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Robert Millar blog: Winning in the Circle of Death

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Robert Millar in the mountains jersey

Robert Millar in the mountains jersey (Image credit: Getty Images)
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The beautiful view from atop the Col du Tourmalet summit.

The beautiful view from atop the Col du Tourmalet summit. (Image credit: Jonathan Devich/
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The Col du Peyresourde climb begins at 625m above sea level. Just 14.5km to the top which reaches a height of 1,569m

The Col du Peyresourde climb begins at 625m above sea level. Just 14.5km to the top which reaches a height of 1,569m (Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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On his sole appearance at the Giro d'Italia, Robert Millar won the Mountains classification and finished second on GC

On his sole appearance at the Giro d'Italia, Robert Millar won the Mountains classification and finished second on GC (Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)

On Saturday, stage 8 of the Tour de France brings the peloton from Pau to Luchon, by way of the Col du Tourmalet, Hourquette d’Ancizan, Col de Val Louron-Azet and the Col Peyresourde. In 1983, the Tour also made the trek from Pau into the heart of the Pyrenees at Luchon, but by way of the so-called ‘Circle of Death,’ with the riders facing the classic combination of the Aubisque, Tourmalet, Aspin and Peyresourde before the plunge to the finish. The stage saw Robert Millar solo to his first professional victory, and this is the Scot's account.

1983 Tour de France, stage 10: Pau - Bagnères-de-Luchon

Col d'Aubisque (HC) – Col du Tourmalet (HC) – Col d'Aspin (1st) – Col de Peyresourde (1st). 201 km

Sometimes you wake up on the morning of a bike race and know it's going to be a special day. A feeling best described as being nervously confident, though until we set off out of Pau, it was more nerves than anything else.

I was rooming with Pascal Simon and knew he was motivated to take the race lead but there were still the positions of Phil Anderson and Stephen Roche in the Peugeot team to respect. Therefore, there were no definitive orders on how it would be played other than it would be left to how the legs performed. My role was to be in the break if possible and see what happened.

With two hors catégorie climbs and two first cats, I thought it would be a fairly gentle start and maybe the first mountain would be taken steady, but as soon as we left the neutralised zone it was flat out, with guys trying to get away as if the finish was round the corner.

No-one got much of an advantage and then when we hit the first slopes of the Col d’Aubisque, the Colombians, who everyone thought were worn out after the hectic flatter stages, took their revenge. The front group was reduced to about 30 riders by halfway up and I was the only one left with Pascal, both of us staying well out the way of the battle the Colombians were having with Lucien Van Impe for the climbers’ jersey.

On the descent there was a regrouping, with Phil and Stephen making it back on, and then coming out of Luz-Saint-Sauveur, there was an attack by a few guys so I followed the wheels and ended up in a group with about 15 others as we began the first slopes of the Tourmalet. There were two Colombians in the break, José Patrocinio Jiménez and Edgar Corredor, and they ripped into us again, meaning that by the time we got to Barèges and the interminable long straights, I was Jimenez's only companion.

Quite quickly I assessed he was on a mission for the GPM points and was going to ride at a speed which would see me blown out before long, so I had a word with him to reassure him I wasn't going to do any sprinting at the top. Thankfully he got the general idea, slowed down, and we settled into a more reasonable pace. However as we got nearer the summit the team car reminded me of the Souvenir Henri Desgrange prize, which would be 200 metres from the GPM line, and with it being a substantial amount, I ought to capture it for the team coffers.

Big mistake as Jimenez, who was still killing me, thought I was trying to drop him for the mountain points when I accelerated in sight of the prime banner and promptly flew past in an angry fashion taking both the HD money and the GPM points.

Not known for his descending skills I took my revenge and dropped him on the downhill before we even got to La Mongie, figuring that would wear him out a bit and warn him not to take the mickey when he was climbing. It worked as when he got back to me through the feed zone at Sainte-Marie-de-Campan, he immediately proposed he'd take it easier on the uphill if I did the same on the downhill. The Col d'Aspin passed by without too much problem and I felt my companion was tiring – not by much, but enough to be reassuring for my survival. Even better was news from the team car behind, that Pascal Simon was on his way forward and likely to take the race lead.

Up until then I'd been doing the lion's share of the pulling in the valleys, and Jimenez the climbing, but with Simon coming I was told to stop working, which meant the little Colombian had to do most of the false flats on the way to the last climb by himself. He didn't want to and his team car didn't want him to either, but he had no choice as they needed the points to take the polka dot jersey. We still had a couple of minutes of a lead at this point but if he slowed down too much we'd be caught, so reluctantly he got on with it. He also didn't get the chance to eat as much as he needed to.

The Peyresourde has a nasty rough section at the bottom which kind of stops you in your tracks after the nice smooth tarmac of the valley, so when he hit that I was expecting him to struggle but he didn't. Far from it, he was still strong and I was beginning to have doubts until about 4 kilometres into it, when I saw the sweat start to pour from his forehead. He'd had that spurt of energy you get just before you start to get the hunger knock and now he was swinging. My team car kept saying Simon was coming, his team car kept telling him the top wasn't far, and as extra punishment I rode beside him now and then to keep him on the limit.

Nearing the summit I got the warning Delgado was in pursuit so I let Jimenez suffer until about 500 metres from the top, then I unleashed a sprint which saw him dropped instantly.

The 15km descent to the line in Luchon was a rather frantic blur of pedalling, the guys in the team car screaming and trying to stay out of the molten tarmac on the hairpins that had to be negotiated. With gear ratios being fairly limited in number back then, I'd chosen a 13 top sprocket in order to prioritise the ones I had for climbing and I knew Delgado had a 12, so there was no time to recuperate or look around too often.

I wasn't really sure I was going to win until I reached the 2km board and I still had 15 seconds lead and the Spaniard wasn't get any closer. Once into the main square I knew I had it, so then it was out with the casquette, do up the jersey, one more sprint from the final corner and then up with the arms.

Bit of an epic day out for my first professional win.

Robert Millar was one of the last pure climbers of the Tour de France, winning several stages in the mountain stages and finishing fourth overall in 1984. He is also the only English speaker to have ever won the prestigious polka-dot jersey climber's competition jersey.

Millar retired in 1995 but has continued to follow the sport closely. He was often critical of the media and quickly cuts through the excuses and spin to understand why and how riders win and lose.