He won four stages of the Tour de France, several other classics stages and for a years he was Britains top professional road cyclist, long before Wiggins, Froome and Cavendish became household names. There was a two-year doping ban and a return to Le Tour before retirement from professional racing in 2014. There can’t be many other retired road cyclists more qualified to talk about life inside – and outside – of the peloton than David Millar. David is at home in Girona, where he’s lived for years – “I’m one of the originals – one of the last originals actually,” he explains as we sit down to discuss his career.
As one half of ITVs Tour de France commentary team, David shares the box with Ned Boulting, providing the kind of expert analysis that only comes from years of experience inside the beast that is Le Tour de France. First things first, what are his predictions for le grande boucle in 2023?
“I mean it’s up in the air right now after Tadej’s crash yesterday, but it’s hard to see anyone bettering Vingegaard or Tadej Pogačar in my view. My heart says Pogačar and my mind says Vingegaard, simply because Tadej Pogačar has had that serious crash now and he’s going to be literally on the back foot trying to get back online. But i’ll go Tadej Pogačar because I’d like him so much to win the overall. For the green jersey Wout van Aert again I think, because he was just indomitable last year and for the polka dot, Alaphilippe and then for the young rider jersey, I’ll go with Pidcock.”
An 18 year old David raced in France just weeks before he was due to begin art college back in the UK. Instead, he joined a club in St Quentin, launching his road cycling career with eight wins. Five professional cycling teams scuffled to offer him a contract and David eventually signed with Team Cofidis, where he stayed until 2004. I wonder how, in the years that followed, he’s come to regard the Tour de France when compared to the Olympics for example, or the World Championships? “The Tour de France is cycling really; without the Tour de France the sport wouldn’t be what it is – a global sport. The World Championships, the classics, they’re all amazing and they’re very popular amongst the cycling aficionado – those who have a real passion for the sport. But the Tour de France brings in people who don’t necessarily follow cycling all year round. The Tour de France is almost like having an Olympics every year. But ask any cyclist which they’d prefer – an Olympic gold medal or a Tour de France win – they’ll take the Tour de France win every time I recon. I think that sums it up really, this is the biggest annual sporting event and for us, it’s the be all and end all.”
It was certainly Le Tour which ignited David’s passion for road cycling and inspired his dreams to be a professional cyclist. “Watching it on TV, I knew I wanted to compete in the Tour de France, there wasn’t really any other race that pulled me in quite like it,” David explains. “That’s the case for many of us,” he continues. But with so many variables in each stage, road cycling isn’t always the easiest sport to watch.
“The Tour de France is horses for courses and that’s cycling as a whole. It’s the only competition where you’ll have close to 200 people on the starting line and there are so many variables, so many possibilities. People often compare it to having all of the different boxing weights in one event. In the peloton you’ve got the little guy who’ll be focusing on the mountain stages. Then you’ve got the big guys, focusing on the sprint days. You’ve got breakaway riders, who know they’re not capable of winning a stage and then you’ve got riders who will chase some of the classifications, because they know that’s what they’d rather win than a stage or an overall position. The whole thing can probably be quite baffling to the outside viewer because there are so many different races going on within the race. Every day there’s a multitude of different things happening. In my career as a commentator, this means there’s always a story for us to tell, there’s multiple narratives to be told in every single stage of the Tour de France, which is what makes it so special.”
David’s wealth of experience inside the peloton is widely considered to be the standout element of ITV’s Tour de France coverage. He breaks down the strategy, gets inside the riders heads, considers what’s coming next, long before the riders themselves. But what is life like inside the peloton?
“The peloton is very much an organic entity. In the Tour de France in particular, the race begins with tensions so high, there’s not much joviality, not many conversations going on around the riders. The atmosphere is tense as there’s so much at stake. Teams stay very insular, riders aren’t mixing with friends from other teams; everyone has a job to do and they do it. In my days in the peloton, as the race unfolded, tensions would lift slightly, but then the fatigue began. Towards the second half of the final week, riders would find opportunities to kind of catch up with old friends in different teams. These days however, that sort of behaviour has disappeared. In the current day Tour de France, the peloton is always under pressure, which means that every day you have to be switched on, not really going outside of your team bubble. The stakes are so high in every moment, and that’s something that perhaps people don’t see on TV. It can look like quite a peaceful environment from the helicopter shots – a big blob of riders cruising along in a sublime landscape – but when you’re in it, the stress is high constantly. Riders that have been around for 10 to 15 years talk these days about how the peloton has changed so much. There’s less respect amongst the riders, there’s less hierarchy, it’s dog eat dog in there. The sport has changed a lot in the last 10 to 20 years and now it’s more professional than it’s ever been. With that comes the tension and stress that this level of professionalism brings.”
