It is 1.30pm and Scott’s of Mayfair, a renowned fish restaurant on one of London’s smartest streets, is buzzing. White-aproned French waiters dance between tables at which expensively dressed men and women are toasting their latest successes. At one end of the small room former snooker world champion Ronnie O’Sullivan is entertaining a group of friends; at the next table society designer Nicky Haslam makes a glamorous journalist laugh, and to my right some executives from Louis Vuitton are engaged in deep conversation with a prominent magazine editor. My table, however, is silent.
David Millar is late and, as I sit re-reading the menu and examining the cutlery, I start to worry whether he’s coming at all. After all, professional cyclists are not known for their hearty appetites, especially in the run-up to the Tour de France, the biggest race of the year, which starts this weekend. Fans are familiar with whippet-thin figures hunched over their bikes and articles in cycling magazines describe obsessive regimes to reduce body fat, and thus avoid carrying unnecessary weight up the Tour’s vicious mountain climbs. But Scott’s menu features oysters with wild boar sausages, fresh Devon crabs and lobster thermidor: if Millar does turn up, will he insist on a protein shake and stick of celery?
My fears are unnecessary. When Millar rushes in, 30 minutes late, he apologises, blames the traffic, orders a beer and starts discussing the menu. “I’ve been looking forward to this all day,” he says, eyes gleaming. “I love restaurants like this, that classic French service, all so businesslike.” I gingerly push the wine list across the table. We are meeting three weeks ahead of the Tour and I can’t help feeling that I might be leading him astray. But Millar doesn’t demur, and orders a bottle of Viognier Sainte-Fleur 2008.
In fact, being led astray is a large part of what people know about Millar. In 2004, he was reigning world time-trial champion, leader of French team Cofidis, with a string of race wins to his name, a million-euro annual contract and a playboy lifestyle. And then, on a summer’s evening in one of Biarritz’s best restaurants, a team of policemen burst in, grabbed Millar and bundled him into a police van. After two days in a cell, he confessed: he had repeatedly used performance-enhancing drugs. “I knew I was going to lose everything – the house, the car, the lifestyle, the job, the respect ...”
I suggest we leave the drugs until we have ordered – seared scallops with garlic butter for him, smoked salmon for me, followed by cod with Padrón peppers and chorizo for both of us – and ask him what it was that first attracted him to cycling. He says he took up mountain biking in his teens, having gone to live with his airline-pilot father in Hong Kong, but then, aged 15, road cycling began to fire his imagination.
“I started learning about the sport, reading about it, and I was just enchanted,” he says. “It seemed romantic but also tragic – people would be winning but then lose it all, or crash but fight on, break bones but get back on their bikes and try to finish. Just getting to the end was seen as an achievement in itself. It’s somehow old-fashioned, gladiatorial ... ”
Masochistic? “Absolutely – it’s all about suffering. Often the best guys are just those that can suffer longer, who don’t give up. And it’s so easy to give up, when you’re on a mountain and it’s really hurting. We go through a lot physically.”
And, so ... the attraction? “Well, they say it’s like hitting yourself in the head with a hammer – when you stop it feels great.”
He describes a race in Switzerland in which 200 riders started but only 15 finished: “The course went up a mountain, then down the other side to the finish, and it started raining, then snowing. On the descent it was so cold my fingers couldn’t work the brakes and guys were crashing off at all the corners. When I crossed the line, I was hypothermic and started having full body convulsions.” I nod sympathetically, my mouth full of rich smoked salmon.
Millar, 34, is wearing a charcoal-grey Paul Smith jacket, funky thick-rimmed glasses, slicked back hair and a deep tan. When he began to become known in cycling, French newspapers nicknamed him “le Dandy” – “I hated that!” he protests – but he still looks more like someone who works in graphic design, fashion or film. The tan comes from living and training in Girona, Spain, but he is in London for the launch of his autobiography Racing Through the Dark, the pages of which drip with visceral descriptions of the agonies of cycling.
In it Millar describes how, having decided to give himself two years to see if he could make it as cyclist, he moved to France – alone, aged 19 and unable to speak French – to join an amateur team. If unsuccessful, he would return to the UK to go to art college, but it soon became apparent that suffering was something for which Millar had a prodigious talent. His amateur performances were so strong that five professional teams tried to sign him, he went on to win a string of races, then in 2000, on the first day of his first Tour de France, he won the stage and ended up in the leader’s yellow jersey. But behind the scenes, the dream was turning nasty: on the eve of his first pro race, a rider he was sharing a room with started discussing how the team was asking him to dope for the race. Shocked, and with no one to turn to for advice, Millar called his mum back in England.
