Robert Millar will again write a blog for Cyclingnews during the Tour de France. He will analyse the racing with the experience of a former stage and polka-dot jersey winner and with his unique take on what really goes on inside the peloton.
In this pre-race feature, Millar recalls his Tour de France debut in 1983, exactly 30 years ago.
Tour de France time is here and that means for some lucky souls their very first Tour. Ahhh the Tour newbie: fresh faced, wide eyed and frequently astonished. Thirty years ago I was one of those newbies and I can admit I fitted the above description perfectly.
For the 1983 edition of the Tour I think there were about 25-30 of us newbies (no, I'm not that much of anorak that I know exactly). I seem to remember it was reported as some kind of regeneration of the peloton but at that moment I didn't really have the time or perspective to decide if I agreed with that view or not, I was too busy gawping.
The Tour is big on a scale you don't see at other races. The best description I can think of is that it's like mixing the tension of a Belgian Classic with the type of crowds you get at a World Championship circuit in Italy. Only those are one day events and the Tour has that level of interest and intensity for three whole weeks. It's a form of organised madness, wrapped up in a travelling circus the size of a small town that has a bike race as an excuse for it all to happen. As a newbie it's a fantastic experience, not always good but fantastic none the less.
There were some quite notable newbies joining me for their first Tour in 1983: Laurent Fignon, Pedro Delgado and Stephen Roche to name the ones who went on to win a Tour or two. Luckily for me I could race near the front a few times though my memories of the first week of racing were just how ridiculously fast it was and how hard it was to get in an escape of any note. After making it into the break it was then hard to get over the fact that I was in the front in the Tour de France and participating in the race. As a newbie the Tour can be that intimidating.
Into the second week and I found when the mountains came along it was a bit easier to compete or even just to move up in the bunch but don't think that every day was like that though, it's not that easy even as a good climber.
At the TdF things can be going oh so well one day and then falling apart the next. For example when I won my first stage at Bagneres-de-Luchon Pascal Simon my roommate took the yellow jersey only for him to crash and break his shoulder. Similarly a few days later on the stage to Alpe d'Huez I found myself sitting on the side of the road five kilometres from the top of the Col de Glandon desperately trying to calm down after I had tried to stay in a group which contained teammate Stephen Roche.
It took a good five minutes in the shade of a lone tree before I recovered enough composure to set off again but now with serious worries about how was I going to reach the finish at the top of the 21 corners. I didn't feel good in the valley to Bourg d'Oisans but settled into a rhythm of sorts once I reached the last climb and got on with counting down the turns. About halfway up, lo and behold I came across Stephen going rather slowly, you might even say in a bit of a state, so I asked if he wanted me to help him but he just gave a shake of the head and said to leave alone. Then the team car came alongside and said they would stay with him and I knew what they meant, they had another crisis to sort out.
As a newbie you can be tempted to throw yourself at a situation and think it'll be OK. Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn't. The Tour soon lets you know what your level is.
The final week was a mix of tiredness and elation, as I realised that I was going to complete my first Tour. Along the way I experienced what a normal Bordeaux stage finish was like: it gets fast, becomes faster and then it's sprinting just to stay on the wheels for the last 20 minutes. And the final day in Paris after the train ride in the morning? It's a heady sense of relief, excitement and looking at all the people. I was still gawping even after three weeks of racing.
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.
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