Book review: Racing Through the Dark

Monday, 20 June 2011

Racing through the dark

“It became clear that I still had a fairly adolescent mentality, relied heavily on father figures and had created behavioural patterns that were destructive and self-perpetuating… …most of the decisions I’d made were unavoidable, considering the personality and upbringing I’d had”.

That’s the book in one reductive sentence. Soon after emerging from police custody, a washed-up David Millar meets Dr Steve Peters, a consultant psychiatrist for the British cycling team and they talk for hours. It becomes apparent that Millar’s upbringing and past experiences have led him to the edge of self-destruction. His is a career of high and lows, of sporting greatness and alcoholic benders. At times he discusses the split personality, the monastic pro contrasting with the “social butterfly”.

I’ll touch on the content of the book a bit below but a lot of his story is public knowledge so I won’t ruin things if you’re planning to read it. But for the sake of caution, don’t read on if you’re worried about me spoiling the read.

I’ve said before that sports autobiographies seem to follow a pre-set narrative arc. There’s a tale or two from childhood, the discover of sporting talent, the flashes of brilliance, then success and the individual has the world at their feet. Soon we get the inevitable obstacle, in the form of injury, addiction, the problems of easy money or another personal woe before we end on a note of redemption and often renewed success, usually with a “I don’t regret a moment” closing paragraph.

Millar’s book follows the same pattern but that’s where the copycat stuff ends. For starters, he wrote the book himself which is a rarity as most are ghost-written, although Jeremy Whittle, a cycling journalist, was employed to help edit things. Cooperation between subject and ghost-writer can vary, there might be hundreds of hours of meetings, their might be next to nothing. In this case Millar seems to have spent hours… with himself, revisiting the past and piecing together a long career on the bike. He was slow to start the season earlier year precisely because he was pounding the keyboard instead of the pedals.

Stylistically things start a bit clumsily, the prose on the first few pages is a bit lumpy as we learn of his early life but Millar warms up and the words soon flow almost as fast and smooth as he pedals on the bike and you’re left turning the pages at a high cadence. The more familiar and recent the subject the easier he seems to write.

His career has lasted for so long, he’s seem Lance Armstrong come and go, he’s outlived Festina and Puerto and effectively he’s seen it all. Millar can be divisive amongst some fans, his tale from saint to sinner back saint can rile some. But even for his critics the book itself spans many years and it’s a decent record of life in the pro cycling bubble during the epoque of EPO.

Stating the obvious, this is Millar’s tale. By which I mean we see things from his point of view. Everything is rationalised and often reasonable, he later describes his younger self as “a dick” but flick back 100 pages and he’s justifying whatever he is doing, no matter how stupid it seems with hindsight. When he can’t get the right equipment for his time trial bike for years, it’s the fault of Cofidis and despite being a leader, he’s not to blame. When he gives a nod to removing the front mech on the morning of the 2003 Tour de France prologue and even turns down the chance to swap chainrings after team mates experience problems… all this is Alan Bondue’s fault, not his.

This self-justification is what you expect, it is after all a first person account. But there’s not much self-criticism. It would be fascinating to have some kind of Greek chorus to voice opinion at the time. That’s a near-impossible device for a book but it does make you wonder about all the others involved, from riders to the team staff and beyond.

For sure Millar has had a different path to most riders if you take his background, his successes and his failures too. But thousands of riders have gone through the elite ranks to pro status and have been confronted with the same choice: whether to use EPO. Almost nobody in the pro peloton today has written a paragraph yet alone a book saying “yes, I used EPO and here’s my account of why I did it“. Indeed few have been dragged into court, this book might not exist if Millar had not had the truth forced out of him.

But as much as the book is about Millar, it’s also reflecting the state of the pro peloton over the years. He describes himself as the Cofidis team leader but I don’t see leadership, he is no colonel in charge of the troops. Rather he is simply the most talented rider on the squad and has to carry the burden that goes with this but there’s little actual support, just a group chasing quick wins. He seems hampered by a desire to please others, to impress and above all, to be flattered by those around him as opposed to leading them and the team isn’t able to spot this.