“It was heartbreaking. This was what I’d always dreamed about and suddenly my eyes were opened. I made the decision quickly that I wouldn’t dope, that I would stand by my own value system, but you’re in this weird situation because you can’t really tell anyone. Who would I tell – my team boss? They don’t care; they know what’s going on. The sport’s governing body? They know what’s going on. I didn’t have any friends, so I called my mum.”
The fact that cyclists have taken drugs is hardly news – but Millar’s book reveals the jaw-dropping scale of the abuse. On his second race he noticed that other riders had their own little medical bags with ampoules and syringes and would keep disappearing off to the bathroom. Deliveries of ice would turn up at odd hours to protect supplies of Erythropoietin, or EPO, which boosts red blood cells. One rider fell from his bike, fracturing his wrists, but was using so many drugs that he was able to carry on for another 200km, and finish in the top 10. So was anyone not on drugs? “There were clean riders but the real question is, ‘How many clean guys were winning?’ And the answer to that is very, very few.”
Amazingly, Millar did manage to win some races and was promoted to team leader, but more often he was congratulated at the finish line for being “the first clean one back”. “At first I’d be pleased, take it as a compliment, but then it kept happening. It chips away at you, there’s this gradual degradation of your ethical standards. I felt like it was me against everyone else, and eventually I started to question why I was fighting so hard. I thought, ‘All I am is a professional cyclist – why am I being so stubborn when nobody cares?’”
His fall from grace came, he says, during the 2001 Tour. Injured and exhausted, he had abandoned the race on the mountainous stage to Alpe d’Huez, wracked with guilt about letting down his team. That night an older rider and a manager came to his room and suggested that he might like to “prepare” properly for the next big event, the codeword for doping. Had they been waiting for his weakest hour?
“Well, I think they had been waiting for the right time but here’s the thing: I think they thought they were helping me. In some weird way I think they thought, ‘Let’s start making David’s life easier, let’s stop him traumatising himself all the time by trying so hard.’ I think they wanted to put me out of my misery.”
Our cod arrives – plus Millar’s side order of chips and a second bottle of wine – as he tells me about the effects of EPO, taken for a few weeks before competitions, far enough in advance that it isn’t detectable during races. In short, the drugs do work – they can “turn a donkey into a racehorse”, as one of his teammates put it – but they also killed any sense of satisfaction. “My epiphany came in that police cell: I realised I was about to lose everything and it didn’t bother me, not in the slightest. I’d come to hate cycling because I blamed it for the lie I was living.”
Banned from professional cycling for two years (criminal charges were eventually dropped) Millar severed ties with the European racing scene, and moved back to England, to a cottage in Derbyshire. On long solo rides through the Peak District, he started to enjoy riding again and, within a year, was plotting his comeback.
Aware that he would always be associated with drug-taking, he realised that he would have to become an anti-doping crusader as well as a rider, proving with his results that it was possible to win clean. Some critics found this conversion rather too convenient, his new-found zeal hypocritical and his excuses self-pitying. After all, he hadn’t voluntarily owned up to his misdemeanours but been caught.
To the casual observer, fighting drug abuse in cycling might seem a lost cause. This year’s Tour starts amid yet more scandals. Lance Armstrong, a seven-time Tour winner and still the world’s most famous cyclist, is facing a doping investigation by the US Food and Drug Administration, and has been denounced by several former teammates. Meanwhile Alberto Contador, winner of last year’s Tour and favourite for this year’s, is the subject of a legal battle over a positive drug test.
Perhaps it’s inevitable in a sport that demands such super-human efforts that there will always be temptation. Speaking of which, would he like a pudding? Some dessert wine? Yes and yes – gooseberry crème brûlée and a glass of Sauternes for him, Eton Mess and Muscat for me. The car arrives to pick him up – it is 3.30pm – but he shoos it away, saying we need more time.
So is there any hope? What Millar says next is perhaps the most shocking thing about the entire story: “Today ours is the cleanest of all the endurance sports.” I almost choke on my meringue. Really? “You can go into the sport now as a young rider and never encounter doping, never see a syringe ... Of course we still have the anomalous cheaters you get in any walk of life but they are a minority – for a long time they were the majority.”
How has this come about? Is it the result of technological advances in testing or various campaigns by the World Anti-Doping Agency, on whose committee Millar sits? “To be brutally honest, it’s simple economics. If they want to come into cycling, sponsors need to know the team they are funding is clean, otherwise the risk is just too great.” For years, sponsors would come in for a few years, get burnt by a scandal and pull out. Today, at least three teams – Garmin Slipstream (which Millar played a key role in setting up), Sky and HTC Highroad – make being clean a key part of their image. They ensure their riders deliver on that promise by constant blood-profiling and by providing support for young riders.
