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The Racer, by David Millar

Volume two of the autobiographies of David Millar.

David Millar - The Racer (Penguin Random House, 2015)
David Millar - The Racer (Penguin Random House, 2015)

David Millar - The Racer Title: The Racer
Author: David Millar
Publisher: Yellow Jersey Press
Year: 2015
Pages: 392
Order: Penguin Random House
What it is: Volume two of the autobiographies of David Millar
Strengths: Millar is at his best when he has something to talk about - especially the 2011 Giro d'Italia and the 2013 Tour de France - and isn't just warbling on somewhat aimlessly about things like the cars Ryder Hesjedal has owned
Weaknesses: As with Millar's final season, it's hard not to get the impression that all has not gone to plan in The Racer and the book is not all it could have been

Back when it all began, back when it was all beginning to go wrong, back when Gen-EPO was at the height of its glory, David Millar was mentored by Tony Rominger, three time Grand Tour winner (1993 and 1994 Vuelta a España and 1995 Giro d'Italia), two time holder of the Hour record (53.832 kms and 55.291 kms) and sometime client of Michele Ferrari. Millar and Rominger had been team-mates at Cofidis in 1997, before Rominger retired. Not long after Rominger's retirement, Millar was staying with Swiss Tony in Monaco when the former champion bemoaned the life of the retired cyclist. Rominger noted how Monaco's resident retired golfers and tennis players always had something in the tank that enabled them to show some of their magic in exhibition events. Retired cyclists - no longer plugging the training miles, no longer counting the calories - were not so blessed: "Me? I'm fucked! Never again will I be good on a bike. This is life, David. In professional cycling there are no gifts."

Rominger was talking about the gift of form, which in cycling can only be earned, never comes gratis. Millar allows the comment to serve both as a glimpse into the future awaiting him post-retirement and also the hook around which to build a tale about the pre-season training needed to recover from the post-season wind-down. But - coming as it does toward the start of The Racer - it is also a quote which foreshadows events to come in Millar's final season as a professional cyclist, a season he had mentally scripted like a three act play.

Act one was meant to see him tackling his last Classics season and removing from his back the monkey which is Paris-Roubaix, described by Millar as his nemesis throughout his career.

Act two was meant to see him bidding farewell to the Tour de France, Millar's family and friends there on the Champs-Élysées to cheer him home one last time. The form built in the Tour would then be taken into the Commonwealth Games, which were being held in Glasgow in 2014, making them a kind of homecoming.

Act three was meant to see him tackle his final Grand Tour, the Vuelta a España, Millar's favourite race, the race where "I can be a bike racer without the stresses and expectations or responsibilities of other Grand Tours." As with the Tour and the Commie Games, the form honed in Spain would then be carried through to his final opportunity to wear a Team GB jersey, the World Championships, the final bow before ovations and curtain calls

Millar's planned script had all the beats it should have, the emotional highs of circles completed, dreams come true. You can almost feel your chest tightening and eyes welling just thinking about how it was all going to pan out.

The script was so good that not only had Millar signed a deal to make a book of his final season, he would - like Bradley Wiggins in the build up to his Tour de France victory - have a film crew in tow. It was all down pat, with even the merchandising angle having been covered, with Millar having a range of tie-in shoes for his final season.

Count the ways in which it all went wrong: Paris-Roubaix refused to be a chimp happy to be smacked; the Tour was a broken dream; the form was not there for the Commie Games; all the fun was sucked out of the Vuelta when Millar broke his hand; the Worlds was another Tour de Sucksville for Team GB. You'd almost think that the fates were fucking with David Millar, denying him the lap of honour he felt was his due, reminding him at each of the planned high points of his final season that, in professional cycling, there are no gifts.

* * * * *

The gift denied that seems to have hurt Millar the most was the Tour de France. Things started to go wrong after the 2014 Critérium du Dauphiné - won by Millar's team-mate Andrew Talansky from under the noses of Sky's Chris Froome and Tinkoff's Alberto Contador - when Millar fell ill with a fatigue-induced cold: "I'd been in a similarly sorry state leading up to the 2013 Tour de France, to the extent that for any other member of the team my selection could not have been justified."

Come the Nationals, the week before the Tour started, Millar was still trying to shake off his lurgy and its affects. Millar was having second thoughts about riding the time trial. Until his Garmin directeur sportif, Charly Wegelius, laid down the pressure: "It puts me in a very difficult position if you don't race, David."

"I'm not expecting that response from him. I've taken it for granted that he'll understand completely - after all, I am selected for the Tour, and that's the most important thing now. I can feel my anger rising [...] My anger is not directed towards Charly, but at the powers above him that I suspect are forcing Charly to be a dick, I can imagine Jonathan [Vaughters] using him like a puppet."

Millar DNFed the time trial, pulling out after a couple of laps. So he really needed to pull something out of the bag in the road race. But there was nothing there, save for another DNF. The dream was all but broken, all it now took was the wake up call from Wegelius telling Millar he was off the Tour squad.

