It is the final stage of the 2013 edition of the Tour de France. As the cyclists come around the Champs-Élysées for the seventh time there is a lone figure at the front, a model of concentration as he rhythmically pedals along with a time trial stance. David Millar has been in the breakaway since the second circuit and now stands as the lone leader, twenty-three seconds in front of the ever approaching pack. It is a fruitless task to hold off the modern peloton in this grand finish, and Millar knows it as he lets out one more defiant burst of speed before being swept up by the speeding peloton.
I was reminded of this moment last week when Millar announced his retirement from professional cycling. There was something wonderful to watch in Millar’s attack around the streets of Paris, a reminder of the beautiful nature of a sport where a competitor can stand out simply by pushing harder than the others, and where tragic failure is more exciting than overwhelming victory.
No doubt it was useful for his Garmin-Sharp team to have the world’s cameras focussed on their rider for much of the sport’s flagship event, and this must have been going through Millar’s mind as he relentlessly pushed harder to stand alone at the front. Yet it was also a display of the individualism, and talent, which make Millar such a joy to watch and support.
When he was caught doping by French police in 2004 many wrote him off. In one telling interview of the time Lance Armstrong berated Millar for ‘getting his hand caught in the cookie jar’, revealing the sense of omertà that dominated the professional scene – Millar’s sin was not the doping, but getting caught doing so. He was merely part of the European cycling game that corrupted even the most optimistic of riders, and valued winning above anything else. The losers were those who got eaten up by the system.
His fantastic autobiography Racing Through The Dark explains the darkness of those years of exclusion, the impossibility of feeling good when the world knows you are a cheat. In the book he describes a sense of emptiness after winning a race having doped, as his sport became a profession rather than a passion. While others revelled in winning, Millar could not sit comfortably knowing he had cheated.
Yet Millar fought on. It is a cliché to say so, but the bravest and most important step he took was to admit he was a cheat. A lesser rider would have thrown about wild conspiracy theories whilst proclaiming their innocence, but Millar did not attempt to fight the charges.
Since his return from a two year suspension there has been no more charismatic sportsperson than Millar. You need only watch one interview with him to see that he is intelligent, eloquent and thoughtful. He never holds back from criticising those in power, but unlike most ‘outspoken’ athletes he qualifies everything with a convincing alternative. He speaks perceptively and eloquently about modern sport and its complexities, more so than most commentators can manage.
Too many ex-dopers are simply exorcised from the sport, as though by erasing them from history their mistakes can also be erased. Yet to combat these problems cycling needs to face up to dopers and bring them back into the fold to explain why they doped. Millar is one of the key voices in initiating a change not just in cycling, but in the wider sporting world, that does not portray people simply as heroes or villains but looks at the culture that makes people cheat.
Next year’s Tour de France could hardly be a more apt finale for such an impressive and important sportsman – the thought of Millar leading the peloton into London on the third stage in Britain sends shivers down the spine. Yet I think it would be wrong to say it will be his goodbye to sport. Such an outspoken and intelligent man surely has a future behind the scenes, and the cycling world will be better for it.