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Cafe Bookshelf: An Interview with Richard Moore

Richard Moore is the author of three books: In Search of Robert Millar (HarperCollins, 2007), reviewed aboveHeroes, Villains and Velodromes: Chris Hoy and Britain's Track Cycling Revolution (HarperCollins, 2008); and Bike Scotland Trails Guide (Pocket Mountains, 2007). When not writing books he contributes sports coverage to various newspapers and magazines, including the Guardian, the Scotsman, The Times, and other places where they discuss cycling and Olympic sports in the U.K.

The Cyclist-Author

PdC: How did your racing career turn out? You talk a bit about your experience on the National circuit in the 1990s. How far did you get?

RM: Not that far, I began racing in 1988 when I was 15, that was my first serious season I guess. And I was racing nationally in Scotland and throughout the UK from when I was a junior. Then I went away to University and cycling took a bit of a back seat there -- I still raced but I was combining it with studies and socializing. When I graduated from University I didn’t know what I wanted to do for a job, and I decided to give cycling a good crack for a couple of years. So I hooked up with a guy who used to race, Roddy Riddle, he’s a bit of a local legend in Scotland. He coached me, and I had three years, 96-97-98 competing for me at a higher level. I was riding for Scotland in international races and what they called the Premier Calendar and I won one of those races in '97. I raced a couple of times for Great Britain as well in that period, I raced in the Isle of Man for Robert Millar in fact. I think I was one of those cyclists who got the most out of the form he had, you know, I knew since I’d gone to university I’d have to enter the real world eventually, but my goal was to ride for Scotland in the Commonwealth Games, to the UK and Canada it means quite a lot. So I went to the Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and that was really the high point of my cycling career. IN 1999 I intended to keep cycling but the motivation wasn’t really there once I’d achieved my big goal, it kind of fizzled out at that point.

PdC: And how’d you make out at the Commonwealth Games?

RM: Not great, and that’s another important lesson is not to set yourself goals of just going someplace but rather setting goals for what you’re going to do once you’re there. One of my teammates was Chris Hoy, who’s gone on to do great things, you know, won Olympic Gold medals, I ghost-wrote his autobiography and we talked a lot about how our paths had diverged. For him the games were almost a stepping stone whereas for me they were the summit. For me, I lacked focus, I hadn’t planned for being there. I planned for getting there but not for being there. I also realized that mentally I found that I started to panic and couldn’t cope all that well with the pressure. I fell ill about three days before the road race, and I think it’s because I’d gotten too wound up about it. So I didn’t do well in the road race, I Punctured and couldn’t get back on.  In the time trial I finished 22nd which was middle of the pack.

Early Connections

Richard_moore_mediumPdC: To what extent was Millar your inspiration to get into cycling?

RM: In the mid-80s, he was the only rider we had in the UK, Sean Yates was riding too but Millar was the only one who stood a chance of winning a stage or the overall. So I think people got behind him, and in many ways he was an awkward guy to get behind, but he was all we had really. But there was something about him that inspired people. There was a cunningness to him and an awkwardness to him as well -- he was a bit of a misfit and a loner, and people kind of romanticized that aspect of his character, I don’t know if he was aware of that. But there was something about him that was quite cool. I met him when I was 15 and those are very formative years and those are years when you can come under the spell of a singer or a sports star as role models, people you aspire to be like, and I think that was true of a lot of other people as well. Like I mention in the book there was a Robert Millar training camp held in 1988 and '89 in Scotland, I went to both of them, and there were maybe 300 cyclists there, and a lot of them it seemed to me were adopting the Robert Millar look, you know with the long hair and the Robert Millar expressions.

A Detective Story

PdC: My overall impression of the book is that it’s simultaneously the Robert Millar story and the story of your search for this person you had this connection to or fascination with all these years. Do you see the purpose of this book being these two parallel tracks? Is one more important than the other?

