When David Millar provided the co-commentary for ITV4’s coverage of La Vuelta earlier this year, he was in that elusive moment where, having only just retired from cycling, he was not only able to offer intriguing insight into how exactly a professional bike race works, but how the personalities toiling up its many mountain stages would react. Having raced with many of them for years, it was like having the road captain in the commentary box rather than the peloton, and with Ned Boulting as a side-kick, it made for compelling viewing .
These moments in a media career, of course, cannot last. The sport develops. The people change. The insight dissolves into nostalgic generalities. But for now, Millar’s currency is knowledge, which is why his new book The Racer is so fascinating. Freed from the shackles of a traditional sports memoir – Millar had already done that with Racing Through The Dark – the first Briton to wear the leader’s jersey in all three Grand Tours turns his attention to his last season as a professional cyclist. He wants his kids to see what road racing was like in years to come, and his peers to have a document that will “remind us of who we were”.
He rounds off this mission statement with “we lived on the road because we loved to race”, but what’s intriguing about this book is that often Millar and his peers appear not to like it much at all. He reveals that most cyclists have a moment where, struggling with their form, they wish a race-ending crash upon themselves (and there’s a brilliant, visceral chapter on crashing here). Writing about Paris-Roubaix he notes that “many of the 200 don’t want to be here, and will be looking for a way out from the first sector [of cobbles] onwards.” At the bottom of the famous Koppenberg in the Tour of Flanders he turns left down a short cut to the team bus rather than bother with the the “long, lonely, sad slog to the finish”.
Earlier in the that race, though, Millar has gone deep into the red to get his team-leader back in the race. Against all the odds, and mainly thanks to Millar’s brilliant tactical mind as road captain, Sebastian Langeveld finishes in the top ten. Not much, if any, of this scheming and sheer effort would have been picked up by the television cameras, and after a job well done, Millar was more than entitled to spare himself that slog to the finish. It’s here that we really understand professional cycling as seen through Millar’s eyes, where the real hard work laid down towards team success takes place before the live coverage has even begun.
And the reason Millar et al continue taking their bodies to the absolute limit is because, often without warning, they will find themselves completely in the zone, able to achieve the remarkable. Millar beautifully describes this feeling in The Racer – at Paris -Roubaix it feels like he is floating on the pave, having one of those days “where I don’t understand why there are so few of us at the front when it appears to me we haven’t really gone hard yet”. He crashes, and the moment is gone.
But it is chasing those ‘moments’ which keeps Millar going. After he’s not selected for his last Tour De France, he recalls the previous year’s final stage down the Champs Elysees where he leads the race for 20 minutes on his own. “I have no fear, I’m completely at ease,” he writes. It doesn’t matter that he can’t win the stage, it’s about “soaking up the moment and the emotions”.
The Racer doesn’t have the writerly finesse of Racing Through The Dark – the editorial hand of cycling journalist Jeremy Whittle is missing this time – but the chatty, almost diary-style entries get to the heart of the joy, pain, monotony and glory of professional cycling. “Most directeur sportifs forget within a matter of months of retirement from racing what it was like to be a rider,” writes Millar. This book is a reminder – as much as anything to Millar himself as he embarks on the rest of his life.
The Racer by David Millar (Yellow Jersey) is out now.