given a second chance in the sport, David Millar, became a crusader for cycling's anti-doping movement and continues to fight the good fight in his retirement as he helps promote the Tour de Yorkshire. Picture: Rex Features
KEEP IT CLEAN: After being given a second chance in the sport, David Millar, became a crusader for cycling's anti-doping movement and continues to fight the good fight in his retirement as he helps promote the Tour de Yorkshire. Picture: Rex Features
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ASKING David Millar to condense his career into a few short minutes is a bit like requesting the Chancellor to sum up his budget in a dozen words.

This is, after all, a sportsman who has straddled the generations in the most transitional period cycling has known.

David Millar, helping announce Maserati as the title sponsor of the Tour de Yorkshire.

David Millar, helping announce Maserati as the title sponsor of the Tour de Yorkshire.

He started professionally in the mid-1990s when cycling was a sport in the United Kingdom that had been forced underground and required him to go abroad to pursue his dream.

He lived through the Lance Armstrong years, playing his own role in the drugs scandal that still haunts the sport.

He was still turning pedals two and three summers ago, when British riders Chris Froome and Sir Bradley Wiggins were winning the Tour de France, a notion unthinkable for much of Millar’s career.

He has seen so much that the first few months of Millar’s retirement have been spent writing the second edition of his memoirs. Yet as he sits in the lounge at Ilkley Tennis Club to promote the Tour de Yorkshire sportive for Maserati – a ‘cool’ name as he calls a company getting into cycling – he is happy to give the abridged version of life in the peloton.

“Looking back, I’m coming to terms now with the fact that I did do so much,” he begins, while nursing a pint of lager that on any other cyclist decked in training lycra would look out of place, but somehow on this man emerging out of professional life into the real world, seems apt.

“I raced for so long. You spend most of your younger years never appreciating where you’re at, you just want to go out and do better.

“It’s always about the next rung up the ladder, you never stop to think ‘actually I’m doing pretty, well I’ll just soak this up’.

“Oddly, it’s only now that I can think ‘you know what, I’m proud of everything I did’.

“I always thought I should be doing better, but now I can look back and be proud of it.

“There have been some tough times and some decisions that I regret, I had to endure some horrible periods, but it’s made me who I am today.”

Millar rode the Tour de France 12 times, and came within five days of a 13th start here in Yorkshire before his Garmin-Sharp team sacrificed sentiment for the chase of success.

In total, the Scot – one of cycling’s most selfless domestiques – rode 24 grand tours, winning 10 stages, four of them at the Tour de France.

He won silver medals in the time-trial at the world road championships nine years apart, and for much of the first half of his career, was the lone wolf in British cycling. “It got to the point in the late ’90s where I wouldn’t tell people in the UK that I was a professional cyclist because they just didn’t understand, they asked what I did for a real job,” he says.

But for all his achievements, Millar’s record is tainted by his part in the doping scandal that dominated the peloton for so many years. Dining with Dave Brailsford in Biarritz in 2004, he was approached by French detectives as his own abuse of the blood-boosting drug EPO caught up with him.

He was banned for two years and on his return set about making the most of his reprieve. In the second part of his career, Millar became a crusader for the anti-doping movement, and an evangelist of the peloton.

A decade on, and even though he is now out of the day-to-day mechanics of the sport, he still feels the need to repay his debt.

“I am pleased I made a difference, and I do know that I made a difference, because that was always the big thing for me,” he says.

“If I had a second chance, which I got by coming back from my ban, then I wanted to use that to give something back.

“But a second chance doesn’t come for free. I consider it my duty, and still do, to repay that debt. I don’t think I’ll ever repay it, to be honest. I always feel I have to contribute to the betterment of the sport.

“And now I think my biggest role is looking out for the clean riders and standing up for them because I don’t think anybody else does.

“They’re not going to put their head above the parapet, because they’ll just get shot down.

“I hope now I can be the voice for the young guys who need it.”

The issue of drugs is never far from the surface in cycling.

Years of lies have created a layer of mistrust from the public to the peloton. While he accepts that, Millar also believes that in order to move forward, the sport needs to retain ties to its past.

“If we had just gone total zero tolerance on the whole sport and drew a line in the sand five years ago, there would have been no-one in the sport who had experienced how bad it was,” he continues. “And it could happen again in 10 years or so, because that cycle would start again as nobody would see it coming again and know how to stop it.

“It’s a fine balance between cleansing the sport but also keeping a certain amount of people who saw it and went through it because that’s the only way you’ll prevent it happening again. We see it happening before anyone else does.

“There are so many ghosts in cycling and it’s hard to get away from that. There’s still so many people involved who were part of that culture who haven’t been contrite or resolved their past.

“But, on the bright side, we’ve changed the culture from a doping culture to an anti-doping one, and a lot of people who have been part of that doping culture, myself included, have helped turn it around.”

Even now the fight continues. Last week, the Cycling Independent Reform Commission’s report into doping attempted to discover the depth of the problem in years gone by, an objective Millar applauds the report for achieving. But he believes it did not go far enough.

“They missed an opportunity by not evaluating properly the state of the peloton,” says Millar.

“We need a solid, clear independent view of what today’s cycling is. By missing that, they haven’t given a thorough enough plan for the future.”

Millar’s vision would include those links to the murky past he spoke of earlier, and also a more lenient take on the zero tolerance culture Brailsford and Sky came into the sport declaring in 2009.

“If I started a team tomorrow it would be zero tolerance from tomorrow moving forward,” says Millar. “For personal reasons, I like to give people second chances if I believe in them, and you can empathise with what they went through and I was convinced they’d learned from it.

“I don’t think Dave understood fully how ingrained it was when he came into the sport.”

Nobody knows that better than Millar, who lived through it and had the courage to admit his mistakes. That he continues to rectify them, even in retirement, says everything about the remorse that still haunts him.

He will continue to fight the good fight in a retirement that encompasses writing, broadcasting from the Tour de France this summer, and even designing cycle wear.

“Having gone from doing the same thing my whole life, and having every year structured, for that to be then gone is a bit strange,” adds Millar, who appears content with his role in the sport he served for so long.

David Millar is an ambassador for Maserati GB, the title sponsor of the Tour de Yorkshire Ride. Visit http://letour.yorkshire.com/tour-de-yorkshire/sportive

The David Millar story ...

1977: Born, January 4, in Malta as his father, an RAF pilot, was on a tour of duty on the island.

1990: After living in Scotland and England, moves to Hong Kong with his father.

1992: Bought his first road bike after competing in BMX races.

1997: After winning a host of amateur races in France, he signs with Cofidis, based in Picardy.

2000: Claims victory on his very first stage on the Tour de France, a 16km time trial.

2001: Wins world championship time-trial silver medal in Lisbon.

2004: Confessed to French police that he he had used EPO, a banned substance, in 2001 and 2003.

2006: Returns from a two-year ban, clean, and signs for a Sapnish team on the eve of the Tour de France. Also wins a stage of the Vuelta a Espana.

2008: Joins Garmin-Slipstream as rider and co-owner because of their anti-doping stance.

2010: Underlines his prowess in time-trialling by winning a second silver at the world championships in Melbourne and gold in the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, plus a bronze in the road race.

2011: Captained the Great Britain team that helped Mark Cavendish win the world road race title in Copenhagen.

2012: Millar’s year of redemption: is accepted back into GB Olympic squad for road race and executes a classic breakaway win in the Tour de France, his first Tour stage win since 2003, which was clouded in controversy.

2014: ‘Shocked’ to miss Tour before retiring at end of season.