RM: Yeah I think there are parallel tracks, I didn’t they had to be like that because I didn’t have Millar’s cooperation. The book was borne out of conversation in the pub where I’d said I’d be interested in writing the Robert Millar story, about the fact that he disappeared, and I considered that to be a barrier in doing it. And this friend of mine suggested, what about in search of? and as soon as he said that, I thought that’s the way to do it because then it becomes my search for Robert Millar and not the definitive Robert Millar story. And I think that’s the way it had to be. It also had to be clear to the reader that there wasn’t anything authoritative about it. 

I was quite inspired as well by another book that I read around the same time, not about another sportsman but by a writer called Jonathan Coe, a biography about B.S. Johnson, a kind of obscure writer that I knew nothing about. Again there was a personal connection -- the way Jonathan Coe approached it was he’d watched BS Johnson on a TV program when he was a kid and had been fascinated by him, partly because the program was filmed in he place where he used to go on his family holidays. And I just loved the way that Jonathan Coe described the journey that he went about to try and find out more about this writer. I also loved the way he structured the book, and even little details that he revealed about his search and that process, I really enjoyed that as a reader. So I thought I could approach this book in the same way.

It’s almost like a detective story, but I’m not a detective, so I wasn’t convinced I’d be able to put all the pieces together. But I thought that as a journalist and a writer I’m always interested in the process as well so I was keen to spell out the process. I hoped that would be interesting. 

PdC: One part that really interested me was what it was like for you to try to piece together parts of the story about what’s going on inside Millar. You do some daring things in the book, like when you talked about the peage, you related that to Millar’s fear of going back to the factory life. What’s it like to try to pin down something that personal and internal to a guy who’s so distant?

RM: Well, it’s entirely speculation on my part, it’s like amateur psychology. That’s something I’m interested in any book that I read, I’m interested in the author’s attempt, whether it’s fiction or non fiction, to get inside the character’s head and work out what’s going on, knowing that you never can know what’s going on. There’s lots of room to speculate, certainly with Millar, because so much of it’s an information vacuum. That makes him intriguing and interesting, and it’s rewarding to indulge in that kind of speculation about him. You can only go with the information you have.

I went to see Greg LeMond recently and Kathy had read In Search of Robert Millar, and Kathy, she’d been quite affected by the story, because they obviously knew him quite well back then, and her reaction was, I wish I’d reached out to him more, you know, I wish I’d made more of an effort to really get to know him. And he’s actually such a quiet guy -- they didn’t ignore him but didn’t go to huge lengths to really engage him. Again, I’m just speculating, but my guess is that Millar wouldn’t have opened up and become a different sort of person if people had made that sort of effort. I could be wrong, as I said in the book I spoke to one or two people who had been close to him, a guy like Wayne Bennington who, their relationship went beyond teammates and training partners, I think they were more like proper friends, but I dunno, I think Millar was more like an older brother to him, I’m not sure what the relationship was. It’s fascinating to speculate because there are so many gaps there.

Dr. Millar and Mr. Hyde

PdC: You talked a lot about the two sides of Millar, including his need to enter a zone in the racing environment in order to hone his focus, whereas people outside the racing enviornment describe him in a different light. we hear a lot about extremely competitive athletes like Lance Armstrong or Michael Jordan, whom people describe as a great guy but around the competitions they’re kind of a nightmare. Is this one of the big stories to the Millar mystique?

RM: I think so. I think that’s one aspect of it which, I’ve started to understand more that there are certain athletes who need that, need to be able to focus in a way that most cyclists don’t. You know, the access to cyclists is very different from a lot of other sports. Even at the Tour, you know, a lot of them are giving interviews just seconds before the race starts. And there are some who are clearly uncomfortable about, you know, Cadel Evans, who doesn’t do well with that sort of thing. Cadel Evans isn’t a bad comparison to Robert Millar, you know, a lot of people describe him as a bit rude and surly and often unpleasant, and I suspect that away from cycling Cadel Evans is a quite interesting, and quite complex and deep person, but he’s not at all comfortable in that glare of the spotlight. Interestingly Robert Millar did a bike test in the late 90s or early 2000s for a magazine with Cadel Evans, and I think from memory that they got on quite well, which is a bit interesting.

