Continuing my non-stop cycling reading during this year’s Tour de France, I turned to a volume has been sitting around on my bookshelf* for a number of years – David Millar’s book where he digs into his life story, and in particular the years that he doped.
I’ve always liked David Millar, and latterly he’s become an important part of ITV4’s Tour de France coverage, with him as co-commentator to Ned Boulting. He’s also got his Chapt3 cycling brand, bringing out such things as special edition Brompton bikes.
But this book, published in 2012, stops far earlier than that point in his career. It takes us through his childhood, spent in both the UK and Hong Kong, getting involved first in mountain biking before he discovered the road.
So far, so standard story of a kid getting into cycling.
But then he throws himself into the French scene, arriving without even speaking French and managing to find himself a team to teach him how to become a cyclist.
Throughout, aware of his gifts, there is the looming presence of something else happening around him. As his career develops, it becomes more and more obvious that others are getting prepared.
As with with Jonathan Vaughters in his more recent book there’s no desire to take drugs. Indeed there’s outright resistance to the very idea. Yet disillusion comes into play, and when everyone seems to be doing it, and there’s no way that you’re going to progress in the sport unless you do it, few can resist. (There are a handful of notable exceptions.)
Despite a series of scandals, not even the threat of being imprisoned in France seems to stop, and high profile raids on Tour de France riders’ hotels aren’t enough.
Millar joins the club, and gets told the inside track. How do you go about it? He actually details the process very fully. Getting the vials or syringes of EPO was harder than it had once been, but was still pretty easy. And of course team managers, while publicly anti-doping, took few real measures to prevent it. The fact was (and is) that cycling is supported by sponsors, and sponsors want results for their multi-million Euro investments. So team managers who need to deliver those results to ensure that the team continues, were far too prepared to turn a blind eye to what was going on.
In due course, as we know, Millar was caught as a doper, in an investigation into his then team Cofidis. At that point, everything around him collapsed. He couldn’t maintain what had become quite an extravagant playboy lifestyle. He was facing at the very least a ban from the sport and perhaps worse. And now he owed hundreds of thousands of Euros to the French taxman.
Millar is brutally honest describing the depths to which he fell. He embarked on a series of drinking sprees, sometimes climbing out a bit, before spiralling back again.
In the end, it’s really a message from his sister Fran (France to him) which really drags him back to reality.
Fran Millar is an interesting person in her own right, and has recently been made CEO of Team INEOS (Listen to a great recent interview with her from The Cycling Podcast). She and her brother are obviously close, although this is David’s story and not hers.
In due course he meets with Jonathan Vaughters, and becomes part of the new Slipstream team that he’s setting up with Doug Ellis.
The book then becomes a tale of redemption. It’s not always straightforward, and even after Millar’s return to the sport, there were obviously still things to overcome.
I’m not at all sure why it took me so long to read this book. The only thing it really suffers from is some of the other stories not having totally played out. In particular, Lance Armstrong had yet to admit to doping – and while you could probably read between the lines and see that he was, it’s not overt here.
Millar didn’t retire until 2014, and there is a subsequent volume that I will get to. But this is undoubtedly one of the key titles to cover one of the darker periods of cycling.
* To be clear, this is way bigger than a singular “bookshelf.”