Resilient Millar desperate to seize opportunity in France
Elder statesman relishing taking on bumpy ride in Tour, writes William Fotheringham
You can hear the relish in David Millar's voice as he describes what awaits the field in the Tour de France on Tuesday, when they race across northern France on a course including some of the cobbled lanes that figure in the Paris-Roubaix one-day Classic.
"I can't imagine it not being a total shitstorm. I would expect a couple of the guys going for the overall to be crying themselves to sleep that night."
Once nicknamed "Boy Dave" for his youthful mien, the 33-year-old Scot is now the senior pro among the increasing number of British cyclists in the elite ranks. It is 10 years since he made a most dramatic of debuts in the Tour de France, winning the opening time trial. This Tour, he reckons with a tone of disbelief, will be the 18th time he has ridden one of the majors -- France, Italy and Spain -- and being an elder statesman has changed him.
"I'm more resilient, I sleep more, I'm not good at prologue time trials any more, but it was always hit and miss," he says. "I'm not as erratic in my training and my lifestyle. I have more responsibility."
Once a wild child in Biarritz, off the bike he now leads a quiet married life in a farm outside Girona, Spain, with his wife, Nicole, and their two dogs.
For the next three weeks, Millar will be a "super-domestique", in the service of the Garmin-Transitions team leader, Christian Vande Velde, and the team's sprinter, Tyler Farrar.
"I usually try to seize an opportunity for myself but I don't know what my level of fatigue will be. In the old days I would want to win the prologue and a road stage, but I would sit back the rest of the time. These days I have to be strong in the last 20km of every flat stage, then make a massive effort to lead out Tyler; other days I have to stay with Christian until the last mountain. I don't win as much, but it is a role I find incredibly gratifying."
Last year, he spent the Tour as wing-man to Bradley Wiggins, helping guide the Londoner to fourth place. Millar is not convinced Wiggins will improve on his 2009 ride. "Brad will do well but it is an incredibly long shot for him to make the podium. It's a very hard Tour, much harder than last year, and he's going in different circumstances." Wiggins's transfer from Garmin to Sky over the winter made waves, with Millar caught in the middle: he was one of the founders of Garmin-Transitions, together with the American Jonathan Vaughters, while Sky is run by his old mentor Dave Brailsford, with his sister, Fran, in a key management role.
When Millar said he was not happy about the move, a brief war of words ensued. "It was a storm in a teacup. I was angry with Brad, the way he moved, he gave us very little respect. I wasn't very keen on it but it was blown out of proportion."
And how are Sky, the new kids on the block, viewed by their fellow riders?
"They are seen as outsiders, but that's what they want. They came in to do everything differently; it's not a matter of being popular or unpopular."
Since his comeback as an anti-doping campaigner in '06, after being busted and banned for two years, it is to Millar that one turns for an idea of the peloton's "ethical state", as it is euphemistically termed. "The state of the peloton seems pretty good, pretty real. There are very few anomalous results these days. That guys like Brad and Christian Vande Velde can go for the podium in the Tour shows how clean the sport is now."
As well as his anti-doping work, Millar is still winning races: three this year, as well as strong rides in stage races such as the Dauphine and the Giro d'Italia. And he has carved out a place for himself by helping to found his own team. A mark of their success was snagging Garmin as lead sponsor, followed this year by the Transitions optical company. It makes lenses that change according to light conditions, but their name is an apt one as cycling, hopefully, moves on to a more ethical footing.
Millar says he will continue in the Tour for "as long as I can squeeze out". The years without the Tour made him appreciate that, in essence, he is a bike fan who gets to live the dream. He is writing his autobiography and it should be one hell of a read, if his online scribbles are anything to go by. As yet the book has no title, but he could do worse than a phrase that crops up whenever he talks cycling: "Everything is a bonus now."