PdC: Birds of a feather?

RM: Yeah, that’s something I had more of an appreciation for after speaking with friends of Millar and realizing that the Millar we saw at races or on video wasn’t necessarily the real Robert Millar. At that time there was less of an interest in these guys as people, they were just cyclists, and I think now the way that coverage has changed, there’s more of an effort to try and understand Cadel Evans than just say that he’s rude or unpleasant. A lot of the journalists at the time stopped speaking to Robert Millar because they found him rude, and that again creates that gap of information, because Millar, despite his great riding, probably doesn’t have that sort of coverage that matches his ability because of the way he treated journalists.

The Importance of Leadership

PdC: Not just journalists, it seems. You mention at one point in Peugeot his Director chided him for not displaying more leadership qualities, it seems like over and over his inability to control his personality keeps hurting him.

RM: Yeah, absolutely. Clearly physically he had the abiliity to win major races and his record in grand tours is amazing: second the the Tour of Spain twice, second in the Tour of Italy, fourth in the Tour de France.  But I think to me that extra step to win you need a little bit extra, and he didn’t have that ultimately. He didn’t have the force of personality or something, there was something lacking there that prevented him from being a grand tour winner. If you were to ask people now who remains the only English-speaking winner of the polka dot jersey, I don’t think that many people would answer Robert Millar.

Heard Anything Lately?

PdC: After the sex change story, did Millar reach out to you? [Tabloids in Britain have twice published stories that Millar has undergone a sex change.]

RM: After the book came out, he did, yeah. What happened was, we had this correspondence at the end of the book, and he gave his blessing to using them in the book, and then it all went very quiet. THen the book came out and I emailed him and asked, could I send you a copy of the book, and there was no reply. It was only when this tabloid newspaper put out this story that I finally heard from him. He wasn’t very happy, understandably, and I have to say the correspondence since then hasn’t been on great terms. I’m very keen to try and repair the damage. The problem is he holds me responsible for that story, which is fair enough because I don’t think they would have done that story had the book not come out. But I wasn’t responsible for the content of the story.

RM: But he holds you responsible for the fact that they found him. He thinks you tipped them off.

PdC: Yeah. I didn’t actually know where he was. Or I did know where he was but I didn’t know that I knew where he was. [Moore was following up with Millar’s ex-girlfriend but wasn’t sure it was the correct person, though later he found out that it was.] I tried to respect his privacy, and it wasn’t my interest in the book to publicize where he was. I went into writing the book aware of the [sex change rumors] but conscious of the fact that it was up to him to tell people, I didn’t want to remove his right to reveal the truth about himself. [It’s clear from our conversation that Moore isn’t saying either way whether there is any truth to the sex change story as published; his reference to "the truth" is meant, agnostically, as whether he has or has not had a sex change.] I was confident and happy when I’d written the book that I had respected Millar’s privacy, and it’s a shame that this tabloid newspaper went and did what they did afterward.

Perhaps at some point Robert Millar will emerge and tell us the truth, one way or the other. My feeling is that he might.

PdC: That would be really interesting if some future event were to happen and fill in all the gaps in the story that you were investigating in the book.

RM: Well, I’d love to hear Millar’s story in his own words, maybe we’ll get that someday. It’d be very, very interesting, because there is somthing about a guy who, you know, people who knew him said Robert Millar loved being a star, and that’s incompatible with this guy who, hated the media and that side of the sport. But it’s very hard to take part in that level of the sport without having a tiny bit of that ego or showmanship. That’s what makes me wonder about that aspect of his character and whether it will reemerge at some point. That was a great quote from Jack Andre who said Millar was like a little cockerel, he loved to stand out but he hated people chasing him. I thought that was the best summing up of his character.

Who's the New Millar?

PdC: Is there anyone from today’s peloton who reminds you of his riding style?

