A couple days before the 2010 Paris-Roubaix, I ended up in the same hotel as the Garmin team, and ran into David Millar sitting on a couch in the corner of the bar. We started riffing about the previous year’s Tour, and how he’d been racing this year, and what I was writing and what he was reading, and somewhere in there we started talking about what he calls “racing for the sake of racing.” It was fascinating, honest, true, fresh and a little embarrassing because it laid bare an emotion that’s hard to talk about face to face: How much we love cycling. Before we got too much into it, I told him I wanted to get together the next day when I had a digital recorder running, and we did.
We were talking yesterday about this idea you have of “racing for the sake of racing,” or the idea that the beauty of the sport shouldn’t be obliterated by the drive to win, even on the pro level.
Millar: It’s an ideal that comes from my being banned from the sport, really. When I came back into cycling, I saw it all in a different light, because after having it all taken away I appreciated it all the more. I didn’t come to this right away. At first, I had a lot of . . . I had a big burden I was carrying on my shoulders when I first came back. The first two years of it, I had to prove myself all over again, show that I could have success without doping — that it was possible. It was only last year that I started to kind of really just relax and be happy with myself and not care about what the expectations for me were or where my limits lay, and I realized I wanted to just go out and race and enjoy the racing itself. That goes against a lot of what we’re taught about sport these days, especially in professional sport, which has become, I think, too much only about winning and has forgotten about panache.
I don’t think the fans have forgotten. I think we miss it.
Millar: I am a bike fan, you know. When I watch races, I love it when I see people take the chance, see an opportunity and go. In a bike race, there are times when you can risk it all on one throw of the dice, and that’s how I have started racing. For those moments. I have started racing the way I’d like to watch myself race. The Barcelona-Girona stage in last year’s Tour de France, when I got away and came within a K of winning the stage, I just couldn’t control myself and went off on an escapade, and I ended up getting perilously close to pulling it off. And the thing is that even if I’d won, I don’t think I’d have derived any more pleasure or satisfaction from the result. I’d had such an amazing day. What I’d gone through emotionally in those last few Ks and through the whole experience of being away, and after the race, winning would have meant I stood on the podium and I’d have that in my palmares, but it would have no real difference to me. There are some races where everyone remembers the breakaway more than who won. I don’t know if Barcelona-Girona is one of those but that’s what I’m hoping to create.
Having ridden with panache must feel great, but how does it feel when you’re doing the actual riding? Are you suffering so much to pull off the caper that you can’t enjoy it?
Millar: In Barcelona, I could. At the Tour of Flanders, when I was off the front there, it was different. At Flanders, at the big one-day races, you’re dealing with so many variables going on, and it’s such an intense moment and you’re so fucking crossed up. When I was off the front in Flanders and I found myself in the final third down the road, it was all just happening, and I was very much in the race and I wasn’t absorbing anything going on in the periphery. Even going up the Muur — I’d blown my nuts off and I didn’t really get to appreciate the fact that I was going up the Muur in the front group of Flanders. I was just getting up it. Which wasn’t much fun to be honest. In the Tour de France, it’s different. It’s such a massive event, you’re normally on big roads, it’s just a huge bubble you’re traveling in. That day in Spain, coming through Barcelona, you had these massive boulevard with tens and tens and tens of thousands of people, deep, climbing up stuff, and I couldn’t help but notice. That was very special. You get time to soak it up in a situation like that. There’s a lot more clarity of mind in stage racing, anyway. You don’t have to be so animalistic. One-day racing is very animalistic. You’re going on instincts a lot of the time. Stage racing is more calculating. You’ve got races going on within the race. Even when you’ve got guys destroying themselves, other guys are coolly controlling themselves, be it guys taking it easy on mountain days, or climbers taking it easy on flat days. There’s always these different vibes going on within the peloton. In a one-day, it’s live or die every moment for everybody.
It’ll be easy to take this an insult, but you kind of remind me of an amateur — racing for the fun of it like me and some of my friends do. I’ve said this a lot, but I like that the word “amateur” is based on root words that mean “to love.”
Millar: You’re right. It’s true. It is very much the amateur ethos: Just going out and doing the sport because I love it. I do have to make sure I can find the balance that lets me keep being a professional — which means doing my job in a way that helps my team win when we can — and lets me just seize the moment. I think this idea of the glory of the moment is something that might be lost on younger racers as the sport becomes bigger and more professional and calculated. You can lose a career, you know, always waiting for your moment, waiting to get better, waiting for something to come, waiting to become some kind of racer you’re supposed to eventually be. Whereas, fuck it, maybe all the time you should just go, just go out there and kind of make the race, make it, create the moment, put it all on the line. And, eventually maybe whatever is supposed to come to you will start coming to you one way or another anyway. I’m 33 and I’m rediscovering that. When I was a young pro, that was the way I raced, I was just kamikaze. My first two years pro, a lot of times I didn’t finish stage races. I’d have to stop on the last day because I’d dug myself in so deep through the week being in breaks and attacking. I couldn’t be held back when I was young, and you lose that. That gets drummed out of you a lot of times as a pro. Part of the dying of that spirit was the dope. There were many years when it would be impossible to go out there and throw the gauntlet. You would just get crushed. Almost laughed at. Destroyed by whole teams. Now that the sport is much cleaner, it more mano a mano in the final, not this generic race format.
