A star is brought down by blood boosters, and then races clean in pursuit of redemption
Orion 9781409114949 354pp quarto £18.99
For years, it has been possible, by deduction, to work out the route that scores of cyclists have taken into doping. They arrive in the European peloton as ingénues, bristling with a natural antipathy to cheating of any kind. Then, little by little the gory truth of being a professional reveals itself.
The routine use of intravenous ‘recovery’ products looks awful, but is not illegal. There is a culture of secret deliveries, mysterious trips to ‘sport doctors’ and yo-yoing form. And there are the grinding physical demands of racing beyond your natural limits for ten months a year. Joining the club who ‘prepare properly’ to ‘do their jobs’ might still be a big, and knowing leap into danger and illegality for young riders, but it is one that is patently woven into the thread of international cycle racing.
All this has been guessable, but never before has it been laid out in such meticulous detail as Millar does here.
Of course, he wants your sympathy. He came to the sport hungry for victories paid for in sweat, but his exceptional physical strength came with a curiously equivocal moral core. Long before he was boosting his blood with EPO, his binge drinking was a cause for concern.
He had arrived in a blaze of glory, winning the prologue of his debut Tour de France in 2000. Over the next four years established himself as arguably the most successful British road cyclist for forty years. After being convicted of using EPO, he served a two-year ban, and to then to the surprise of many, made a come-back which, while it has not quite scaled the heights of his early career, has nonetheless been impressive.
Such are the suspicions hanging over cyclists, that even Millar’s warts-and-all confession, and his public commitment to racing clean since then, leave a nagging suspicion that never quite goes away. It is hard, though, to think what else he could say or do to prove to the world that he is a changed man and the appeal of both his idealism and his vulnerability are considerable.
Here he is on his come-back Tour in 2006.
“Over the first week of the Tour, I discovered a love for different aspects of racing that I hadn’t had in the years building up to my ban. I wanted to be everywhere, doing everything, involved all the time. During the Cofidis years, I would have avoided the chaotic front of the bunch during those final dangerous kilometres, but now I was up there, getting stuck in, trying to help out team sprinter. I found it exhilarating, and every day when I crossed the line I had a big grin on my face.
“Those rose-tinted spectacles were lost on the roadside somewhere in the Pyrenees. As soon as we hit the mountains I was reminded of just how horribly hard the Tour de France could be. Not even my biggest, hardest training sessions had come close to stretching me as far as that first day in the mountains. Even though I’d done a five day reconnaissance missions in the very same mountains with John Herety, and English ex-pro cyclist, in May, the Pyrenees were excruciating. I finished just in front of the gruppetto that first day and in a similar position every other day in the mountains. It hurt so much: I had completely forgotten how much suffering was involved”.
His book is an easy-to-read page-turner (courtesy of ghost-writer Jeremy Whittle), in a style that will be familiar to readers of sports biographies. It would be encouraging to think that it is a sufficiently popular work to dissuade at least some of the next generation from seeking out the needle, and to keep up the pressure on the cycling establishment to give no quarry in the battle against dopers.
PS March 12