RM: Well, it’s interesting how the sport’s changed, those kind of pure climbers who are great at climbing and poor at everything else, they don’t seem to exist as much. Andy Schleck is not dissimilar in a way, but Millar was just a pure climber. Certainly in the nineties, for reasons we all know, some of the bigger guys began to come to the fore and dominate stage races, and there wasn’t so much room for the specialist climbers. I guess Pantani was a specialist climber, not dissimilar. I’m trying to think of guys who had that explosiveness...

PdC: Sastre?

RM: Sastre is not dissimilar in a way, in that he’s somewhat complex, you know, he’s very much an individual. Watching [the Zoncolan stage of the Giro] when Liquigas were just piling on the pressure, he couldn’t keep up and dropped back, but at the end he’s right up near the front of the race, you know, he just rode his own race. And that’s what natural climbers do, they’re almost oblivious to everyone else, and that ties into their character as well, they’re all loners. I tried to work out in the book whether they’re climbers because they’re loners or they’re loners because they’re climbers. Millar trained himself to be a climber, doing long routes in the Alpes. It’s a bit like rock climbers, people who seek that sort of solitude. I’m definitely drawn to those types of people, I think they’re fascinating. I struggle to think of guys who are like them, but it’s like the best and most original pop stars, Millar was just unique and remains unique.

PdC: Do you think the King of the Mountains distinction was a bigger deal back in Millar’s day?

RM: I think it was. You know, it’s been devalued some. I don’t know if it’s teh way the competition is scored as well, where riders can sprint at the top of some climbs to decide points. But you look back at the Eighties and it’s people like Millar and Lucho Herrera, people who you can say were genuinely deserved winners of the King of the Mountains. I can’t even tell you who won it last year... Pellizotti, and Bernard Kohl the year before, guys who’ve contributed to tarnishing it. And you look at Richard Virenque, he won it more than anyone else, but I don’t think anyone would tell you he was the best climber. And I think that tells you that it’s in the mountains where the race has been flattened by doping. That’s where the race used to be the most electrifying, whereas now it’s been kind of neutralized. 

PdC: Sastre was a guy who hovered around the edge of a grand tour victory, but he did have that one-off victory where it all came together. How close was Millar to that one signature win?

RM: Certainly he didn’t come close to winning the Tour. We hoped after 84 that he could win the Tour, but it couldn’t quite happen for him. The Tour of Spain in 1985 was obviously as close as he got, where he was undone by bad luck and conspiracy you could say by the Spanish teams. And lots of other things -- my mind went back to that watching the Giro stage to Aquila, you know, guys have limits, and it’s raining all day, it was chaotic, guys are wearing rain capes so you don’t always know who’s up the road and it takes longer for that information to get back. And in those days before radios, it took longer for Millar to find out that it was Delgado who was up the road. We forget how uncontrolled the racing was then, and all kinds of things would go on. It was a different era. But that was as close as Millar came, by all accounts he should have won that grand tour. You know, there was a mystery of a level crossing that went down and no train appeared. Sastre, when he won he had everything go right, but with Millar everything went wrong.

That year he was really the strongest guy, the next year when he was second again he really didn’t come close. In 87 when he was second in the Giro he was second to Roche, and Roche really had that wrapped up. He actually ended up riding for Roche in that race. And he did win the Dauphine, the Tour of Britain, he was right up there in big races, even the classics like Liege Bastogne Liege. He was a top rider, but he just lacked that little extra something in his character.

I’m working on this book about Bernard Hinault, a guy who could force races to bend to his will, and Millar didn’t have a fraction of that.

Next Up: HInault and LeMond

PdC: So your next book is about the 1986 Tour? When is that coming out?

RM: It’s going to come out next June for the 25th anniversary for the 1986 Tour. Couple things, some of the people who read the book about Millar said they’d love to read a book about Hinault, another fascinating character. But rather than just write a book about Hinault I thought could I structure this book around an event. And I like mystery, and I know there was a lot of mystery and intrigue in that Tour that we maybe didn’t know about at the time, so I wanted to write another sort of mystery story with these two characters, Hinault and LeMond, central to it. You could almost say it’s a biography of Hinault and a biography of LeMond, but it’s organized around the 1986 Tour, how they came together and their stories crossed in this race.