David Millar interview: five things I learned as a pro cyclist
Retired British pro opens up about what his long career taught him as a cyclist
David Millar retired in 2014, 17 years after turning professional with the French team Cofidis in 1997, and with a career behind him which was effectively split in two by a doping ban in 2004.
Millar returned to the professional peloton in 2006, helping to lead the fight against doping in cycling and earning a reputation as one of the most respected road captains in cycling, while also winning stages of the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and Vuelta a Espana and becoming the first Brit to lead all three Grand Tours. He also earned a world time trial silver medal and Commonwealth Games time trial gold.
It’s unsurprising, then, that Millar learned plenty through his career – some of which he has already shared in his two books, Racing Through The Dark and The Racer (read our review) – the latter of which he will be talking about at this weekend’s London Sports Writing Festival.
And we’ve also picked Millar’s brain to find out what nearly two decades in the peloton taught him as a cyclist
Patience is a virtue
When we posed the question of what Millar had learned during his 17-year career, it was something he pondered for some time.
Fittingly, therefore, it was patience which first came to his mind – not that, by his admission, he used to show much as a pro.
“There are a lot of things cycling taught me that I never actually learned,” he said. “It taught me that it’s worth having patience.
“I didn’t necessarily put that into practice but all the guys I’ve seen that have done really well have all been very patient with their careers, and didn’t mind losing and learnt from it. I watched and learned how to do it, though I was never very good at it!
“But I did learn that you’ve got to build something, it doesn’t come at once. Now I can see that, I’ve taken it into my next life – I couldn’t do that as a pro cyclist.”
Where Millar admits his love of the here and now counted against him in some senses, former team-mates have gone on to enjoy success after biding their time.
Sir Bradley Wiggins is one prime example, while more recently Geraint Thomas’ undoubted potential has started to show itself in terms of big results on the road.
“Brad is a prime example,” he said. “And Christian Vande Velde. Even Vincenzo Nibali and Geraint Thomas – they chip away, they get closer and closer to the win and then one day they start winning. I’ve got a lot of respect for those guys.”
Eccentrics can still shine
Millar’s former directeur sportif at Garmin, Charly Wegelius, told RoadCyclingUK that cycling was a sport for eccentrics when he first got involved – moving to France in 1996, the year before Millar joined Cofidis.
But, while the change in cycling since then has been obvious – not just in terms of doping and the sport’s profile in the UK but in the way it is raced, too – Millar believes there is still a place for eccentric riders, citing Peter Sagan as a prime example.
“I got into an eccentric sport,” Millar admitted. “It’s still the side of the sport I love and search out.
“I think cycling is always after an eccentric rider, a rider willing to go in the day-long breakaway or bury himself in a time trial.
“The peloton has changed and it’s become sanitised but, at the same time, our world champion is one of the most eccentric bike riders I’ve ever seen. I don’t think it’s the end for riders in that mould. There are still riders now who are very eccentric.
“The sport has changed, but it’s periodic. In many ways it’s a rebellion to the doping era, it had to be changed to how it is now.”
Millar’s own career, and approach to cycling changed in his later career – with his comeback from suspension actually seeing him race in a very different manner.
“I became a jack-of-all-trades and, really, a master of none,” he admitted. “In a way it was liberating. I became a master of my own destiny.
“I did what I wanted. If I wanted to be in a break, I went in the break. I think I started to enjoy it more. The weight of expectation that was there when I was younger, and washed over me, was lifted. I didn’t care what people thought anymore.”
Professional cyclists can now thrive in Britain
As an aspiring cyclist in the mid-1990s Millar had to move abroad in order to seek out a career in the sport – as did all Brits at the time.
As one of the first recipients of funding from the Dave Rayner Fund, which sponsors up and coming riders, with Wegelius another, Millar was able to move abroad, joining a club at St-Quentin before a pro team came calling in the form of Cofidis.
His profile in Britain, however, remained limited – something that changed as his career progressed and the sport grew on these shores in unison – and young British cyclists are now able to thrive at home as well as abroad.
