By Robbie Broughton
“Being an elite athlete – there’s a certain time in your life when you can do it. And the reason it was so hard in 2014 was because my head had started to fall off. I couldn’t really do it anymore.”
Comfortably ensconced in the plush surrounds of a smart hotel on the outskirts of Bakewell prior to a preview for the upcoming Eroica Britannia, David Millar spoke to Ride Velo about life in the peloton, his last year at Garmin and revealed how he’s forging a new life for himself.
Millar was one of those maverick riders who generated his fair share of controversy in his career. Famously banned for two years for doping when he was with Team Cofidis in 2004, he returned to help set up Team Slipstream (later Garmin Slipstream) and positioned himself as an anti doper, eventually becoming somewhat of an elder statesman for the peloton.
And, as well as generating controversy, he always appeared to be full of contradictions himself. Claiming Scottish heritage and competing under the Saltire for the Commonwealth Games, he was born in Malta, brought up in Hong Kong where he was educated at the independent King George V School and later moved to Maidenhead. Clearly a hugely talented cyclist who took up the sport when his mother, Avril, took him along to the High Wycombe Club to make friends, his incredible ability was soon noticed. Then, a week before he was due to start Art College at the age of 18 he went to France to try his luck as a professional cyclist, winning eight races and being offered five professional contracts.
Christian Vande Velde once told him, “It’s weird, you were soft when you started, I remember thinking that. I thought you gave up too easy. Yet for some reason you’ve become harder than almost all of us, that's not normally what happens.”
Tall, stylish (both on and off the bike), articulate and intelligent, Millar never really fitted the stereotype of the bland British sportsman. His night time antics earned him a reputation as someone who likes to party hard and he suffered an injury to his foot that put him out of action for a few months after one alcohol fuelled celebration (and earning him the nickname ‘Millartime’). A product of his international upbringing, he was equally at home in Biarritz or the Peak District and moved to Girona in Spain some years ago where he and his family still live.
His palmares speaks for itself. Here are the highlights: four individual stage victories at the Tour de France, one at the Giro d’Italia and five at the Vuelta a Espana mean that he remains one of the few British riders to achieve stage victories across all three Grand Tours. He was National Road Race and Time Trial Champion in 2007 and was second overall at the Tour of California. Leading the peloton onto the Champs Elysee on the last day of the Tour de France in 2013 remains one of his personal favourite moments. And it was his experience, leadership and strength of personality that led him to establish himself as a respected, savvy and battle hardened road captain for Garmin.
On retirement, his book The Racer received numerous plaudits, not to mention a prestigious award. It documented his last year as a professional cyclist, a tough one for him, not least because his team managers at Garmin failed to select him for that year’s Tour de France team. His disappointment at missing out on a final swan song in his career resonates throughout the book and even now he clearly feels bitter about the way his boss Jonathan Vaughters treated him.
“I was just disposed of and not even thanked. That’s what was so weird about the whole thing, how disrespected I was at the end, especially given the fact that arguably the team wouldn’t have existed without me. I’ve never spoken to JV (Jonathan Vaughters) since… it was weird how it all ended but it was very in keeping with Jonathan’s character. He just burns the bridges, just sets them on fire. He’s done it with Dan Martin, Ryder Hesjedal, Christian Vande Velde, Dave Zabriskie. The list goes on. Strange guy.”
And despite having a couple of years to chew it over he feels that it’ll still take a few years for him to be able really look back on it properly:
“Although it genuinely does seem like a lifetime ago it’s so incomprehensible to me. It feels like it was a different person who was doing it, which it was I guess.”
We’ll be able to get further insight into Millar’s Annus Horibilis with the much anticipated and imminent release of a film documenting his travails in 2014. Time Trial is the result of a collaboration with director Finlay Pretsell who first approached him about making an immersive film about professional bike racing some time ago.
