David Millar: the controversial cyclist talks to EDGAR

His painful past has led to him mentoring young riders and running cycle tours around Europe. 

April 3, 2016

Cycling on average 180kms per day for three weeks straight as riders do on the three Grand Tours (Tour de France, Giro d'Italia and Vuelta a España) requires supreme levels of fitness. But it also demands levels of determination, tactical nous, and a tolerance for pain that most of us cannot imagine.

David Millar often demonstrated that he had all of the above, both on and off the bike, during an 18-year career that ended in retirement in 2014. The British rider rode the Tour de France 13 times, winning his debut stage in 2000. In all, Millar completed 19 Grand Tours and was the first Briton to win stages in all three of them.

But – and this is a big but – in 2004 Millar was busted for doping and was banned from cycling from 2004 to 2006. Full of remorse, he returned to the sport after his ban and raced clean, becoming a leading voice in the anti-doping campaign. Unsurprisingly, Millar is a man who divides opinion, but it says a lot about his character, talent and likeability that Millar is still a respected figure in the sport. He described the highs and lows of his life and career in his critically-acclaimed 2011 book Racing Through The Dark and then in The Racer, which came out last year.

Now 39, Millar operates cycling tours in some of the most beautiful ­and challenging terrain in Europe. His latest tour begins in April and takes amateur riders around the stunning Tramuntana mountains on the Spanish island of Mallorca, a route Millar describes with a chuckle as “bloody hard.” He spoke to EDGAR abouthis past, his future in which he will mentor young riders and the most painful day on his bike.

Have you cycled in the Tramuntana mountains before?

Yeah, I’ve raced around them on the Tour of Mallorca and they’re bloody hard work. No messing about: you’re straight out of the hotel and you’re on beautiful roads and into the mountains. There is no escape! It’s some of the best cycling you can get in Europe.

Do you get frustrated cycling with people who are not as fit as you?

No, not at all. I’m happy to cruise around these days. If I was still racing as a professional, yes, I’d get frustrated but now I like to ride my bike socially.

The people in the tour groups must pepper you with questions all day long. Are you ok with that?

That’s totally fine with me. It’s quite enjoyable because you get sucked into other people’s enthusiasm for cycling. I’ve got a few anecdotes from my days as a pro.

Such as?

Well, Dave Zabriskie was pretty bonkers. He’s an American rider from Utah who’s retired now. He’d travel with crazy amounts of stuff, I mean suitcases full of food and kettles. He loved show tunes and would sing them all the time.

What was the most eccentric thing he did?

Some of the riders made a retirement video for me about 18 months ago wishing me good luck and things like that. But then Dave comes on the video, in the shower, wearing his cycling shorts and singing a Whitney Houston song to me!

Do you pass on tips to riders in the tour groups?

On the first day I check their position on the bike and brief them on how to ride in a group properly. We talk about things like cornering, what gear they should be in and the rhythm they should be pedalling.

How fit must you be to join one of these tours?

I’d say it’s going to be a lot more enjoyable if you have a decent level of fitness [laughs]. You don’t want to be coming out here if you haven’t ridden a bike in a while. It’s not a hardcore training camp but it will be demanding so you need to be a little bit prepared. But you’re also in the lap of luxury. We’ll be tired when we get back to the hotel every night and we’ll have dinner together and get to know each other. In my experience, even if you have a random bunch of people you bond because you all have an interest in cycling. These trips are like having our own cycling club for a few days – it’s really nice.

Do you have any aches and pains from your cycling days?

Not really, I’m pretty lucky but I’m just not as fit as I once was. I know I’ll never be at that elite level again and I’ll never go as fast as that again or be as strong again, and that’s a strange realisation.

Is that hard to accept?

Well, it’s a little bit melancholic. But I think human beings have a tendency to erase the bad stuff and the physical pain from the past. There were a lot of times in my career where I was at the back of the race getting my head kicked in! But you tend to forget those things, such as the horrible training rides in January when you were unfit and overweight and it’s cold and raining.

Do you talk about your doping past with riders in the group?

Oh, yes, completely. I might even bring it up myself. It’s part of who I am and I’ve never hidden from that. I’m still quite a polemic figure in cycling but after talking to me I think people start to understand me and my generation of riders. It depends on the people who come on the trip and whether they know my story or have read my books. It’s not an elephant in the room anymore. If people ask me straight out, that doesn’t bother me.

You’ve recently become a mentor for young riders in the British cycling programme. How’s that going?

I’m now in Italy on a camp with nine riders aged between 19 and 22, nurturing them for the 2020 Olympics. This is their final step before being spotted as a potential medal winner. It’s been quite fulfilling already to see what I can offer in terms of knowledge and experience. They’re just babies now so the thought of one day seeing them compete at the highest level and winning an Olympic medal is a really exciting prospect.

As well as cycling knowledge, will you also help them on a more human level?

Yeah, I feel I can help them to handle the ups and downs and the high pressure of cycling because I’ve been there. If they don’t cope with those hurdles very well, things can get pretty twisted which is something I’ve experienced. Hopefully we can see that coming and help them handle it.

What are the conditions like?

We’re a bunch of guys living together in a farmhouse in a foreign country. For some of these guys it’s their first time in Italy. We’re out in the country, locked away and far from trouble – it’s like a reality show!

David Millar Ultimate Cycling Weekends, April 7 - 11 and April 14 – 18, AED 18,650 per person. For bookings, email [email protected] or call +34 971 637 888.

My toughest day on a bike

During his career, pain was a familiar feeling for David Millar. But one particular day in the 2010 Tour de France pushed him to a new level of suffering. In agony after a nasty crash, Millar rode a punishing alpine stage with sore ribs, a stomach bug and a fever. In an extract from his book Racing Through The Dark, Millar describes his darkest day as a cyclist.

Stage Nine of the Tour De France, 13 July 2010 

Despite the damage to my ribs – and the pain everywhere else – I decided not to take painkillers before the stage from Morzine-Avoriaz to St-Jeande-Maurienne, confident that I was feeling better after spending the previous day, a rest day, in bed. This turned out to be a mistake.

From the moment the flag dropped, I felt weak. I knew straight away that I was in big trouble. After only 10 kilometres, the pace was frenzied and, as we descended a hill, the peloton was stretched taut, lined out, with me dangling precariously at the back of the train.

I was pedalling at my maximum, but couldn’t hold the wheel and was losing ground on the guy in front of me. The rider behind came around me to fill the gap I’d allowed to open, a very bad sign so early in the day.

Worse, every time I lifted myself out of the saddle to try to pedal a bit harder, my back began to spasm and there were stabbing pains from my ribs.

There were just under 180 kilometres remaining in the stage and four mountains to climb. I was unequivocally, irredeemably, f****d.

But I’d forgotten one thing. I’d forgotten about the people at the roadside. Now they knew about my struggle and there they were, waiting for me, rooting for me

They waited, and even now, writing this, I’m almost overwhelmed at the thought of it. Because when you’re suffering that badly, I can’t tell you how much it means. And there were thousands of them. 

They cheered me with as much enthusiasm as if I was the first rider they’d seen. And then I started to hear my name, more and more, and I knew I had to keep going. This was the Tour de France – I couldn’t give up, not here, not in front of them all.

Racing Through the Dark: The Fall and Rise of David Millar is available in paperback and ebook from Orion.