An interview with David Millar, March 10, 2008
Despite landing second overall in the Tour of California, David Millar's early season list of targets had actually pinpointed Paris-Nice as his first big objective of the year. The Scottish rider is aiming for a top three place in the French event and, as he tells Cyclingnews' Shane Stokes, he hopes it will set things up for a very strong season for both him and his new team.
This is an important year for David Millar. Since the start of the season he's officially one of the leaders of the Slipstream Chipotle/H3O team, a squad aiming to become a major player in world cycling while also working to a strict anti-doping ethos. Millar's personal history is well known to all, and since his return from a doping ban he has been one of the most outspoken about the need to change the sport and remove the shadier cultures within.
Apart from riding for the Pro Continental outfit, Millar is now a part owner of the team and - in addition to that - became a member of the World Anti-Doping Agency's Athlete Committee at the end of 2007. Those things considered, it's clear that he's representing the push for a new sport; the Scot is hoping a strong season will show what is possible.
Millar began the Paris-Nice on Sunday with two clear objectives in mind. "The goal is to be on the podium on GC and win the prologue," he said in the lead up to the race. While the second of those targets didn't work out, with the rider finishing 12th in the time trial in Amilly, he was relatively positive about his ride afterwards.
"It seems a strange thing to say but I felt that in every time trial I did last year, I was just getting from A to B." - David Millar reflects on his season in 2007
"There are few things worse than having a chrono performance compromised because of the weather," he said on the Slipstream team website, referring to the day's rain. "Considering I was one of the last to go before it started drying out more, I'm satisfied with my result. Trent [Lowe] and Danny [Pate] did great rides and Trent put considerable time on the other climbers."
Aside from feeling that the weather slowed him down, he can also take encouragement from his showing in the recent Tour of California. There he was ninth in the prologue, yet went on to finish an excellent second overall in the race.
Looking back to that US event, he was pleased how things worked out. "My expectations were to be up there in the prologue and then help set up Tom Danielson and Dave Z for GC," he said. "I actually didn't think my form was going to be good enough to mix it with GC riders, so I was pleasantly surprised.
"The time trial was the best day as I really felt like I could race it," he added. "It seems a strange thing to say but I felt that in every time trial I did last year, I was just getting from A to B."
That was different the season before. Millar's return to competition in mid-2006 was followed by a time trial stage win in the Vuelta a España. He had hoped to build on that form in 2007, but the season was a little hit-and-miss. In fact, at January's Tour of Qatar, he described last season as "an absolute brothel" of a year. "I was injured a couple of times, sick, then over-trained," he explained.
The net effect of that was that, aside from the British road race and time trial championship titles, he had just one win during 2007. That was the Paris-Nice prologue, a performance he refers to this as something he somehow pulled out of the bag despite not having top form.
In a bid to overcome the difficulty of hitting his peak, Millar decided to get some guiding advice. "I was over-trained at times in the past," he admitted. "It was one of the problems of not having a coach, a bit of a mistake on my part. I have made the error of perhaps being a bit insecure and overdoing it at times when I shouldn't have done. But I have learned from that lesson and I think that won't be happening again."
In order to address that issue, he started working with Greg LeMond's former coach Adrie van Diemen. "He has been really good," Millar enthused. "He was at our training camp before here and that was really good - it meant that we were actually doing proper training, rather than just going out on the usual rides.
"We did group rides, we went hard at points," he continued. "It was all very structured. We were breaking up into even smaller groups and then doing all specific, interesting stuff. So he has been really good. A great addition to my cycling life."
Millar explained that he still does a lot of training, but under van Diemen's guidance it's split into smaller sessions. "It is very technical training, it is very specific…and you have got to be motivated to do it, because there is always something to do," he explained. "I like that, I actually prefer that style of things.
"Jonathan [Vaughters] was actually the guy who recommended I work with him, because he had worked with him in the past," revealed Millar. "We will see how it goes, but I am really enjoying it so far."
Apart from that, Millar has another reason for his strong form thus far. "In my career I have had very few times where I have had an incident-free winter," he said. "Last year I hardly touched my bike in December because I had moved house that month and I fell off my bike in January.
"I was in kind of panic-training, doing it by the seat of my pants," he added. "Whereas this year there was two months of solid, quality work [prior to starting racing in Qatar]."
Riding the Tour of Qatar was, Millar said, the first time he had ever started competing in January. The Slipstream Chipotle H3O team impressed there, finishing second in the opening team time trial and then playing a major part in the pacesetting and break-creating over the following days. The team was looking good for a possible win on stage four before a crash brought several of its riders down. The team also finished up with a fourth place overall via the ride of Australian Chris Sutton.
