Robert Millar liked to refer to the sprinters and rouleurs as 'the animals'. His own graceful rhythm and
smooth climbing style, on the other hand, made him a higher being - quite literally. Once described as a 'Dickensian chimney sweep' due to his slight appearance, the Scot was France's best amateur in 1979 when he rode with the ACBB club. He subsequently joined the pros at Peugeot and in his first Tour, in 1983, Millar broke away on the Peyresourde, leaving Colombia's Patrocinio Jiminez in his wake to become the first Briton to wear the polka dot jersey.
A year later, in 1984, he took the overall KOM title, defeating his main adversary Luis Herrera, another Colombian. One of the best climbers the sport has seen, Millar once remarked, 'I enjoy seeing people disappear behind me.'
the commune of pau lives on the northern edge of the pyrenees, a range of mountains that straddles the border between france and spain. it's the capital of the french pyrenees-atlantiques departement, as well as that of the bearn region. it carries out local administrative tasks along with the thirteen neighbouring communes and the existence of the university de of pau and pays de l'adour ensures a reasonably high student population incorporated in the town's overall number of around 85,000. in the centre of the town is a substantially sized castle, the chateau de pau, famous for being the birthplace of france's 16th century king, henry iv and as having been napoleon's holiday home when in power.
bagneres-de-luchon, in tour de france terms, is 197km to the south east. more regularly referred to simply as luchon, it is around 140km southwest of toulouse, celebrated for its thermal springs, of which there are forty-eight, rising in caves that penetrate around 100 metres inside superbagneres mountain. it's also celebrated as a pretty trendy resort and home to a population of a mere 2,600 people.
these two towns are, in cycling terms, separated by some of the most fearsome pyrenean climbs: the col d'aubisque, the col de tourmalet, the col d'aspin and the col de peyresourde, before descending to bagneres-de-luchon. it's the 16th stage in this year's race on 18th july, but it also constitutes the etape du tour acte two, a ride taking place four days previously on 14th july (acte one is on 8th july). taking into account the severity of those four massive mountains, there's every possibility that the peloton will find one or two etapists still valiantly attempting to finish, even though well outside their own time-limit.
twenty nine years ago, scotland's robert millar, taking part in his first tour de france, rode the very same route from pau to luchon (stage ten in that year's tour). riding in company with the colombian, patrocino jiminez and metauro mobil's lucien van impe, the latter was literally ridden off millar's back wheel. then, on the few remaining metres to the summit of the peyresourde, with pedro delgado closing on this leading pair, and a mere fifteen kilometres from the stage finish, millar, riding for peugeot, simply left jiminez standing with an acceleration that was not only staggering to watch, but left jiminez with nowhere to go but backwards.
sometimes, and we've all been there, you find yourself in a situation you hadn't expected to be in, one that offers a number of possibilities, not least of which is that of attacking for an unexpected victory. had robert planned on dropping jiminez on the peyresourde?
"Yes. I had Pascal Simon who attacked the group behind so I could sit on Jiminez during the valley section just before the climb. That wore out the little Colombian, as it was windy. If I hadn't dropped him on the uphill, I was pretty sure to drop him on the downhill, or beat him in the sprint."
so it wasn't one of those delightful opporchancities that landed in his lap? "No. I had a plan."
robert opened a substantial gap on jiminez in a very short space of time, before completely burying himself all the way to the finish. he even had time to sneak a peugeot cap from his back pocket and place it on his head, then zip up the chequerboard peugeot jersey, before crossing the line with both arms stretched above his head in celebration of a definitive stage victory, comfortably ahead of a chasing pedro delgado. with that, he became the first briton to wear the king of the mountains jersey in the tour de france, a feat he repeated in 1984, but this time taking it all the way to paris.
with that first victory stage win in the pyrenees, did robert find those mountains more suited to his style of climbing, or was it simply a case of them endearing themselves more to each subsequent year's strategy?
"I liked the Pyrenees more than the Alps, maybe because they usually came first in the lap of France and I was not worn out. I felt the air was slightly fresher, and though the roads were often rougher, they just seemed to suit me better.
"When I did races like the Dauphine or Tour De Suisse in the Alps, I was OK with the climbs so I think it was more a question of freshness and the natural adaptation to the first big mountains at the Tour. And that was usually╩the Pyrenees."
with a real chance that this year, a briton could once more stand on the podium in paris, this time on general classification, it behoves us well to remember the major steps made by previous british riders leading us to this point. until bradley wiggins reached fourth place in the 2009 tour de france, robert's fourth in 1984 was the best placing by a british/scottish rider in the history of the tour. with the tour revisiting this important, monumental stage this year, and installing it as the second of two etapes, rapha have produced the official jersey (in party with organisers, amaury sport organisation) not only looking towards the etape, but commemorating millar's historic stage win in 1983.
though perhaps better known for their creative use of sportwool, the rapha etape acte two jersey is crafted from good old fashioned polyester, featuring a remarkably subtle nod to the chequerboard pattern that decorated the iconic peugeot jersey of yesteryear, including the inside of the jersey's collar. just below the collar atop the back of the jersey is a red stylised graphic of an eagle accompanied by the name millar. the colour red is significant in this context.
it seems truly inadequate of me to have confined this jersy to climbing the gravelly slope up past the rspb centre at aoradh farm, having found a way to scrabble past the two riders in front of me at the time. not quite managing to deal the devastating sort of blow that robert would have been proud of, i nonetheless reached the top first, which, in truth, isn't saying much. and rather than hammer on to the cottage at saligo, i sat up and waited for the others to catch up. the jersey's heritage is far greater than my ability to do it justice, but let it not be said that the spirit wasn't willing. there is pride in the wearing.
the grey and yellow hoops offer the legend etape du tour on the front, while the back proclaims the stage start and finish towns along with the date of this second of the etapes. there are the requisite three rear pockets and, in anticipation perhaps of an exhausting day in the saddle, a full length zip. no zipped rear pocket though. the fit (medium reviewed) is immaculate. whether or not you have any intention of pulverising those four climbs come 14th july, this is a jersey opportunity that simply cannot be ignored by any self-respecting robert millar fan. i have augmented mine with a millar feature of later years...
the official cycle jersey for the etape du tour act two, produced in a collaboration between rapha and amaury sport organisation is available in sizes from xs to xxl at a cost of £50. there is a similar offering for etape act 1, celebrating the talents of thierry claveyrolat.
sunday 1st july 2012..........................................................................................................................................................................................................