“The change in cycling is obvious,” he reflected. “It’s gone from being a cult sport to something much bigger.
“I never got into it for money and cars or that sort of thing, and I don’t think the current guys have either but actually we’re at the stage where you can – it’s actually something that happens.
“It never happened in my generation. You weren’t even well known in the UK, you had to live abroad. I had to and so did Charly, so did all of us.”
Pain teaches you more than success
Millar has often admitted he takes greater pride in the time he simply survived, than the times he won. Slogging up the Alpine mountains when carrying injuries or the times when he put himself in the hurt locker just to carry on in a race.
“The best stories I have are when it was just survival,” he admitted. “There’s the old adage that, as human beings, we are conditioned to forget suffering. I don’t think we are, not to forget it as such, but that’s where I learned the most about myself.
“I pushed myself far harder when I was suffering than I did when I was winning. I went far deeper psychologically when I was suffering. Those are the things that made me who I am. It wasn’t winning that did that, but suffering.”
And the secret to going so deep, Millar said, is actually quite simple.
“Not giving up,” he said. “That’s the only thing, it’s as simple as that. You learn in cycling, as you get older, that if you manage yourself through that stage in the race then you can always make it in the time limit.
“You can’t panic, you can’t be thinking it’s all over. It’s never over, you can always finish but it’s going to hurt. But that’s the lovely thing about cycling, you teach yourself to finish, not give up.
“I taught myself that. When I was younger I gave up a lot. I had to teach myself to finish. When I was younger I could always be fast in time trials, I could always do well, so when there was even just a grain of sand in the machine that set me back I’d throw the towel in. As I got older, I realised that wasn’t the right thing to do.”
The cruelty of sport keeps you grounded
Perhaps nothing epitomised that will to survive as much as Millar’s final season, the subject of his second book, The Racer, when cycling’s cruel nature was laid bare.
Having suffered from illness earlier in the season, the team gave him an ultimatum to ‘show himself’ at either the national road race or national time trial in order to confirm selection for the Tour de France.
Knowing he was still fighting illness, Millar knew it would not be possible, though firmly believed he would be fit for a final Tour – and he was left ‘devastated and shocked’ by the omission from the squad that followed.
The Grand Tour he did race, the Vuelta a Espana, also ended painfully – though this time physically after he was forced to finish the race with a broken hand.
But, reflecting candidly on his final year, Millar admits it keeps you grounded as a person.
“All sport is cruel,” he said. “Life’s not fair, man. Life’s not fair. I think as professional cyclists, elite athletes even, you’re mollycoddled. You’re spoiled. If you reach the top, which I was very lucky to do and have some time there, you do become accustomed to that and start to think you deserve that.
“But ultimately, your career reverses itself and in the end you just become a neo-pro all over again. No-one gives a fuck, you’re expendable, they’ll find someone better.
“And that’s good because you realise that you weren’t special, you were just fucking good for a small period of time. Now it’s someone else who’s fucking good.”
So when was Millar at his best? It’s a question he’s quick to answer.
“2010. I raced so much, and every single race I did I raced,” he explained. It was the year Millar won time trials medals at both the Commonwealth Games and World Championships, as well as the overall classification at the Three Days of De Panne.
“From Classics to Grand Tours to small stage races to small one-day races; different countries, from being a domestique to being a lead-out man to being a one-day leader to being team captain to being team owner,” Millar continued. “I just loved it that year. I was full speed ahead that year.”
Win tickets to the London Sports Writing Festival
We have two day passes for Saturday at the London Sports Writing Festival up for grabs, with Millar taking the stage at Lord’s Cricket Ground with Ned Boulting at 8pm.
Other speakers on the day include rugby union’s Ben Cohen and Michael Lynagh, dissecting the Rugby World Cup, and renowned football journalist Henry Winter on How to Survive as a Football Manager.
For your chance to win a pair of passes, and a copy of David Millar’s The Racer, just answer the simple question below.
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