“It’s going to be finished in the next few weeks amazingly, going to film festivals – Toronto or Venice, something like that. It’s been a magnum opus. It was nine years since we first spoke about it. He’s been interviewing me for five or six years. It’s turned into a pretty amazing thing.”
Millar’s refreshing candour and openness about the project reveals that, “It’s more of an art film, but I think it’s more accessible. It was getting a bit up its own arse to put it bluntly… Finlay realised that and he’s managed to bring it back to something anyone can sit down and watch.”
With onboard footage of races as well as from cinema quality cameras rigged to following motorbikes, “It’s footage that no one’s ever seen before. It really is visually stunning and the sound as well is breathtaking because I don’t think anyone’s really heard what it’s like to be in a bike race.”
It promises to be another illuminating portrait of Millar himself as he struggled with his inner demons in that season and he admits to feeling nervous about it:
“Here we go, revealing myself again… I think not getting selected for the Tour and those things, that did add to it a lot. It gave it a lot more gravitas and allows you to empathise more with what it’s like being a pro cyclist, kind of the ups and downs. The film is very much about the fact that it’s hard. You just watch this slow decline so there’s a sense of the beauty of the sport and so on but it’s very real and raw… human.”
We’re now used to listening to Millar’s insightful thoughts on the peloton through his commentary of the Tour de France, Vuelta and other pro cycling on ITV4. He and Ned Boulting have built up a good rapport over the last couple of years but following on from the safe hands of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen who were, let’s face it, an institution of their very own, hasn’t always been a walk in the park.
Millar has taken over as the programme’s ‘Fact Man’ and keeper of the Guide Historique, that compendium of indispensable history of chateaux, vineyards and ancient French aristocracy that keeps the race alive in its quiet moments and transitional stages. But it’s his thoughts and comments on the race itself that gives ITV that ‘value added’ other channels could only wish for. As Ian Cleverly, editor of Rouleur Magazine, said when he spoke to us last year, “His insight is extraordinary – he tells you exactly what’s going to happen before it’s happened.”
On their three week sojourn around France to cover the Tour, Millar and Boulting sling a couple of fold up Brompton bikes into the back of the car, an idea that he describes as a “genius masterstroke of mine… Often the finishes are on the edge of towns and you can get stuck there, so I just hop on the bike, go into town and check things out. I saw more on my Brompton on the Tour de France last year than I ever did when I was racing the Tour. I actually got to see towns and cities, investigate things and get lost. We’ll be doing that again this year for sure.”
And the car that Millar and co. criss-cross France in is no run of the mill Skoda hire car. As an ambassador for Maserati he is the lucky driver of a Levante S, the new SUV that is part of the luxury car brand’s new range. “It’s top of the range, fire breathing, petrol, ridiculous. It’s a monster, so cool, red leather interior,” although he admits it’s a little incongruous in the little Catalan village where he lives with his wife and three kids!
He describes his ambassadorship with Maserati as “serendipity at its best.” He fell in love with the “boxy, weird” Ghibli 2.8 GT back in the 1990s but had been a huge fan of Maserati since he was a kid so that “when they approached, I thought you’ve got to be joking. I knew everything about Maserati, the history and everything.”
It’s because of Maserati that he’s here in Bakewell promoting this year’s edition of Eroica Britannia, the vintage cycling festival in Derbyshire. The car brand is a proud sponsor of the event and their PR machine has moved into action even in the very hotel in which we’re staying with a Maserati flag outside, Maserati cushions on the sofa and a team of assistants on hand to cater to one’s every need. As Millar jokingly puts it, “the place has been Mazza-ed.”
The day after out interview we all venture out in glorious spring sunshine for a preview of the short 25-mile route on vintage steel frame bikes. Millar is on “the last bike that I actually bought,” a Dave Russell that he used to race on in his youth. Stored in his Mum’s attic and then his own basement, he’s built it up from just a frame and forks to a working bike again.
