thirty years ago

polka dot jersey

things are a heck of a lot different these days. though it's not looking too great after only one week of racing in the tour, there were a few british riders who started the 101st tour de france. sir brailsford's favouring of froome over sir wiggins has divided opinion amongst the home crowd, and it can't have been a pleasant experience for wiggo to be told that, despite the race beginning in yorkshire, he would be better off concentrating on the commonwealth games. personally, i figure sir dave compounded the situation by stating that, had brad been in the team, even now that crash froome has departed, wiggo would have had to work for richie porte.

i can only assume that dave and brad are no longer the best of pals.

but, while we bask in the smugness that is two successive yellow jerseys accompanied by a second place and two rather decent placings in the vuelta, it doesn't do us any harm to remind ourselves that it wasn't always this way. apart, perhaps, from 1984. in that year, a spindly scotsman with an earring and a perm, not only made his way to fourth place - at that time the highest placing ever achieved by a british rider - but nabbed a podium place clad in the king of the mountains polka dot jersey.

if you consider that in the early eighties, there was no support system for british riders, no performance cycle plan and no fixtures and fittings in manchester, robert millar's achievement was arguably greater than wiggo's yellow jersey, given the team support with which the latter was surrounded. robert recently pointed out that he reached the tour often with 65 days of racing in his legs, while chris froome would be lucky to race than many days all season.

bradley appears to have suffered as a result of winning the 2012 tour de france; his giro d'italia of the following year saw him, by his own admission "descending like a girl", and though he was victorious at the recent tour of california, braislford's previously mentioned assertion that he would have been riding for porte at the moment had he been selected must make him often wonder whether it was all worth the grief.

as the 2014 tour heads into the hills this weekend, it seemed an appropriate moment to talk to the present day robert millar about 1984 and other less pressing matters. after all, over much of his career, pointing a notebook and pencil in his direction was not always greeted with unbridled joy. as the first ever brit/scot to win a tour jersey, did he find that winning the 1984 king of the mountains became a millstone around his neck, with constant pressure to to repeat the achievement?

"No, it was more a reminder that I could do best climber at Grand Tour level. It would have been nice to do it a number of times but things were different and the number of races you were required to start was much larger. It wasn't just a case of starting; some kind of presence or involvement was demanded too."

as bradley reaches his twilight years as a professional cyclist, he has no doubt had occasional thoughts as to quite with what he might fill his wakening hours when it's all over. there are valid comparisons here; wiggins has a reputation as being a tad brusque and for calling a spade an excavating implement. but given the current adulation poured upon certain members of the peloton, it's easy to understand that civilian life, devoid of both that and a team support system, could be something of a culture shock. did robert view his cycling career and his subsequent years as a civilian as separate phases, or merely different sides of the same coin?

"I wouldn't choose civilian; it's not the military being a pro bike rider. Ordinary life was something I kept an attachment to even when I competed, so not going to races anymore wasn't that much of shock culturally.
"However it took some adjustment to not being motivated or stimulated by exercise, so yes I would agree there is a before and after part to my life. I tried not to bring racing home with me and didn't often talk about cycling, not because I wasn't committed to what I was doing, but more that I needed the quiet time and relaxation after being in such a noisy, busy environment."

we're none of us getting any younger, but the common mantra of 'it's only a number' has a certain ring of truth about it. personally, other than a few creaks and groans that weren't there ten years ago, i still feel pretty much the same as i did in my early twenties. that's unlikely to be the true situation, but we often seem to change along with the changes, thus convinced that we're no different than we ever were. does robert figure he's a different person now that he's no longer a professional cyclist?

"Definitely. The person people imagined I was when racing was already different to the person I was back in what you refer to as civvy street.
"Quite often you need some space to reflect and prepare mentally; I could hide behind a persona when I raced. The level of selfishness and agression needed to be competitive was something that dissipated when the race was finished.
"Now my level of calmness and tolerance is much much greater. I think that's an aspect most people watching from the outside don't really understand, that you can compete hard but when it's over, you return to being just a normal person."

millar's final year as a professional racing cyclist was hardly that which he, or others, would have expected. signed for le groupement, the team fell apart before reaching the 1995 tour de france, and robert had an enforced return to civvy street. however, 1995 was not without success; having aided fellow scot brian smith to at least one of his british road race championships, robert became road race champion himself only weeks before hanging up his cleats for good. though subsequent circumstances prevented the jersey from being worn in the tour de france, was there a sense of relief that he'd won the british road race championship before retiring?

"No. I think I was more annoyed that I didn't get to wear the National Champs jersey in things like the Tour or the Classics. Circumstances were different at the Nationals then; no team support, being forced to turn up if you wanted to be considered for the Worlds, despite it being the TdF six days later, the team (Le Groupement) not caring or even being hostile to not wearing the sponsor's colours, the travel nightmares. All this added up to it not being that much of an objective. I know that sounds bad nowadays, but back then being GB champion wasn't that important in Europe."

if you've watched the 1985 granada tv production 'the high life', millar's and peugeot's performance in that year's tour de france was several degrees less impressive than had been the case twelve months earlier. in that documentary, there's an awkward moment when robert is sitting on the tailgate of a team car changing out of his team kit, quite obviously rather despondent at the result of the day's stage. there's a hapless cycle journalist trying manfully to elicit some quotable response and, quite frankly, getting nowhere.

it's a situation that imposes itself upon our sports stars and pop stars. you enter the profession because you're apparently quite good at it, but the better you get, the more the media start to adopt you as one of their own, and that's not always what you signed up for. as a rider, robert had something of a reputation for being ‘difficult’, yet i've found him to be pretty easy-going and often very funny. was there a purpose to the ‘difficult’ years, or just the rebelliousness of youth?

