An interview with David Millar, September 22, 2006
Hopes of a medal in the world championship time trial didnt go to plan this week, but David Millar will be aiming for a strong ride in Sundays Elite road race in Salzburg. The Scottish rider is rebuilding form after a two-year doping ban from the sport, and his stage win at the Tour of Spain showed that he is coming back. Importantly and especially given the scandals which hit the sport this year Millar has insisted that he is racing clean this time round, and, as he says to Shane Stokes, he hopes to show that it is possible to win big without taking performance enhancing drugs.
With the end of the Vuelta a España now coming just four days before the elite time trial and a week prior to the world road race championships, the question exists as to whether it is advantageous or not vis-à-vis Mondial aspirations to ride until the end of the three week Grand Tour.
One of those who left earlier to recover and then sharpen up for the TT event was Thursdays gold medallist Fabian Cancellara. In contrast, David Millar stayed on until the finish in Madrid but then felt off-form in the race against the clock, placing 15th. He finished a full 321.99 behind the Swiss rival he had beaten in the first Vuelta time trial.
Following the end of that Tour of Spain on Sunday, Millar flew out that evening to join his Great Britain team-mates at their camp in Austria. Earlier this week he had said that he thought that things were going well in the run up to the 50.83 kilometre TT.
"Things are good. I arrived here Sunday night, coming straight here from Madrid," he told Cyclingnews on Tuesday. "I just kept riding [after the Vuelta]. I have been out on the circuit; I was out for a couple of hours yesterday. I will then do two sessions today."
"I just want to keep things rolling I actually feel good [despite completing both the Tours of France and Spain]. I had it in my head before finishing the Vuelta that I had another week, so I have not slipped into that post-stage race fatigue. The legs feel good and it is great to be here with the GB team."
The 29 year old said he was looking forward to a good contest in the TT. "The course is beautiful, there is a bit of everything on it. I think it will suit all the time trialists, and is certainly worthy of the world championships. In terms of who will be fighting it out for the top positions, I will be up against the likes of Cancellara, Mick Rogers, Sebastian Lang, Zabriskie. There is going to be a lot of guys," opined the Scot, accurately predicting three of the top four finishers of the day, including the gold (Cancellara) and silver (Zabriskie) medalists.
He is still building confidence following his time out from the sport and steered clear of big predictions with regard to his likely performance. "I'm not sure how I am fixed for going for gold but I would be really happy with a podium place," he stated. In hindsight, his eventual 15th place cannot really be considered a failure, given his short season (he became eligible to race again only days before the Tour's prologue) and his massive workload since.
Millar returned to cycling at the Tour de France this year and took a little time to get up to speed. He was 17th in the prologue and then placed 11th in the final time trial there. With one Grand Tour in his legs he continued building form, scooping an excellent victory in the Vuelta's stage-14 time trial at Cuenca. His winning margin over Cancellara was fractions of a second, and the sight of him at the finish was of a rider who was delighted (and also very relieved) to be back on the top step of the podium. However, he said it hasn't really sunk in yet.
"I haven't really thought much about it," he stated. "I am still in that race mode; I haven't gone home or anything yet. I do appreciate getting the win, it is great to have got it but my mind is still on this world championships; I am very focused on that. When I get home I will be able to sit on my sofa and say 'ahhh, I won a race '"
That win at the Vuelta set him up as one of the big favourites for the worlds. However, finishing back in 12th in the penultimate day's time trial was an unexpected result. Millar said there were a number of factors at fault. "I was a bit sick from two nights before. I had a fever on Thursday night and then some allergies," he stated. "My head just wasn't in it. I had planned it all out; I thought it was going to be a flat course but when I got there ugh! It was just one of those bad days, nothing went right for me."
"To be honest, it was probably a good thing for me as it focused me on the task at hand. It was better in that it helped me remember what feeling bad is like; I was feeling good in the first one."
