David a Golliath once again?

With Fabian Cancellara missing from this year's UCI World Championships, the list of possible...

An interview with David Millar, September 24, 2008

David a Golliath once again?

He got a rainbow jersey once before, but had to hand it back. This time round, David Millar is aiming to win it for real. Cyclingnews' Shane Stokes spoke to a confident Millar prior to the World Championships.

With Fabian Cancellara missing from this year's UCI World Championships, the list of possible winners is suddenly a lot more open. One of those who should be in the running is David Millar, the Scot who beat Cancellara to win a time trial stage of the 2006 Vuelta a España.

Millar has a mixed history at the Worlds, with silver in 2001 behind Jan Ullrich the high point of his palmares. He actually stood on top of the podium in 2003, but was later disqualified following a confession of Erythropoietin (EPO) usage. Since his return to the sport in 2006 he has finished 15th and 18th in the Worlds, not a true reflection of his ability, but he hopes that things will be different this time round.

Millar showed good form at the Tour of Ireland, before heading to the Tour of Britain and focusing on specific preparation for this week's event. "Things have been hard but good since the Tour of Ireland," he said. "It's taken a strong shared belief from myself and JV [team director Jonathan Vaughers] to get to this point.

"After the Tour it would have been easy to think riding well in the Worlds would be beyond me." - David Millar tune has changed and he now wants gold

"After how I was feeling towards the end of the Tour and the few weeks after, it would have been easy to think riding well in the Worlds would be beyond me," he added. "I've just kept plugging away with this one goal in mind, and slowly but surely I've started to come around."

He's now satisfied that he is in strong shape. His confidence is rising and he is aiming for the top step of the podium. "In the last few days I consider it realistic to be racing for the win," he said. "I will be very pleased to be battling it out for that…I've not been in that position for many years. I hold this race close to my heart and would love to win it."

Millar showed good form at the start of the season, riding solidly in races such as the Tour of Qatar, and headed into the Giro d'Italia aiming to ride strongly. He went close to a stage victory but was foiled by a broken chain; after the end of that Grand Tour, he set about preparing for the Tour de France, his main goal of the year. He was third and fifth in time trials there; that said, an error in his training caused him to become very run down, and he has only recently recovered from that.

"I was a bit of 'man-down' after the Tour de France, the last two weeks of that race, and in the three weeks after that I was just terrible," he said at the end of August. "10 or 11 days ago, I could barely ride my bike. I have come round very quickly, which is great.

"After I was really bad in those last two weeks of the Tour, our plan was to shut it down completely, taking the opportunity of not going to the Olympics to get a complete break," he added. "It meant that I could afford to have an opposite fitness cycle to the guys at the Olympics. The idea is that my form would be coming up for the Worlds, while they are trying to hold on to theirs."

Millar has fallen foul of over-training several times in the past, and said that once again this was the problem. It was not purely to do with pushing things too hard; in fact, it was a combination of this and training in the high mountains afterwards.

"I had set the Giro so much in my head as just a training exercise that I totally underestimated it," he said. "I came straight out of that and went to altitude - I had never done altitude before, it was my first time doing it, and I was just training too hard.

"I trained straight away after the Giro, I did three and a half weeks of good training, I was getting better and better, but I was literally at the end of that fitness peak coming into the Tour," he said. "I was okay for a few days but then I was on my hands and knees. I haven't had a Grand Tour that bad ever. It was something horrible."

Millar struggled and scraped through the race, finishing 68th in Paris but really pushing himself to get there. He said that he had to take a full week off the bike, and then spent two and a half weeks "just literally toodling around". He is clear as to what he was do, if he had a chance to do it over again.

"I'd not train so hard after the Giro," he said. "I would still do altitude, I just wouldn't train so hard. It was ridiculous. Within a week of finishing the Giro, I was already training hard at altitude. It was way too much."

Proud of Garmin-Chipotle

Since returning from his ban, Millar has been outspoken against drug use in sport and is on World Anti-Doping Agency's Athlete committee. He has also ensured he faces extra anti-doping tests by joining Vaughers' Slipstream team last winter. The team, now called Garmin-Chipotle H30, has touted a clean team message, and many believe that Millar is a fully reformed character.

He is proud of how things have progressed, and believes that things will grow further in the years ahead.

"Things with the team have been great," he said. "Getting a new title sponsor was a major achievement, especially in the current climate. I don't think that any team has had as fast a development as we have had in this last year. Most teams take a few years to get to this point. CSC didn't just arrive, Columbia didn't just arrive - they spent years to get to that level.

"To think that we have gone from basically a junior team to a top-level pro team in what is essentially four years is quite remarkable, really," he said. "I think that is quite an achievement. We are still trying to find our feet, still forming.

