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The Racer by David Millar – book review

David Millar is no stranger to writing a book. His first autobiography, Racing Through the Dark, was superb, and Millar put himself out there in a rare way, especially so in a market full of biographies that serve little more than vehicles for self-aggrandisement.

Millar’s new book, The Racer, is different. It’s autobiographical, sure, but it’s far from the classic sportsman’s move of releasing another post-retirement book in the hope of cashing in. Fortunately, it’s not a chance to name names and settle old scores without backlash, either. This book is essentially a blow-by-blow account of Millar’s final season as a pro with some very amusing, poignant and interesting digressions along the way.

If you had to carve the book into two halves, it would be pre-Tour and post-Tour. Or, more correctly, pre-Tour selection and post Tour non-selection. I don’t think I’m offering any spoilers by letting you in on the fact that Millar didn’t make the then Garmin Sharp team for the 2014 Tour de France, and the first part of the book feels like it builds to this point.

Millar is brutally honest about how his final season as a professional may have been one of his least ‘pro’ seasons in terms of application and motivation. Approaching his mid-30s, having been around the proverbial block more than a few times and being the father of two young boys all combined to make him less focused on his riding and less able to push himself in training to the lengths that he had in the past.

It’s basically the story of a pro cyclist, who soon won’t be a pro any more, coming to terms with increasing age, declining skills, how the sport has changed and, in many ways, left him behind. Consequently, Millar has an ability to talk both passionately and with a sense of detachment about cycling. As a result, The Racer offers rare insight into many aspects of the sport. The way Millar talks about certain aspects of cycling is done from the perspective of a man who realises how utterly crazy the sport can seem to anyone who isn’t on the inside. It works because Millar leaves very few things unexplained, and he’ll rarely mention something and just leave it hanging. Every insight is followed up with an attempt at explanation or justification which is frequently illuminating.

The pivotal moment in the book is when Millar recounts the events surrounding his omission from the 2014 Tour squad. Originally, Garmin directeur sportif Charlie Wegelius had called Millar up prior to the British National Road Race Championships and told him that he was in. Millar, who’d been in poor form and struggling with illness is evidently relieved by this news (as you would be) and seems almost touched by the team’s continued faith in his ability to get himself ready to perform despite being well into his thirties.

But, just before the national TT champs, Wegelius calls him up again and delivers a message that Millar ‘needs to show himself’ in the TT or the road race in order to be assured of making the squad even though they both know that Millar isn’t well and needs to rest if he’ll be fit for the Grand Depart in Yorkshire. Needless to say, things don’t go well and he doesn’t make the Tour team, but the way the realisation sets in makes for a compelling read. The whole book is good, but this struggle to comprehend the fact that he’s raced his last Tour and that the team he’d helped found and part owned no longer needed him is amazingly poignant.

Anyone who’s seen the movie For Love of the Game will see parallels between that story and Millar’s experiences in The Racer. The film revolves around Kevin Costner as Billy Chapel, an ageing Baseball player pitching his final game and reflecting on his career in the process, and it’s a good comparison to The Racer. Unfortunately, where Chapel pitches a perfect game and ends his career on a high, Millar doesn’t manage to win the Commonwealth Games, the redemptive goal he set himself after failing to make (or perhaps more correctly, being relegated from) Garmin’s Tour de France team, but there is some consolation in the form of a place in Great Britain’s team for the World Championships.

Ostensibly, The Racer is the story of a rider and how his final season unfolds and a vivid insight into life as a pro cyclist but, deeper than that, it’s about change, ageing and coping with both. There’s a whiff of nostalgia when Millar recalls past glories, especially the chapter about Garmin’s team time trial at the 2009 Tour, and a definite sense of loss and, occasionally, regret when he talks about his career framed in the light of forthcoming retirement.

So many sports books strive to show their protagonists at the very height of the powers, building a narrative to make them seem invulnerable, but few deal with the moment an athlete realises that things are coming to an end. This one does, and is infinitely better for it. Had the book been about any other season in Millar’s career, it wouldn’t have the effect that it does. The fact that all the events here are seen through the prism of forthcoming retirement means that everything seems a little more vivid, and certainly more permanent, because this really is it, there won’t be another chance to make up for it. It’s far from Millar writing an elegy to his lost youth and prowess as a rider, rather an intimate portrait of a man coming to terms with the fact that the career by which he has defined himself over the past decade will soon be over ushering in a huge change in his life.

If you’re after stories about cycling though, don’t worry, there are plenty here, many of which are amusing and insightful. The chapters about Ryder Hesjedal and his quirks are particularly enjoyable – especially the section explaining the Canadian’s life through the variety of cars he’s owned – and Millar has a lot of interesting things to say about his fellow pros, as well as offering an interesting perspective on the way things happen in the peloton, the tactics of road racing (Millar’s role through his career evolved from that of team leader to road caption and he offers a fascinating insight into life in the peloton) and his own personal philosophy about crashes.

Conclusion

The Racer strips away much of the mythology and glamour from pro cycling and, perhaps most importantly, comes across as a story of a man who rides his bike for a living, rather than purely the story of a professional cyclist. It’s the humanity and occasional vulnerability of Millar that makes it such a compelling read, as well as his ability as a veteran to remove himself from the madness of the peloton and see cycling with the eyes of a ‘normal’ person. Whether or not you’re specifically a Millar fan, there’s so much here to enjoy and, frankly, even people who aren’t into cycling will be able to pick this one up and find themselves unable to put it back down.

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