“It’s great, instead of it rotting away and disappearing it’s got a reason to live again…I haven’t ridden it for 22 years so it’s going to be good fun riding that again, makes me realise how old I am. Wow, the bike I was racing in 1995!”
While the rest of us look rather awkward in our wool jerseys and rather short shorts, Millar reminds us all that he’s always been one of the most elegant bike riders around. Of his experience of coming to Eroica last year, he says:
“I loved it. I was just taken aback with how much fun it all was. I love the fact that everyone’s dressed up and I’m a big hat man. Everyone was wearing hats and I’m like, ‘Finally, I’m home!’ It’s just brilliant for the family – I’m coming back with the whole family this year so that’s going to be well… either great, or monumentally bad! We’ll see with three little kids camping. It’s so different to everything else I’ve done. Just fun. No devices, no stresses, no competition. The only competition is how you look, so perfect in a way. I was quite taken aback by it. I was telling everyone afterwards, ‘You’ve got to do Eroica! It’s so good!’ I was preaching it.”
It’s Millar’s three pronged love of style, clothes and cycling that led him to set up his own high end brand of cycling apparel, Chapter III. After launching a small range a couple of years ago, he’s now at the point that, as well as being stocked by about 25 shops worldwide, customers will soon be able to buy the products online from a new look website that he is currently developing. It promises to be a lot more than your everyday online shop, with features and articles written by Millar himself.
While the clothes are manufactured by Castelli, the designs come from him. “For the first time I’m going to wear clothes that I actually want to wear, that I’ve designed. It’s like being your own tailor.” His ultimate challenge is to design a track suit “that you can wear around the house, one that won’t make your wife laugh at you.”
Now he’s 40 himself, one could say that he’s reinventing the MAMIL to Middle Aged Millar in Lycra with his very classy range of bike wear that has stylish, eccentric finishes like the buttoned neck flaps on the jacket and the detailing on the jerseys. In a short time he’s built up a brand that represents beautiful, well-made, technical kit that has a bit of style.
He’s also developing a range of luggage with Brooks and doing surface designs for POC’s 2018 range of helmets, not to mention some glasses.
All of this requires a huge amount of work, of course, and he’s thrown himself into developing his brand with enormous enthusiasm and energy as he “reboots” his life from scratch, as he puts it.
“I’m starting from zero and so that does mean a lot of work, not only learning but convincing people of that and there’s different things going on: the commentary, corporate work and things like this. It’s very hard work. I have about 18 strings to my bow sort of thing.”
With so much going on there's little time to ride a bike. He generally uses the gym in two month blocks to keep himself in shape. “The gym and running are so time effective. Cycling requires so much time getting ready - I could have got to the gym and done my routine by the time I get out of the house. All that faffing around and procrastinating, realising your tyres are flat, batteries dead, you’ve got the wrong clothes on. For fuck’s sake!”
Like the rest of us mortals, it’s reassuring to hear that he also has to juggle the needs of family life and work. When he does get home “My life revolves around the kids’ school hours. I can’t exactly get back and say, ‘You know what, I’m going to go on a bike ride.’ My wife would probably just punch me in the face! It’s definitely my role to lessen her load when I’m back at home.”
As we return to the hotel for a spot of lunch before we all go our separate ways, Millar emerges, fresh and showered in a tuxedo. He has to head down to London for the Rugby Awards Dinner. Christ, does this guy ever stop?!
It’s been fascinating getting to know David Millar a little bit. What’s been most surprising is how approachable, friendly and chatty he is, something you don’t initially expect when you see this tall, elegant, charismatic and imposing figure on the other side of the room. But it’s actually warmth, easygoing bonhomie and charm that he shows on actually meeting him.
David Millar will be appearing (and camping!) at Eroica Britannia from 16 – 18th June.
David Millar is an ambassador for Maserati GB, presenting partner of the Eroica Britannia Ride. For more information and to discover the all-new Maserati Levante visit: www.maserati.co.uk