David Millar recently unearthed a box of his old cycling kit: former team garments, young rider competition leader’s jerseys. He’s got grander designs than simply shoving them all in a drawer.
“I’m going to make a lovely piece of wooden furniture out of them. A pouf – my whole career will be a pouf,” he says, laughing, as he sits in the bar of Shoreditch House before his retirement party.
Delving through that treasure trove of memories from his 16-year professional career, an evocative Cofidis skinsuit caught his eye. “It was sitting there in the box, I had forgotten I’d even kept it. I noticed it was badly stitched in the arms, and realised it was the 2000 Tour one that I’d had specifically sewn up to make it super tight for the prologue. I remember the prologue, I’ll always remember that.”
Millar is presented with a Cofidis yellow jersey skinsuit at his retirement party. photo: James A. Hudson
The yellow jersey-gaining win in that skinsuit at Futuroscope ignited Millar’s heady period as a star at Cofidis, going on to win stages of the Tour de France, Vuelta a España and finishing a close second in the 2001 World Championship time-trial.
Then came the dark years, drinking heavily in 2005 after receiving a two-year ban for doping the previous summer. “Two-thirds of the way through that, it clicked [that I had to be responsible]. Once I’d really entered into the normal world, I realised how lucky I’d been to have the life I have.
“You take it for granted. I felt I’d sacrificed things enough and had a lot of self-pity, gotten very lonely, took drugs and hated myself for it. I’d done all the bad stuff, I never thought about the good stuff.
“It was a switch. I spent so long self-flagellating, suffering, in the loneliness, whereas actually I could have been somebody completely different. So I chose to do that a second time around.”
Millar powers along in the British national time-trial champion's skinsuit during a 2008 Tour de France test. photo: Offside/L'Equipe
Signing with Garmin for 2008 marked a significant shift in his career, as Millar assumed the role of road captain.
“I came on as a part-owner, it was symbolic. I managed to persuade most of the riders – Christian Vande Velde, Zabriskie, Dan Martin, all these guys – to come on board. That already gave me a role of being this decision-maker. I took it to the races because I felt a responsibility to them, that we had to perform, I was convinced there were [clean] ways to do it.
“I’d been the young, precocious, diva-like talent, I’d lost a lot and come back. I had wonderful domestiques, friends, that worked for me, so I became one and understood a lot of the mentalities and the politics.”
He maintained the will to win, claiming Giro and Vuelta time-trial stages in 2009 and 2011. The final big victory came at the 2012 Tour de France in Annonay-Davézieux, painstakingly inching away from breakaway companion Jean-Christophe Péraud in the sprint before taking a moment of calm amid the post-victory pandemonium.
Millar pauses to fully take in his 2012 Tour de France stage victory. pic: Offside/L'Equipe
“That one of me lying on the floor is one of the few photos I have in my office. I can still remember it perfectly. When a bike race chooses, it’s so intense. I got so psyched up and wanted it so much and entered a different plain. Then, in the back of your mind, you switch off how much this means to you as you don’t want it to affect anything.
“When you cross the finish line, it’s like ‘bleur’ [indicating time lurching into fast-forward]. ‘Hang on a second, I need to reset here.’ I knew I had to go and be responsible about this victory, articulate my feelings. ‘The only time I’ve got now is this. I’m just gonna lie on the floor, look at the sky, enjoy this.’ 30 seconds, but it felt like forever, this pause. It was the loveliest moment.”
After finishing his career at the Bec Hill Climb last month, how has the retirement process been for Millar? “I used to come to London, see friends and hang out. Now it’s meetings all the time, doing things. It stresses me out. I think ‘this is what the real world is like, woah!’
“I’ve been institutionalised, like being out on this joy ride. So, in many ways, retiring, even having this party, is closure on a lovely period of my life. It will never get better; now I’m going to go to work and become normal, basically.”
Though he can look forward to spending more time with wife Nicole and their two children in their Girona house, the “retired” David Millar won’t quite have a life of leisure, putting his feet up on that jersey pouf. His next business projects are in the works.
“I’m as ambitious now as I was as a young rider starting professional cycling… I think it’ll be much bigger than I’ve ever done before. I’m confident in that. It’s a thing I really love and enjoy doing, and I’ll work harder than I’ve ever worked as a mature person.”