Yeah, there are probably some pros who came into the sport at that time and don’t really know there can be any other kind of racing.
Millar: We all need to learn that again. We need to remember. A lot of the style of racing now is still based on the doping era. You were scared to try stuff, you would get crushed by a whole team. Now it’s worth taking these risks again. The more people start to do take risks, the more we’ll get back a much more beautiful style of racing again. Racing for the sake of racing opens up possibilities earlier. When guys start heading out on capers, start attacking very early, it can open up the race and you just see decimation. It’s exciting, and the stakes are high. Still, too often, these days everyone waits and waits and waits for the last chance to attack, which is the old doping style. Contador, you know, he’s got that fuck-it attitude. Like you were saying yesterday, this year’s Tour de France has the potential to be one of the best in years. It might just get opened up in the first week with those cobbled stages, and put the climbers — the real contenders — on the back third. With Alberto and the Schlecks, especially with Andy, who is kind of a loose cannon, too, if they end up having to go for it together, we’re going to have a beautiful race on our hands.
Do you have a sense of how many pros might share your love of the pure racing part of the sport, as opposed to those who value primarily the wins or the paychecks? What I’m asking is, will a Tour like that be beautiful to the riders in general, or do they care at all?
Millar: There are different degrees, of course. But more pros have a kind of geeky, almost embarrassing love of the sport than you would think. We all love it when we come in — you don’t become a pro without loving what you do and working hard at it. But it’s easy to lose. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the material side of it, and the media side of it and lose track of what the actual essence of it all is. It happened to me before I got banned. It became all very materialistic, what you do with the money you earn and what stuff you get and what you’re going to do with your money when you retire. That happens to the majority, I think. I managed to break that pattern. Well, that’s not accurate: It was broken for me. But it was broken in any case, and now I am thankful for that. But I think I could go around and get quite a solid list of guys who love cycling in that pure way. Michael Barry, Flecha, Phillipe Gilbert — these are guys who are absolute fans of the sport and love it. Bike pervs. But we don’t talk about it much because maybe we think people don’t care, or it makes us a bit geeky compared to the sort of cool pros, or maybe we’re just never asked about it. Journalists don’t generally go down that line — the questions are all about analysis, results, goals, expectations, all very clinical. Which is the way it should be. That’s what pro sport is set up for. But inside of all that, yeah, there are guys who, admit it or not, love it to the point of embarrassment. Flecha has an encyclopedic knowledge of the sport, watches old videos all the time, loves it, just loves it.
It’s just hard to talk about it without sounding like some kind of emotional goofball. Even at my level, Cat 3 amateur, it’s just not cool to get all wet-eyed about a great moment on the bike.
Millar: Yes, the thing is, it’s just different paradigms, isn’t it? At Flanders, I was sitting in the front group when Ty [teammate Tyler Farrar, who won the field sprint to finish fifth] came up and said, “I’ve only got a hundred meters in me, Dave.” I was – it was mad. But I was like, okay, we can do this. Yeah. I can bring him up to the front and lead him out as long as I can and drop him where he needs to be. I knew that he had suffered, he had suffered more than me to get to where he was. Even though I’d been off the front and I was shaking and I was a mess, when he came up to me and said, “Dave, I’ve only got a hundred meters in me” — and that’s the only thing he said to me — I just glanced and I thought, okay. He’s such a little hard bastard, I knew he wouldn’t flake off or lose my wheel. He might have been cramping in his hands, he’d crashed twice, almost been out of the race, but if he says he has a hundred meters, he’ll give it a hundred meters. He stuck to my wheel the last 2k or K and half, and he did it. Then sitting there together after the finish line, it may as well have been a junior race. Or a club race, an amateur club race. We had a real moment, sitting there. We’d just done Flanders and ripped Flanders to pieces at the end, but we were like club teammates who had just helped each other at the weekly race. It’s the same sensations! We were just fucking fucked gibbering, but it could have been at the local crit race, you’d still have the same thing. The level you ride at might change, and if you’re very lucky like me, eventually you might end up sitting at the edge of the road at the barriers of the Tour of Flanders. But you’re just a bike racer like any other.
Originally published April 16, 2010 edition of Sitting In.