For David Millar last Sunday’s Tour of Flanders represented a breakthrough. The Garmin-Transitions rider was a late attacker, and at one stage a challenger for the podium, but, six days on and on the eve of Paris-Roubaix, he finds himself looking back rather wistfully, with a mixture of satisfaction and regret.
“I’m split,” said Millar. “I’m over the moon at the ride and what I did, but I can clearly see the lessons I have to learn. I was badly placed for forty of the critical kilometres, when I kept chasing back on. I walked up the Koppenberg, and was never really at the front until the very end, when everyone else was knackered.
“I hadn’t done any reconnaissance,” continued Millar. “I didn’t have time, because I was too tired after [the Three Days of] De Panne [which he won]. So a lot of those climbs were new to me. I’d never done Paterberg, Koppenberg, Molenberg... and it became shockingly obvious how important it is to know the course intimately. Added to that, I wasn’t getting enough bottles - I kept losing them.
“Those are the negatives,” added Millar. “The positives are that I was one of the strongest there. I had no problem picking through the groups, and when Philippe [Gilbert] countered behind Tom [Boonen] and Fabian [Cancellara] in the crosswinds, I was at ease; I was able to follow and watch.
“I was just waiting for the perfect moment to go. And when I went, it was on a section of road that, oddly enough, I knew really well - I’d done it twice in De Panne - and so I knew the next climb [Tenbosse]. Which only goes to show how important the rece’ is - the one bit of road I knew, I attacked on.”
When Millar was joined by Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) and Björn Leukemans (Vacansoleil), he “became aware I was racing for the podium. The guys behind weren’t going to catch us. It was an amazing experience. I thought, I’m in the final of the Tour of Flanders. If you’d told me that last year I’d have thought you were insane. It was a wonderful awakening.”
Approaching the Muur, however, “the lights went out. In 5km I went from feeling great to having nothing left. I was getting cokes from the neutral car, but it was too late. I was like an old man climbing the Muur. I think I must have had one of the slowest times up there. It was horrifying.”
But could the “wonderful awakening” belatedly alter the course of Millar’s career? He says that it’s possible he could spend his final years as a rider focusing on the classics: “People have always said that I tick all the boxes, especially in a race like Flanders. It just goes to show what happens as a sportsman if you get pigeonholed when you’re young. But yes, I’d love to finish my career being a Classics rider.”
First, though, is Paris Roubaix - only Millar’s second start in the Queen of the Classics. A reconnaissance of the final 90km on Thursday left him “terrified,” but he is looking forward to his first proper shot at the pave. “It scared the shit out of me,” said Millar. “Arenburg blew me away, and there were times I thought: oh god, what have I signed up for?”