The Tour de France is the largest annual sporting event in the world, attracting a global audience of 3.5 billion viewers; a number that increases year on year. With big audiences, comes big responsibility, so I wonder what other changes David has observed, especially in recent years?
“The Tour de France is more professional now because it’s more visible than it’s ever been. It was quite difficult to follow before – you had to be in Europe, in a country that would be showing it live and the UK would only get the highlights show. In years gone by there’d be times when the race wasn’t being shown live, but you have to remember that it’s now a media driven sport. The races used to wind up more when the helicopters came and the TV cameras were on, usually towards the end of each stage. Now the cameras are on constantly, there’s no where to hide, which means riders are always visible to the team bosses, the managers, the sponsors, and their response is to be more professional. Anti-doping has brought an added professionalism, there’s now more expertise in equipment, training, analytics, nutrition, everything has just gone through the roof. It’s like night and day to how it was, even just a decade ago and that’s raised everyones level enormously.”
“The peloton is very much an organic entity. In the Tour de France in particular…”
Speaking of doping, it’s no secret that David was banned from the sport for two years in 2004 for using banned performance enhancer EPO and stripped of his world time trial title at the same time. We’re not here to rehash those events, but I’m keen to know how the peloton reacted when David returned from his ban in 2006.
“I was embarrassed. But I was fortunate that I came back at a time when Operación Puerto (the Spanish police’s investigation into the doping network of Doctor Eufemiano Fuentes) kicked off, so I became the spokesperson for the peloton in relation to the investigation. At that time the peloton was very supportive of me, because I was the only one who would talk about it. As it happens, the second half of my career was basically me putting myself in the line of fire all of the time. The peloton were highly respectful of me for that, so it was a double edged sword. My own experiences gave me the voice to make changes, but with it came responsibility and the obligation to be in the line of fire all of the time.”
Of course the use of performance enhancing drugs didn’t start or end with David Millar. Across the sporting world – from road cycling to athletics and beyond, some of the highest profile – and most highly regarded – athletes of all time were toppled from their podiums. Where do we sit with doping in cycling now?
“I’d go as far now as to say that cycling is one of the cleanest sports in the world because of the cultural shift. It’s taken a long time. The introduction of comprehensive anti-doping measures, cycling did that out of necessity and economics and cleaned the sport up at a purely functional level. But then there was a cultural change in the direction of teams, management, sponsors, and I think amongst this new generation, doping is a non-subject. Our current riders have never encountered it, or if they have it’s an anomaly. Doping in sport has become a reflection of society, there’s always going to be people who cheat, there’ll always be criminals, but they’ll always be a minority. What’s most encouraging, in my opinion, is that the biggest races are now being won by clean riders. It’s taken time for the public to believe in the sport again and we’re seeing riders go faster now than they’ve ever gone before. All the records are being broken by clean riders which says so much about how the sport has changed. Now we no longer see Twitter go nuts, journalists go nuts when a record is broken, asking ‘oh my god, what’s he on?’ The media will say a new world record is impossible – that a rider must be doping – when in reality, that rider has been getting faster and faster, consistently. It’s always possible.”
David’s not wrong when he mentions the public’s perception of the sport he loves so much. When Lance Armstrong was stripped of his seven consecutive Tour de France titles and one Olympic medal following his eventual admission to using performance-enhancing drugs, the shockwaves were powerful. Do the peloton still feel them today?
“Well for starters, you wouldn’t be able to dope now, you’d get caught. If you dope now you’re an absolute moron, because the probably of you being caught is incredibly high. And then I think what’s happening with Pogačar and others, we’re witnessing a complete paradigm shift with these younger riders, the rule book has been torn up. These days we’ll see a rider wanting to win the Tour de France and the classics, and that’s just something that wasn’t done before. If you wanted to win a Tour de France title before, you had to start the year slowly, go on training camps, not risk going to the classics because everything was based around the Tour de France. Team management weren’t going to risk their best rider in a crash or damaging their form. But because of the way Pogačar races, it’s kind of like, well if he can do it, why can’t we do it? Like when Roger Bannister broke the four minute mile record, everyone was like ‘oh it’s possible’ and Pogačar’s definitely doing that. It takes very special athletes to do these things and these days that’s not down to doping.”