"Difficult or knowing what you want are quite often very similar outlooks. I looked at the things I wanted to improve, so I asked myself and others why things were done in certain ways. Like the rubbish diet and food when you were on races, the amount of racing, why those particular events, why there never seemed to be any back-up to any problems you had. More often than not, nobody could tell you why, other than 'it's always been that way.'
"I don't think I was difficult. Demanding yes, but then I asked more of myself than I did of others. For example, race food: asked what I wanted, I would say exactly what and when. I didn't want anything other than what I asked for ,and if that was adhered to, then no problem. If I wasn't asked, then it was no problem either, because no-one asked me. However I would say if it wasn't good enough when asked, and then they did what they wanted anyway.
"Exigent, demanding, committed, with a plan not many people thought possible, yes. But difficult, no. I got on well with all the team staff. I think journalists found me difficult because I couldn't be doing with inane questions, so they got inane answers back as a result."

for years after british cycling failed to renew his contract as national coach in 1998, robert millar 'disappeared'. there were all sorts of rumours regarding his whereabouts and what he might be doing in civilian life. every now and again, someone would claim to have seen robert out riding his bike, but largely, he kept himself to himself, seemingly less than keen to re-enter the world of cycling in any capacity. yet now he's popped up on cycling forums, the robert millar blog on and the final page in rouleur magazine. what changed?

"Disappeared makes me sound like a hermit. I still went cycling, but after the BCF wasted my time in '98, I had no real reason to go to bike races. So I didn't. No-one asked me my opinion or considered I might have something to say. until William Fotheringham got me into doing bike tests at Procycling. I quite enjoyed that. I'm very analytical, so I found that quite entertaining, but then I was replaced, or dropped if you like, and I had a quiet period.
"At that time I got into Tae Kwon Do, so I took that more seriously and broadened my horizons. Since it's very structured and military-based, I found that a refreshing change to what I had been used to.
"I think people, well some people, enjoy what I write because I try not to tell it like a school report. Being given the freedom to do that is quite a privileged situation, so I try to be entertaining and give insights into the world of professional cycling that you don't always get."

in the world of 'if i knew then what i know now' and an honours degree in hindsight, many of us figure that if we had our time all over again we'd have acted differently or made alternative choices. nostalgia is yesterday's thing. however, i know robert's not one of life’s nostalgists, but if he had his career over again, would he do anything differently?

"I'd probably go and live somewhere warmer, sunnier and do fewer races. I don't think the attitude I had to racing or being a pro bike rider was any different to that now existing at the top level."

in the good old days of yore, though cycling has often been characterised as one where its participants are more easily accessible than in many other sports, we'd mostly to rely on the odd minute of television, a decent quote in a rare magazine interview, or simply the happy happenstance of bumping into a rider in the supermarket. nowadays, with blogging, twitter, facebook and youtube, there are fewer places to hide and more opportunities to connect with the fans. with the full-range of social media having taken over the world, today’s professionals have virtually nowhere to hide. does robert think the life of a bike rider has changed a whole lot since 1984?

"Social media hasn't changed the pro bike riders world. They still go training and racing. It's having back-up for every situation that has changed. You don't need to figure out things like training, or rest periods, diet or equipment, as there's an army of people employed to figure that out for you.
"The social media part is only relevant if you join in with it. Everyone can be a blogger or journalist, so there are way more people with an opinion nowadays, but you can't let stuff like that affect you when you compete."

there are odd regions of washingmachinepost croft partially festooned with medals and very small trophies, attesting to my participation in one or two barely mentionable cycling activities, mostly those i've forgotten the names or dates of. is robert's polka dot jersey framed and hung on the sitting room wall, or is it in a case in the attic?

"In a suitcase in the attic with the other jerseys. There are no cycling related things in the house, for no reason other than it's not something I've ever done. If I need reminding of something, I can usually access that experience or image in my head.  I'm not that proud a person; when I want to achieve something, once I've done it, I think 'Yeah that was good' and nothing more."

i adjudged the point at which this year's tour de france headed into the bumpy bits to be the ideal time to publish this interview. cycling fans worldwide still recall that 1984 jersey and fourth place in the tour. to place it in perspective, i doubt many of us remember who won the kom jersey in 1985. is that a satisfying thought at the end of the day?

robert millar & brian smith

"I think personal satisfaction comes from achieving what you want to do and if you're the first person to do that from your country then I suppose it adds something to the success. When I won things like the TdF mountain prize or that in any of the other Grand Tours and I had done well, I didn't think it was that exceptional. I'd trained for it, it wasn't heroic or a surprise. More often than not the main thought was how much it hurt and quite possibly it'd be a while before someone else came along who realised just how much they were going to hurt to achieve the same or better. "I did OK with the talents I had. The main thing for me was being competitive with the best, even if it was only in certain areas. That I liked."

of course, every major rider has his/her achilles heel. something in their make-up that undermines or perhaps even enhances their je ne sais quoi. that something may indeed be entirely unrelated to either the major forte or even closely allied with the sport in which they participate with gusto. does robert own any boxed sets of ‘beavis and butthead?

"No I'm a grown up now. Allegedly."

saturday 12 july 2014

twmp ..........................................................................................................................................................................................................