With the dream also went a relationship that had been forged in cycling's darkest hours, as the sport limped from Operación Puerto into the Floyd Landis saga and onwards into fresh controversies erupting uncontrollably all over the sport - Millar's relationship with the Garmin team:

"The three of us - Jonathan Vaughters, Doug Ellis and me - had built the team together. Jonathan created the team and its ethical values after retiring from racing disillusioned by the corrupt professional scene. Doug wanted to create an American Tour de France team and realised that if he wanted to do it in a way that reflected his own values there was only one option: Jonathan Vaughters. I was the third and final element. I had come back into the sport from my ban a reformed man, respected by the people who Jonathan and Doug needed to win over if they wanted to turn their team from a small domestic US outfit into an international Tour de France team."

Millar - in his analysis - was the key that opened the door to star riders and access to the Tour de France and the man who fronted up the team to the media. On and off the bike he was the team's linchpin: "My involvement was so important that I was made a part-owner of the team. Jonathan, Doug and I were on a mission to do something good for the sport of cycling."

That mission, by rights, should have continued after Millar's retirement. Maybe a seat in a team car, maybe a part of the PR team, or maybe some title like Head of Winning Behaviours. But, having been denied his dream exit on the Champs-Élysées, Millar exited Garmin completely come the end of the season, turned his back on the team that he had built.

* * * * *

All those broken dreams - especially the Tour dream - weigh heavily on The Racer. The title alone suggests meditative, pared back prose à la Tim Krabbé's The Rider. Millar's hipster credentials suggest the economic style over substance readers have come to expect from Michael Barry. The Racer delivers neither. What you get is a book that, though structured around Millar's final season, is somewhat aimless, Millar at times searching for things to fill the pages with (did we really need three pages on the cars that Ryder Hesjedal has owned?).

Millar himself says that what he wanted was "a book that years from now my children can read and see what it was like, what their dad actually did all those years ago, the racer he was. But not only that, I want my friends from this generation to have something that will remind us of who we were. There was more to it than doping. We lived on the road because we loved to race." As with Millar's dream script for his final season, that plan for the book is derailed. The love is drowned in bitterness, and Millar struggles to relay the kind of racer he really was as he limps from one setback to another wallowing in self pity.

But beyond the bitterness over Jonathan Vaughters blanking Millar since his exclusion from the Garmin Tour team, beyond the bitterness with which Millar speaks of Garmin's demise as a team capable of winning team time trials, beyond the bitterness Millar dredges up from the 2013 Tour when, through Garmin's inaction, he missed out on the yellow jersey by one second, The Racer does have its moments. Beyond the narcissism of Millar glorying in playing Robin Williams to Nathan Haas's Ethan Hawke when the latter recited Walt Whitman's O Captain! My Captain! on the night of his final get-together with his Garmin team-mates and beyond the narcissism of Millar reducing the Commonwealth Games to him racing in a kit of his own design and beyond the narcissism of Millar once again telling us the story of his cycling and dining club VC Rocacorba, The Racer does have a few stories that make you wish Millar hadn't settled on the hook of writing about his final season and had instead just written a book about his life as a pro.

Those stories come from the past. There's a botched team time trial in the 2009 Tour which ends up being a moral victory of sorts. There's his stage win in the 2012 Tour. And there's two stand out stories: the 2011 Giro d'Italia and how Millar had to cope with becoming the centre of attention on the day Wouter Weylandt died, by virtue of having donned the maglia rosa; and the finale of the 2013 Tour, Millar's breakaway as dusk fell on the Champs-Élysées. Those last two stories in particular hint at what The Racer could have been - hint at what Millar is really capable of writing - had things not turned out the way they did.

The Tour story mixes the etiquette of the Tour's arrival on the Champs with the mechanics of breaking away and neatly squares a circle started in 2000 in the dying kilometres of Millar's début Tour when he was away with Jens Voigt and two others for twenty kilometres or so. Watching Millar's final Tour breakaway at the time it seemed like the fitting end to his career, as if he knew then that the chance wouldn't come around again in 2014 (when, in the absence of Millar, Voigt got to square his own circle, riding clear of the peloton on the Champs in a final season that had all the high points Millar's lacked, culminating as it did with the first Hour record in nine years).

The Giro story again mixes the mechanics of breaking away and - here - actually trying to win the stage. There's a flash of the old hot-headed bike-hurling Millar as he misses out on the victory, then the blow of being told Trek's Wouter Weylandt had died, followed almost immediately by the news that Millar had taken the pink jersey, the roller-coaster continuing when Millar then had to help team-mate Tyler Farrar - a close friend of Weylandt's - cope with his grief: "This wasn't something we knew how to handle. All other bad situations we simply bantered our way out of. That was the only way we knew how to remedy shit situations. This was outside our bandwidth." Millar, as race leader, then had to handle being the spokesman for his peers and get the peloton through the stage that followed, in which - as with the stage after Fabio Casartelli's death in the 1995 Tour - the riders rode like a funeral cortège for their fallen comrade.

Those tales in particular - along with a couple that show what his life as a road captain was about - just about justify reading The Racer, just about get you past the self pity of an ageing pro who believed the sport owed him a grand exit. It is to be hoped that, in due course, when distance allows Millar to look back more serenely, he will get to write the book he originally wanted to, one which shows that he - and his peers - actually loved to race.