And so to the big question: is it now possible to win the Tour de France clean? “Yes, I think it is, but that’s a very recent development.” How recent exactly? Even after a two-hour, two-bottle lunch, Millar spots the bear-trap. “Well, I wouldn’t like to put an exact year on it ... ” he says, smiling.
Does he regret, I wonder, not being born a few years later, into a clean sport and now that, instead of having to move to France and fend for themselves, young British riders have perhaps the world’s best national development programme? “In some ways I would love nothing more than to be 18 now, going straight into the British Olympic programme, winning medals on the track, then moving on to the road. But [then] I’d have been just another pro-athlete – well-off, successful, feted and egotistical ... Having lost it all, I understand how fortunate I am.”
In the five years since his comeback Millar has won stages of the Vuelta and the Giro (Spain and Italy’s equivalent of the Tour), and become the only Briton to wear the leader’s jersey in all three. But perhaps a greater achievement is that rather than being shunned for breaking the previous generation’s omerta on drug use, he has emerged as an unofficial spokesman for the professional peloton, the eloquent voice of experience. When Belgian rider Wouter Weylandt died in a high-speed fall in this year’s Giro, it was to Millar that the peloton turned, and he later met race organisers to discuss safety. “Obviously, the circumstances were horrible, but it was one of the proudest moments of my career.”
The car is back, and this time Millar has to go. We say our goodbyes and, as I sit in the now empty restaurant, I think how differently it could have turned out. Floyd Landis, stripped of his 2006 Tour win after testing positive, protested his innocence for four years and has ended up discredited. Star cyclists Marco Pantani and Frank Vandenbroucke moved on from performance-enhancing drugs to recreational ones and both were dead before the age of 35.
It could have gone that way for Millar too but instead he will be starting the Tour as a pivotal figure in the sport, and even stands a chance of taking the yellow jersey after the time trial on day two. Then the rather long bill arrives. I just hope our lunch hasn’t scuppered his chances.
‘Racing Through the Dark’ (Orion, £18.99)
Tom Robbins is the FT’s travel editor
20 Mount Street, Mayfair, London W1
Sparkling water x 2 £9.00
Pilsner beer £4.75
Bottle of Viognier Sainte-Fleur 2008 x 2 £98.00
Seared scallops £16.50
Smoked salmon £14.25
Fillet of cod x 2 £43.50
Green beans with shallots £4.75
Raspberry Eton mess £8.50
Gooseberry crème brûlée £7.50
Beaumes de Venise 2007 £9.25
Château Partarrieu 2007 £12.00
Espresso x 2 £6.00
Covers x 2 £4.00
Total (including service) £272.25
The Great Race: Ned Boulting on how to watch the Tour
So much about the Tour de France is baffling. Nearly a decade into my career covering the great race for television, I’m still struggling with the finer details. Don’t let blind incomprehension muddy your appreciation, though. If it all gets too much, then simply sit back and enjoy the sight of France rattling past on your TV set.
The Tour is lots of things all at the same time. Some riders are trying to win the whole thing, by getting to Paris in the quickest possible time. Team Sky’s Bradley Wiggins falls into this category, as do the two Tour favourites, Spain’s Alberto Contador of the Saxo Bank-SunGard team and Luxembourg’s Andy Schleck of Leopard Trek.
Others are focused on winning individual stages. Britain’s Mark Cavendish of HTC-Highroad does this better than anyone else in the world. He can only succeed when it’s flat, though. In the mountains, he loses huge amounts of time. It’s like Usain Bolt trying to run a marathon. That’s why Cavendish will never actually win the Tour.
Both Cavendish and Wiggins are team leaders. The other eight riders on their teams are dedicated to helping them achieve their goals. They often do this by riding around and in front of them for as long as they can, to protect them from the wind. Riders who “slipstream” behind teammates are generally putting in about 65 per cent of the effort of the man in front.
Then there are the jerseys: the semaphore of the Tour. The overall leader wears the famous Yellow Jersey (or Yellow Jumper, as I pitifully managed to refer to it on my first Tour). The Green Jersey is worn by the rider who manages to sweep up the most “points” on offer every day. You get a certain number at the finish line, and a certain number for an intermediate “sprint” en route. The Polka Dot jersey goes to the rider with the most points in the King of the Mountains competition – much like the Green Jersey but only available to collect on mountainous stages. The White Jersey is for the best young rider overall.
Complicated, isn’t it? The simple fact is this: each of the 198 riders is out for something slightly, subtly different. There is great prestige attached to all sorts of different targets. Individual stage wins are hugely valued. Wearing a jersey, too, if only for a day, matters. Winning the whole thing is a mind-boggling achievement and a huge honour.
‘How I Won the Yellow Jumper’ (Yellow Jersey Press) by Ned Boulting, £12.99