Millar, the case for special treatment
by Richard Moore in Leeds
What better way to look ahead to the 101st Tour de France, and the second to start in Great Britain, than to speak to one of the great survivors and stalwarts of British cycling, David Millar?
You can see what we were thinking when we decided to dedicate last week’s podcast to a rider who represents and indeed embodies two distinct eras in professional cycling: the EPO years and the clean-up.
Our podcast included an interview in which Millar looked back on his 18-year career. But also forward, to starting his 13th Tour.
It didn’t occur to us – and clearly it didn’t occur to Millar – that he might have stalled at 12.
Yet when Garmin-Sharp named their nine-man team on Monday, Millar was not in it. Earlier, he had taken to Twitter, complaining that the team’s management, Jonathan Vaughters and Charly Wegelius, were not answering their phones, which made him fear for his place.
The official reason is that Millar is unwell. He had a bronchial cough at the end of last week that affected his performances in the weekend’s national time trial and road race, but a course of antibiotics should have cleared it up in time for the Tour.
While not doubting the team’s explanation, it seems more likely to be a combination of concerns about his health and his form. Perhaps they took the view that he could start the Tour healthy with below-par form, or slightly unwell but in good form, but not with questions over both his health and his form.
Of course, there is little room for sentiment in professional sport (see Bradley Wiggins). The team should absolutely pick the riders best suited and prepared to do the required job.
At the same time, there is an argument that Millar and Garmin-Sharp might be considered a special case.
Theirs is a relationship that goes a little deeper than most. Millar and his team have grown together, reinforcing each other’s core message: that success can be achieved without doping. More than that, that anti-doping can be the abiding ethos, more important than winning.
This has influenced everything about Garmin-Sharp: their recruitment policy and internal monitoring; the expectations they place on their riders; their commitment to openness and transparency (though this has not always been adhered to); and, especially, fans’ and media attitudes towards them.
Trust is implicit. It explains why, when Dan Martin won a stage of the Tour in the Pyrenees last year, he was not asked one question about doping. (In contrast, Chris Froome, the winner 24 hours earlier, was really only asked questions about doping.)
Millar joined what was then the Slipstream team in 2008. From the outset he was more than a rider; he was a part-owner. And his profile and stature helped them get an invitation to the Tour that year.
At the time, Millar was re-building his own reputation, trying to win back trust. It wasn’t as easy as it might now seem. Millar was blazing a trail as a reformed doper who considered it his responsibility to repeatedly remind people he was an ex-doper (leading to caricatures of him as ‘Saint David’ or ‘Holy Dave’).
Yet Millar was no different to several of his teammates. He spent the best part of five years riding with Christian Vande Velde, David Zabriskie, Tom Danielson and Ryder Hesjedal, not to mention his boss, Jonathan Vaughters, each of whom had his own doping past. The only difference was that Millar’s secret was in the public domain.
Millar must have known (even if it was only implicitly understood) that as the team’s only ‘out’ doper, he was carrying the can, and sometimes copping the flak, for all of them.
Until their mass outing in the USADA report at the end of 2012 (with the truth about Hesjedal coming a year later), it was always Millar who fronted up and acted as team spokesman when the questions were about doping. In doing so he offered a shelter for the others. Unwittingly or not, he helped them keep their secrets.
This might have been for entirely understandable, pragmatic reasons (let’s not overlook the fact that they all did the right thing in the end, confessing to USADA), but there must have been times when it left Millar in an uncomfortable place, while his teammates, watching from the bus as he gave yet another interview from the perspective of an ‘ex-doper’, counted their blessings that Saint David was in their midst.
No rider is owed a final appearance on the big stage. But after all that Millar has done and been for his team it seems a great pity that his career as a Tour de France rider has ended on such a sour note.
MILLAR’S TOUR RECORD
2000 – time trial win at Futuroscope, three days in yellow, 62nd overall
2001 – did not finish stage 10
2002 – stage win at Béziers, 68th overall
2003 – time trial stage win at Nantes, 55th overall
2004 & 2005 – suspended
2006 – 59th
2007 – 68th
2008 – 65th
2009 – 84th
2010 – 157th
2011 – 75th
2012 – stage win at Annonay-Davézieux, 106th overall
2013 – 113th