A series of missed calls and voicemails between David Milar and myself evolved into text messages. "Sorry for not answering," I wrote, "but I was derny training. Call now?" The reply came staight back: "No. I'm at the cinema."
The professional cyclist and his wife, Nicole, were enjoying a relaxing evening watching a Clint Eastwood movie while the old gimmer journo, who really should know better, chased a fat man on a moped around Herne Hill velodrome.
This tickled me no end. The culture-vulture and the athlete had swapped places. Cycling of an evening is the release valve for the deskbound writer, while the full-timer, having done his stint, puts his long legs up and catches a film.
Millar comes across as a pretty cultured sort of man as professional athletes go. The choice between attending art college or throwing himself headlong into the world of road racing in France following a brief apprenticeship in Britain put his artistic leanings on hold.
Millar left Berkshire for VC St Quentin in 1995, aged 18, and has ridden his bike ever since. There may be time for painting post-retirement, he tells me, when he can “take classes and learn how to do it again.”
The tall Scot is also an intelligent and interesting interviewee and never lost for words or anything less than engaging during a two-hour conversation covering topics a lesser man may have struggled to discuss comfortably.
He’s had plenty of time to mull things over. Millar started his book, Racing Through The Dark, two years ago. Journalist and writer Jeremy Whittle has assisted – making the rough copy palatable for a mass-market readership, editing and advising – but Millar assures me all 140,000 words were self-penned, which is good to know in this age of ghosted autobiographies credited to half-witted footballers and brain-dead starlets with nothing to say.
Millar’s sense of recall is impressive for someone who keeps no diaries and considers himself to have a poor memory. So is his honesty and willingness to bare all when he could so easily have skimmed over the gruesome details and painted himself in a better light.
“Once you start it all falls into place,” he says, “and I was amazed at how much I could remember – we took out a lot because I was going into too much detail. I would check up, but it was spot on with where I was and what was happening. There has not been any dramatisation of facts or places.
“One thing I have learned from the book is I can’t multi-task: it’s sucked everything away. It’s not like you can do a couple of hours writing, then a couple of hours on the bike. You spend a lot of time sitting there, thinking things through. You become very neurotic about not missing bits out that are going to change the tone, so it was good having Jeremy to balance it out.”
Millar has been vociferous in his condemnation of the doping culture in cycling since his arrest by French police at a restaurant in Biarritz in 2004, yet remains unforgiven in the minds of some cycling fans. The mention of his name still produces mutterings of discontent in some circles. This may be the result of his public image at the time.
My memories of watching Tour de France coverage at the time indicated a cocksure young man who always seemed to be complaining about something. For several years the focus, as Britain’s sole representative in the Tour peloton, was firmly on Millar, and he did not always come across well.
“You were a bit of a dick,” says Nicole in the book, of Millar’s character at the time, rather than his drug use: harsh words to take from your nearest and dearest, but it seems a fair assessment in retrospect.
“I was a nice guy, but I was dick a lot of the time as well,” he readily admits. “I was living a lie, so didn’t let people get too close to me. In many ways, I was ashamed of what I was, so when I met people, I wouldn’t be too committed.
"If they were fans, it would almost put me off them. It came across as arrogance. I was all over the place, always changing.”
Champagne, crossbows and more crazy stories in Part Two of Rouleur's trip down Belgian memory la