Critical comparisons are often drawn between the development of professional road cycling and of Formula 1 as a competitive sport, but does this come at a cost? I’m keen to know David’s thoughts on how the sport might maintain its raw race charm.
“Cycling is a million miles away from F1 and always will be I think, which is part of the charm. It has to be more about the human than the equipment and I think cycling tows that line very well. A road bike essentially looks the same as it did 100 years ago and we tend to see more marginal gains. For example, every two to three years a bike company will launch a bike that’s a little bit faster, or a component company will do the same. But what’s really interesting now is the democratisation of the technology used in road cycling. Before you had to be on a big team that cared, one that would invest in the research and the recruiting of the right equipment sponsors to gain a technological advantage. Now every team has access to the best technology and if you watch a time trail now, the equipment, the positions and the technology each rider has is almost identical across the board. This is one of the reasons Team Sky ripped it to pieces for so long, they changed the whole landscape with their marginal gains type attitude. They were able to make significant gains overall and the rest of the sport had to catch up with them. Dave Brailsford’s innovation and attitude lifted the whole sport up and so now, everyone cares about equipment, everyone cares about training and nutrition and athlete support. That’s brought us to where we are now, where the sport is very much a level playing field in regards to equipment and technology.”
“It’s oxymoronic that the bike is something that can help reduce the impact of climate change but this annual event is probably one of the most polluting sports in the world”
There’s one question I’ve always wanted to ask a Tour de France rider and here’s my chance. You’re nearing the end of a stage – the final push up Alpe d’Huez for example, the crowd are going nuts, their flags are in the road, El Diabolo is in the road, it’s bonkers. What’s going through your mind?
“The crowds are definitely part of it and to be perfectly frank, I’m amazed there’s not more incidents each year, when you look at the sheer randomness of the Tour de France. You’re going from point to point and at times covering over 200km in one stage. You can’t control 200km, you can’t fence that off, it’s part of racing and if you had a Tour de France with no one at the side of the road, it wouldn’t be the Tour de France. When we saw Tom Pidcock win in Alpe d’Huez last year, the crowds were insane and you’re almost getting goose bumps watching it. You can almost imagine what it’s like to be there. There’s no other sporting event where the public can get so close to the protagonist, and that’s what makes cycling special. It would be brutal if you saw the whole of Alpe d’Huez fenced off – it wouldn’t look the same, it wouldn’t feel the same, the riders wouldn’t like it. The fans wouldn’t like it, it wouldn’t look as good on TV, so i’d say the crowds are as much a part of the Tour de France as the peloton. It’s a fine line, I know if you’re in France during Le Tour there’s a lot of vigilance put into place to make sure the crowds are controlled as best they can be. They put in a lot of effort to protect the riders but sometimes a lot of those fans have been by the side of the road for days and they’ve been drinking for days, so again, that’s the human condition. Sometimes they take it too far and they’ll get punished for that as well. If you think about the hundreds of thousands of spectators – the millions of people – who’ve been at the side of the road in the last few years, yet we can count on one hand the number of incidents.”
Let’s get to the elephant in the room. It’s estimated that the Tour de France emits 216,388 tons of CO2 each year, a figure that it’s organisers the ASO claims are 100% offset. Le Tour has managed to clean up its act from a doping perspective, can it do the same from an environmental one?
“It’s a behemoth of an event with thousands of vehicles. I think there is definitely an important discussion to be had on how to minimise the climatic effect that the Tour de France has. It’s oxymoronic that the bike is something that can help reduce the impact of climate change but this annual event is probably one of the most polluting sports in the world. I think the ASO are aware of this problem – I know they’re aware of it – but it’s not an easy solution. I’ve no doubt that in 10 years the Tour de France will look very different to how it does now, it’s constantly changing and morphing and they know that something needs to be fixed, but there’s a lot of things that need to be fixed.”
David has spoken many times about his retirement from professional cycling at the age of 37. He’d wanted one more Tour, but I wonder what he now considers to be his biggest achievement in his professional cycling career?
