“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 magazine “Had 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.
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.