It was a fine debut for the new-look outfit, and one which has been followed up by more strong performances in the subsequent races. Other 2008 season highlights include Millar's second overall in the Tour of California, first in the team classification there, Julian Dean's New Zealand national championship title plus wins by Dave Zabriskie on Stage 1 and Tyler Farrar's overall victory in the Tour of the Bahamas.
"Things have been beyond expectations, and that's saying something!" enthused Millar. "We set the bar high at Qatar and it has laid the foundations as regards the team's morale and spirit. We had a lot of fun and were super professional in California, seeing Christian [Vande Velde] back at his best was great and racing with the guys from last years team (Danny, Tom, Steve) was inspiring."
His own form has of course also been a source of satisfaction, although he feels it is not the first time he has been performing so well in the early season. "I had the same form in 1999, when I was fourth in Etoile de Besseges, fourth in Vuelta Valenciana (plus best climber), third in Chiasso and second in Criterium International," he said. "But I'm certainly in good shape."
Paris-Nice and beyond
With the team aiming to secure a ride in the Tour de France, performing well in ASO-organised events is important. Millar has targeted Paris-Nice as his main goal for the first part of the season and has worked hard in preparation. Last week he rode the North side of the Ventoux twice in the same day, digging stubbornly in and grinding up the mountain despite strong Mistral winds and freezing temperatures.
He's highly motivated to perform well, even if there is a threat of a suspension as a result of his participation. The ongoing battle between ASO and the UCI has led to the former taking the race off the international calendar and the latter promising a range of sanctions, including possible six month bans for participation riders.
Millar tends to be outspoken at times, but he somewhat diplomatically handles a question about his reaction to the dispute. Specifically, he shows his displeasure while refraining from letting lose with both barrels. "It's ridiculous really," he stated. "I've had to endure worse situations, and the bottom line is I've done nothing wrong so I don't see how I can be sanctioned."
All going to plan, the team will ride strongly and he will take a top-three place in the race. After that, he has a specific programme laid out which he hopes will see him in special form for the Tour.
"After Paris-Nice, I will do Milan-San Remo, Criterium Internationale," he said. "Then I have got the Tour de Georgia and the Giro [d'Italia]. After the Giro I will be bringing it to altitude for three weeks, probably Saint Moritz or something. Then I will shut it down and take it easy."
Previously he tended to ride Grand Tours in France and Spain, but he and the team want to perform well in the Italian race. In addition to that goal, a strong build-up to July is also what he has in mind. "It will be my first time to do the Giro," said Millar. "I had the experience of doing the Tour-Vuelta double a lot of times, so doing two Grand Tours is not a new thing for me.
"For me it works really well," he added. "I have always reaped dividends from doing a Tour de France and then going on to ride well in the Vuelta, so that is a nice guarantee in a way. I won't be scared of going hard at the Giro.
"Then after that race we have planned in a structured altitude recoup," he continued. "That is something that I never did after the Tour, because I would always faff around in August, I was always tired. It was later on in the year, after all. But I think I will be a lot better. It is a kind of old-fashioned way of doing it but it should work well…"
The Slipstream project
As mentioned, Millar is a part owner of the team. Some reports have suggested that he got a share in the outfit due to a tight budget preventing him receiving his normal full salary amount. However he says this is not the case. "The reason is that Jonathan [Vaughters] and Doug [Ellis] decided it would be a good way to get me more involved," he explained. "And it has worked - it has given me an added responsibility. I think that is shown by how I have worked over the winter and how I am treating - respecting - the team myself. It was quite wily of Jonathan."
It's been quite clear in recent months that there is a lot of goodwill towards Slipstream Chipotle H3O. At home, part of that is due to its position as one of America's biggest teams, following the closure of Discovery Channel at the end of 2007. However a bigger factor is arguably the team's strong anti-doping stance; fans and journalists alike see this as a breath of fresh air in a sport which has been beset by scandals, plagued by secrecy.
Millar acknowledges the big pre-season interest in the team but feels that that attention now needs to be justified by strong performances out on the road. "We are doing something different," he stated. "Obviously these first few months are going to be a case of finding our feet. It is one thing having it all on paper [a strong squad] but it is a big jump for the team that was already there.
"In fact, it is a huge jump for them in going from a small team to a big team," he continued. "Now it is a case of us all finding our feet and getting used to working with each other. I like to think that by the end of Paris-Nice we will have set the standard for how we are going to be for the rest of the year."