Cofidis was a chaotic squad during his time and he recently told Rouleur magazineHad I gone to Française des Jeux… I would never have doped” but that is to cite the exceptional team, if he’d joined most others he might well have been “on a programme” much earlier. As such this reveals the systemic nature of doping in the sport and at times Millar reveals the contempt of a system that proves incapable of catching cheats, indeed unwilling and under-resourced since there’s no test for EPO for a long time and out of competition tests were a rarity and avoidable until 2006. Millar names a rider as L’Equipier (“the teammate”) whose real identity is Massimiliano “Max” Lelli, the anonymity is partly for legal reasons but also a device to suggest every team had an Equipier who led others on the road whilst also leading them off the rails. Which is probably so.

We read of the way teams expect riders to perform and to “prepare” but the moment a rider is caught, everyone on the team pretends to be shocked and disappointed. This  hypocrisy isn’t new and worse, it’s not something in the past either. Millar himself says it’ll take a decade to shift attitudes in the pro peloton and he’s probably right. Years ago he was writing to the UCI to say recovery techniques involving infusions and injections were not necessary and that the use of needles needed to stop; he was also telling the UCI that sloppy team managers needed to be removed. It’s only in the last couple of months that the UCI has begun to act, first with the needle ban and now the move to ban convicted dopers from management.

These positive changes are mirrored by Millar’s now more obvious enjoyment of the sport. At times he could be an aloof and even cold figure in the past, today he seems to derive a much more obvious pleasure from cycling, largely thanks to a feeling of redemption and the ability to lead a team where doping is not an issue. He has raced through the dark.

Summary
This is a very good read, Millar writes well and his story is gripping at times. He collaborated with Jeremy Whittle whose own book, “Bad Blood” opens with a quote “there are three sides to every story… yours… mine… and the truth“. We’ve had a few biographies from other riders over the years and some of these need moving to the fiction area of a bookstore. In Millar’s case, this is a real and genuine account of the choices and observations along the way. It’s exactly that, his tale and not a historical account of pro cycling during the past 20 years, that would require inputs from many of the others mentioned in the story.

Indeed I’ve love to hear from others involved, to read the same book but written by David Moncoutié or Jonathan Vaughters. But in their absence, all the highs and lows, plus the confessions, anecdotes and insider explanations, this is probably the most significant rider autobiography since Paul Kimmage’s “Rough Ride”.

A list of book reviews is available at inrng.com/books.

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{ 19 comments }

David N. Welton June 20, 2011 at 10:45 am

Pity there’s no Kindle version yet.

Also, “His career has lasted for so long, he’s seem Lance Armstrong come and go” is not strictly accurate, as Lance is a bit older than he is, and started racing professionally earlier.

Richard June 20, 2011 at 11:22 am

I started reading it over the weekend and agree with you, the early years plod a bit but his story seems pretty different from the other pros. Looking forward to the rest of it now.

Iain June 20, 2011 at 11:28 am

David – There is a Kindle version, available now.

Brian June 20, 2011 at 11:32 am

Steve Peters is a psychiatrist rather than a psychologist. This may seem pedantic but the distinction is pertinent as psychiarists (of whom I am one) and psychiatrists use different theoretical frameworks in helping people. Particularly in sports this is true as their is a far greater focus on dealing with underlying pathologies as Millar describes. If you look at Bradley Wiggins’s book you’ll see similar comments from him.

I’m still in the process of reading the book and to date concur with the comments made in the blog. I think one can gain a lot of insight from self penned pieces that can be hidden in the more polished prose of the ghost written “autobiography”. A case in point would be Millar’s (and my) countryman Obree. It’s a shame he won’t be at the Nat Champs this coming weekend.

Brian June 20, 2011 at 11:36 am

Bu**er! I just noticed my iPad ‘auto complete’ changed the word psychologist to psychiatrist (it just tried to do it again, presumably as I write the former more often. The second line should have read “…pertinent as psychiatrists (of whom I am one) and psychologists use different theoretical frameworks…” Doh!

El Gato de la Cala June 20, 2011 at 12:03 pm

can´t help wondering if you would offer Michael Rasmussen or Ricardo Ricco same amount of space and attention bringing a self biography forward. Might I suggest three future categories in the pro peloton:
A) Not beeing caught yet.
B) Caught – but no regrets.
C) Caught – and I do regret and believe I was a fool now changing into the better.

The Inner Ring June 20, 2011 at 12:33 pm

David: yes, good point and I’m aware of the chronology, Millar was watching Armstrong’s initial rise as a fan rather than a pro. There’s a good tale of a visit to Italy where Millar finds a box with Armstrong’s rainbow jerseys in and is tempted to take one.

Brian: thanks, my mistake and I’ll edit the piece above to fix this.