"It is quite hard keeping up with that development, but I think now we have got the spirit, the soul of the team, and now we are just trying to build everything else around that," he added. "We are getting a good group and finding our direction, which is good."

The credibility of Garmin Chipotle experienced a boost after the Tour de France when journalist Paul Kimmage - a fierce critic of doping and, previously, of Millar himself - concluded that the team was indeed clean. The Irishman had a special arrangement with the team to observe what he wanted during the race, staying at the same hotels and entering rooms and team meetings whenever he wished.

After the race, Kimmage stated that following the team and riders such as Christian Vande Velde, who finished fifth in the race, helped him believe that cycling was indeed emerging from the recent doping crisis. It didn't necessarily mean that all teams were doing things in the right way, but he said that Vaughers' riders gave him hope.

Millar feels that Kimmage's statements are a good sign. "It was important for cycling, to perhaps not have such a negative voice," he said. "I think it is always good to convert somebody like that. It gives a certain value to what we are doing, I think, which would have been harder to find otherwise.

"I think he has been negative for his own reasons, and I think that in the long run he has perhaps been proved right," he added. "It is ironic that he took so much flak for being so negative, for being so opinionated, but in the long run it would appear that he had reason. And I think then he has reason to believe the opposite [now], which is good.

"I think that also gives a certain degree of credos to his journalism as well," said Millar. "The fact that he can turn like that means it is not a vendetta against cycling. I think it works both ways."

Millar has invested money in the team, and is more than just a rider; he is a part-owner, and has presumably some influence in deciding the direction it moves in. As a result, Millar feels his long-term future is with the Argyle army.

"Yes, that is the goal," he said. "I have put a lot of my heart and soul into this team, as have many people I think. I am very personally attached to its future and I hope it is going to continue for a long time. And I think we can. Like I said, I think we have yet to reach our level, really settle and bed in, and I believe that is going to happen in the next couple of years.

"I hope we can continue enjoying it," he said. "I think it is a nice team, and what we are doing is good for cycling. I can see myself staying with his team for a while."

Millar said he plans to race until he is 35 or 36, in other words until 2012 or 2013. He has been long-regarded as one of the more intelligent and educated riders in the peloton, and it would therefore be of little surprise if he went on to do something completely different after he hung up his racing wheels. However he now appears set to remain working within the sport, switching perhaps to team management or a directeur sportif role.

"I have learnt that it is where I belong," he said. "When I have got to this age and that is all that I know, it would be silly to waste all that knowledge, to go somewhere else and try to do something different. I wouldn't be able to do something else nearly as good as this. I would like to think that this team might still exist [when he retires] and I could carry on, make a smooth transition."

Looking back, and forward

This season has been an excellent one for the team, with many strong performances proving that it can compete at the very top level. If the momentum continues and the young talent comes through, who knows what might be achieved.

"The team time trial win in the Giro was definitely a high point," he said, when asked what stood out for him. "I think that the team's overall performance in the Tour was also one. We rode very well there and enjoyed the racing.

"Christian did a great Tour, of course," he added. "It was representative of the ethos of the team."

As for Millar himself, he was showing signs of good form during the Tour of Ireland, riding very strongly for New Zealand's Julian Dean there. Millar is feeling optimistic that the peak of his season is yet to come.

"I think it is going to be the best for the Worlds," he said. "It was very good at the beginning of the year, then there was the hiccup of getting sick at Paris-Nice and then fighting back from that. The Giro was just a case of getting through it, apart from the stage where I went close [to the win].

"Thinking about it, I think that things are coming together," he added. "I had a lot of exterior stuff happening early on with the development of the team, but now I can relax. I don't have to deal with any of that. It is nice… I can just concentrate on racing. So I think it is going to actually work out well for the World Championships."

His preparations for that were quite intense but, with the Giro lesson in mind, things would have been balanced a little better. He went to altitude immediately after the Tour of Ireland, returned to racing at the Tour of Britain, and then was due to head to St. Moritz in Switzerland for more high-mountain work.

The UCI World Championships in Varese, Italy will bring his 2008 season to an end, with the time trial and road races his final two events of the year. Millar has been on the go since the Tour of Qatar last January and a break is long overdue. He plans a quiet winter in Girona, doing some cyclo-cross there to keep in shape and then building up for a good 2009.

Competing with Garmin Chipotle is undoubtedly good for his morale, and the team's strong season is a boost to his motivation heading into the winter months. An even bigger boost would be having a rainbow jersey to his name; if his self-assessment is correct and he is on course to hit top form, he should be right up there.

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