Speaking out against cycling's dark culture
When Millar first turned professional, he was seen as both one of the sports brightest new stars and also a rider who was regarded as both clean and outspoken about doping. Somewhere along the way the pressures of his role as leader of the Cofidis team proved too much. In 2004 his home was searched and empty vials of EPO were discovered. Millar subsequently confessed to using the substance on a couple of occasions. He was consequently banned for two years and lost the world time trial crown he had gained in 2003 in Hamilton, Ontario.
When he took the time trial victory in the Vuelta, the very first thing he did in the press conference was make a strong - and convincing - statement;
"I want everybody to understand something, even my fellow professional cyclists and the fans who love cycling: I am doing this on nothing, only on bread and water," he stressed. "I do not believe in any injections of any sort for recuperation. We can perform at the highest level in cycling without any medical help. Today was a purely physical test. I won, and I am 100% clean. Some people may not believe me, but if you know me you will believe me after what I am have been through. I love my sport and I want everyone to know that you can win the biggest races on bread and water."
Millar suffered badly during his ban, taking a lot of criticism from the British media and from fans of the sport. But as a rider who is thought to have raced clean earlier in his career, some of what he felt was likely to have come from his own disappointment with how things turned out. When he decided to come back to the sport he said that he wanted to be a role model for younger riders, to show them it was possible to compete without doping. Although some people were sceptical at the time, what he has done and said since is pretty convincing.
"You can't really put yourself forward for extra testing because it just makes it void if you are volunteering," he said, when asked if he had opted to undergo any extra controls. "Fortunately, I am part of the UK sports system which is very comprehensive as regards out of competition controlling. I gave Mario Zorzoli (UCI doctor) my blood test results for two months leading up to the Tour, and at the Tour. So he could get an idea of things. That was just something I decided to do."
When asked if he thought his return could be an example to others, he is hopeful that this is the case. "I would like to think so, yes," he answers. "I think we have to be more proactive, get ourselves more involved as a fact that if you are winning clean, you should be proud of it; Obviously, I am in a different position, I have a responsibility to say it. But I hope it can help people, I hope it helps the younger riders and helps people to believe in our sport."
With regards to what measures could be introduced to improve things, he feels it is a complex issue. "There are a lot of things, but that would need a separate interview. There are so many things that need to change. It is more the culture - the culture needs to change, the fundamental basis of the sport."
"Given what has happened this year, we are at an important crossroads. I think we have seen that ethics and cycling don't really go together. The bottom line is that, if the world of cycling wants to continue, then it needs to change. It is only now that people's livelihoods are at risk that I think the proper changes are going to take place. That's the sad truth of it. It is only at this point that teams and the management of teams are realising that if they don't get a grip on this, the sport is going to be a minority sport with little money in a few years. It is the responsibility of the management, not only the riders."
"The ball's in their court as much as it is in that of the cyclists and the UCI. It is up to the management of the teams to face the reality of the situation, listen to the team doctors and take the responsibility. "The bottom line is that you have to believe that the system of controlling is as good as you can get, really. But unfortunately we have seen that it is not the controlling that is going to save our sport, the UCI are already doing everything they can. It is up to us and the management, like I said."
The T-Mobile team is conducting perhaps the biggest restructuring of any team, making changes to key riders and personnel and also introducing a vigorous program of internal tests. Millar's stance appears to align perfectly with their desire to recruit some big name riders who wish to race clean. Heading there, however, is not an option for now. "I still have a year of my contract with Saunier Duval," he states. "I will honour that. I haven't spoken to anyone, I am happy with where I am at the moment."
"Basically, if [Directeur Sportif] Mauro Gianetti hadn't believed in me I wouldn't be where I am now. They were the only team that believed in me. Everyone comes out of the woodwork now [that I am winning again], but they showed faith in me back then. So I will honour the agreement I have with them."