El Gato: if Rasmussen and Ricco could write a good biography, then I’d be interested in reading it, so long as they can at least present their views rather than 200 pages of denial. Millar is no saint but seems to recognise the failings and sheds light on the systemic nature of doping in cycling. If someone else wants to write about their time in the bunch in such an articulate way, I’m waiting for it.

ElBeeJay June 20, 2011 at 7:36 pm

I think that Rasmussen is working on a biography albeit not entirely selfpenned. He is rumoured to work together with a Danish journalist from the tabloids. I have no clue of the content although I would be very surprised if Rasmussen went Full Monty and revealed why and what REALLY happened when he hid in The Dolomites before the Tour 2008.

Beth June 20, 2011 at 11:08 pm

I live in the states, and tried to find or order this at the weekend. Barnes and Noble won’t carry anything not published in the U.S. The lady assisting me said she thought I could only get it thru Amazon. Anyone know if that is correct?
The internet is full of extremely harsh, angry, and judgmental people. Even this commentary section seems to not be immune. I thank Inner Ring for bringing a more thoughtful and calm approach to the subject, and look forward to this read.

JT June 20, 2011 at 11:33 pm

This book has just arrived in the post and I’m looking forward to getting my teeth into it. Great review by the way. You mention those ‘now-fictional’ autobiographies and I suspect the USPS investigation will result in a few more being released. While I’m not holding my breath for Popovych’s memoirs, George Hincapie could do worse than pen a few words.

PT June 21, 2011 at 5:04 am

Sounds like a good read and timely kick up the *rse for cycling. If Miller has the humility to acknowledge his mistakes and try to move on, good on him. Like you, I appreciate that the anonymous “L’Equipier” is a pointed and suitable touch.

Good to see a rare light into what seems quite a murky world.

PT June 21, 2011 at 5:48 am

BTW Beth – I noticed it on Amazon last week although as an advance notice about the books launch this week. I’d think that it would be there now.

jonny allan June 21, 2011 at 2:25 pm

Today we hear of an AMATEUR cyclist in belgium found with 2271 amps of testosterone…….the problem is much bigger than these stories/books would have you believe folks.

Bezz June 21, 2011 at 6:32 pm

I have read the book and I think it is fair to say that if you like Millar you will like him more and see it as very candid. If you hate Millar you will hate him more and see it as full of excuses and blaming others.

I was amazed at the detail he went in to about his doping as regards the how, what, when and why. I also felt a little annoyed about his blame of others for the technical problems. There is a lot of self blame for his bad decisions regarding the doping and the rock star life style he ended up in. But what a crash…

bikecellar June 21, 2011 at 6:49 pm

Got my copy Monday morning, ain’t going to read it…….just yet, going on holiday(ibiza) on the 3rd of July, I like a good read on holiday, did take one sneak peek though, when I saw a chapter headed 9th July 2009 me and wor lass were their in Barcelona for the stage finish saw the upraised hands of Thor crossing the line. I have ridden the road South of St Feliu (which is described) more than once. This is the great thing about this sport, crossing paths, connections, Saw Landis in the Alps on his testosterone fuelled day thought I had witnessed a Tour epic, how sad, and there have been many other “connections” over the years, which is why I am looking forward to reading this book coincidal with the start of yet another Tour.

JA June 21, 2011 at 8:56 pm

Bezz, do you honestly believe him when he claims to have only doped 3 times?
I wish these guys would tell the whole story.

Bezz June 22, 2011 at 10:23 am

JA

I think I do. Remember this is not three injections but three courses of doping. He has pretty much laid it bare. I see no benefit in lying further. He could have said he did it only once or as per Basso “I prepared but never did it”. If he had not confessed they only had the empty syringes but no failed tests. He also confessed to more than just EPO as well, I was quite surprised at how detailed he was about what he did.

JA June 22, 2011 at 11:29 am

True. His story just highlights the absolute failure of doping controls and I really find it hard to believe that these guys only dabble a couple of times. They decide to cross the line and doping unfortunately is the norm in pro cycling these days. History and recent events tell us that. He was caught red-handed, there really is no way out of police finding empty EPO syringes in a watch box in your bedroom if you’re a pro cyclist.
The problem I have is that these guys never tested positive in the first place so how can we believe them now?
All the best

Brian June 22, 2011 at 6:09 pm

Some of you might find this interesting:
http://www.rapha.cc/racing-through-the-dark-1

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