The natural centrepiece of David Millar's valedictory season will come in July with the Tour de France start in Leeds and the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, but before those appointments on home roads, the 37-year-old is taking in a number of races and places around Europe for the final time as a professional rider.
This past weekend brought Millar to Belgium, where his appearance at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad on Saturday brought back memories from the early days of his career. The Briton was drafted into the Cofidis squad for the 1997 Omloop Het Volk, as it was then known, for a rare taste of the cobbles, but it would be thirteen years before he returned to Belgium’s Opening Weekend.
"The sport was different then. I was a pretty fragile 19, 20-year-old. I did Het Volk my first year but you're racing against Museeuw and guys like that," Millar told Cyclingnews. "Although in hindsight, if I was starting my career now, I'd be brilliant for these races because I tick all the boxes for them. I kind of missed that window when I was younger and I went in more in to time trials, stage racing and things like that."
Indeed, it was not until 2010, his third season at Garmin and deep into the second phase of a career divided by his doping ban, that Millar spent a protracted period racing on the cobbles of Belgium, winning the Three Days of De Panne and performing strongly at the Tour of Flanders. It would be understandable if Millar harboured regrets that he hadn't turned his attention to the pavé earlier in his career, but he insisted that was not the case.
"I love these races, but I just started them a little bit late," he said. "Still, there's no regrets. I love coming and helping the team in these races because it’s just such an aggressive type of racing, completely different to stage race riding. Everyone's very pumped and nobody’s ever calculating: it’s just kind of flat-out craziness, so it’s a nice contrast to what I do normally."
Twenty-four hours after the Omloop, Millar lined up for his first-ever appearance at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, and he will return to Belgium at the end of the month to ride Dwars door Vlaanderen, E3 Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgem and the Tour of Flanders.
He regretted, however, that his Garmin-Sharp team would not be at the Three Days of De Panne. Millar won the event – "the pro's pro's race," he said, proudly – in 2010, while in 1998, during his first life as a cyclist, he claimed the final time trial ahead of Michele Bartoli.
At first glance, Garmin’s 2014 Classics unit does not boast the kind of firepower that it did three seasons ago, for instance, when its absorption of Cervélo brought Thor Hushovd and Heinrich Haussler on board, but Millar was enthusiastic about the arrival of Sebastian Langeveld from Orcia-GreenEdge.
"We've really got a solid group and it's the first year I've found that everyone is really cohesive," Millar said. "We've got strength in numbers: Sebastian's been a great addition to the team, Summi [Johan Vansummeren] is in flying form and Nick [Nuyens] will come good when he has to be. We've got those three guys who've all won Classics and are a capable of doing anything. I think we can do well, we just need the stars to align right."
For each of those Classics – indeed for every race he rides in 2014 – Millar will wear a specially designed pair of shoes, which will be auctioned off through the season in aid of the Small Steps Project, a charity that helps children and families who live on rubbish dumps.
Quite what Cyrille Guimard and the old heads on Cofidis management would have made of a rider breaking out a new pair of shoes for each race is anyone's guess, but as Millar pointed out, times have changed.
"It's 2014, man," Millar said. "In the old days you didn't change them because you had to break in leather and you couldn't guarantee the reproduction of the shoes whereas now the shoes are the same every time. It's actually better because instead of wearing the same shoes for a month and having them stretched."
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