“Probably the longevity of my career? It’s hard to tell these days, but probably my Tour de France results. I always wanted to wear all of the leaders jerseys, win stages in all the grand tours, they were my goals, so i’m kind of proud that I did that. Few riders get to do all of these things in one career, and that was something I was able to pull off, so I’m very proud of that. Getting results in all of the grand tours – time trials, road stages, the occasional mountain day and even in the team time trials… I think it’s that, the sort of all-round achievements, tasting a multitude of different things in my career, that’s what stands out.”
I spot a few pairs of race shoes hanging from the ceiling in David’s office, but I’d imagined a full collection of race jerseys on display. Interestingly, he keeps all of his race memorabilia stashed in packing boxes at home, archived away. After such a lengthy career in professional sports, does retirement leave a void?
“Yeah for sure there’s a void and I think some sports manage it better than others. They have a transition for athletes and some unions are very active in anticipating the need for education, transition, rehabilitation after a professional sports career ends. But in pro cycling, we don’t have that. We sort of fall off a cliff. It’s a very different world when you’ve spent your life – from being a teenager to your late 30s – being an athlete; it’s a very different existence. I’ve realised since then that sport is what keeps me balanced and sane. 25 years of running at my physical peak has had a biochemical affect on my brain and if I just stop, then there’s a huge gaping whole, mentally. The irony is that the reason you stop competing is because physically you can’t do it anymore – you’re tired and frazzled, and yet the only thing that keeps you sane is to keep doing it. You’re stuck between a rock and a hard place, which is where I was for many years.”
David has described the decline in form at the end of his professional career as both ‘abrupt’ and ‘nightmarish,’ yet he’d already set the wheels in motion for life out of the saddle.
“About a year and a half out from the end of my career I launched CHPT3, a cycling apparel brand that’s based around the principle of a third, playful chapter in everyone’s lives. CHPT3 became by biggest project because it was a way of staying in cycling but also doing something different and creative; doing the things I loved, designing, working on different bikes and apparel and being able to do all the technical stuff without the racing. Then the commentary was a blessing in disguise! It’s something that hadn’t really crossed my mind, but it just so happened that ITV were switching out Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen around the same time that I stopped racing, so it was pure serendipity that I fell into this role as a commentator on the Tour de France. I love it as its kept me in the racing; I think if I hadn’t got into the commentary job I probably wouldn’t have followed the racing as passionately. I was burnt out and it’s allowed me to fall in love with cycling as a fan again, literally from the other side of the barriers. In hindsight, the commentary job was the best thing that could have happened.”
“it’s allowed me to fall in love with cycling as a fan again, literally from the other side of the barriers.”
David and his sister Fran have just returned from completing Cape Epic, a 700km, eight-day challenge across South Africa, which sounds a lot like David filling the void left by professional racing.
“Fran didn’t event own a bike in January! I started mountain biking in the early 90s and i’d never thought about doing an event like Cape Epic. I also hadn’t done anything like a multiday event on this scale since I was a pro. It was a wonderful experience and it completely kickstarted me back into being fit again and riding my bike daily and mixing up my road, gravel and mountain bikes. It’s a great privilege to have all those options here, just like you do in Morzine. I can pick and choose. The event was amazing and i’m so pleased we did it, but it was incredibly fucking hard. Everyone else told us this year was the hardest Cape Epic ever, and I heard this phrase ‘type two fun’ for the first time. Everyone was talking about it and it probably should have been a red flag on day one! I’m so proud of my sister, 700 teams started the challenge it and only 500 finished. We’re now trying to think of what our next challenge can be.”
Finally, what are the chances of anyone spotting David Millar on the Col du Joux Plane when Le Tour reaches Morzine and Les Gets this summer?
“We take our CHPT3 Brompton bikes with us during Le Tour and they give us so much freedom! We’ve done mountain passes on them and they’re brilliant fun. We keep them in the back of the car and often we’ll ride back to our hotel from the finish line, or we’ll go out and try the final climb. If that’s not possible, then sometimes i’ll go running, it’s nice to get out of the commentary box because sometimes we’re watching a television screen for hours. We often have the mornings free because when we finish a stage, we transfer to the next finish town. We’re not getting to the next hotel until 9pm each evening, so we lose the second half of the day to work and travelling. Each morning we’ll go and investigate, ride to the finish or check out the local area.”
You’ll catch David Millar and Ned Boulting’s Tour de France commentary of ITV this summer. His book ‘Racing Through The Dark’ is available to buy on Amazon and you can learn more about CHPT3 at chpt3.com.