The Great Britain squad; a blueprint of how it should be
Talk to Millar for any length of time and it becomes clear that he has a huge amount of respect for the national squad setup. Also, when he won the time trial at the Vuelta, he gave a special mention to the structure that is in place. "I would like to dedicate this win to British Cycling, to the national team and to Dave Brailsford and Simon Jones, who risked a lot in helping me, who believed in me 100% and taught me how to do cycling without drugs. [They taught me] to believe in and to love the sport. I would really like to thank them."
This week, he continued in his praise. "I think that if every ProTour team had a general manager or CEO like Dave Brailsford, there wouldn't be a doping problem in our sport. That is the bottom line. If he was in charge, there would be no problem. He is proactive, he fights doping. He prevents it from ever taking place. And I think a lot could be learned from him in the world of cycling."
Doing things to perfection is part of the key. "The bottom line, I think, is that the Great Britain team is more professional than just about all of the other teams," he continues. "They cover every detail. Okay, they have quite a lot of money, that is for sure, but they think about all the aspects of it, from psychological to nutrition to the physiological end of things. They think about all the details. That is, unfortunately, something that doesn't happen in our sport at the top level, which is a bit strange, really. Especially if you look at other sports and the money involved."
Millar says that the culture is right there. "When you are with the GB team you are getting all the support. You have got the equipment, the back up and the personnel, and everything. There are no excuses. And the culture of the GB team is non-injection. It is non-performance enhancing as regards drugs or any medication. It is just purely from the basics of good ethics. They have very, very high sporting ethics which is unfortunately lacking in our sport."
As a result of things there, the future is looking bright for British cycling. Young riders such as Mark Cavendish, Ed Clancy and Geraint Thomas are making strong progress, with new T-Mobile signing Cavendish looking like he is going to be fighting it out for major results in bunch finishes in the years to come. "We have some great young riders coming through. I think that this is just the beginning. I think that in the next few years there will be a tidal flow of young talent coming through. They have got a long-term plan in place. They just started this year with a base in Italy and basing our young riders over there to race, building experience."
"It is amazing to see that talent coming through. They are just trying to build it over time now to give them the experience of racing abroad and build that road culture, because it has been very track-oriented until now. They are now branching out into the road. A lot of these young guys are going to go pro, which would be unprecedented for us. It is really [just] a band of individuals from Great Britain who are pros at the moment. But I think they are breeding riders now to turn pro, which is great for British cycling."
World's road race and further beyond
In addition to yesterday's time trial, Millar will also ride the Elite road race on Sunday. He will line out with Roger Hammond and Russell Downing.
"We will discuss things such as the leadership, but we will probably have a carte blanche as with only three of us there, we can't really help each other that much," he said. "We will just look after each other and rely on the Italian and Spanish [teams] to work. After that, I will ride Zurich and Lombardy. Then I am just shutting it down. I will do some track in November and then I am just going to train right through. My first race back will be California next year."
With regards to longer-term plans, Millar's new focus means he is more laid back. He still wants to win, but he is not putting himself under the same pressure as before. "I haven't really set targets yet, to be honest. I am just going to work really hard and try to let the results come to me. I am not going to get railroaded into what I should and shouldn't do and what I should be aiming for."
"There are obvious objectives like the Tour de France prologue in London and stuff, but apart from that I am enjoying so much the process, the training and working at the moment. And even the racing. I just want to be in the races and going for results next year again. It started in the Vuelta, winning the stage, and now I want to be able to be up there in the races, hopefully winning some stuff next year. I am just enjoying it all at the moment."
What with the talk of not taking a holiday, but rather building for next season, it is clear that he is very focussed on pro career Mark II. He says that he has gained a new perspective, and it is something he is thankful for.
"It is easy to be focused when you see it all through fresh eyes. I appreciate it more than I ever did. I am in a very privileged position to have lost it all and then to having got it all back. It [the mental approach] is all a lot easier than it used to be as a result."