the racer. david millar. yellow jersey press hardback. 304pp illus. £20

the racer by david millar

i rather enjoyed my school years. granted there were one or two classes that i could have lived without, but in the main i managed to get through to the end in sixth year without too much trouble. and when it came to exam results, i wasn't what you'd call a genius, but i did ok, even managing a respectable grade in my higher physics. that's the one qualification on my palmares that has continued to quiz the heck out of me ever since.

i was pretty sure i hadn't come to terms with protons, electrons, neutrons and their by-products as conferred on an unsuspecting fifth year pupil. though certain concepts made some degree of sense, i completely missed the big picture; there was never any chance of my inadvertently identifying the unified field theory. but then, it also escaped einstein, so things didn't look too bad after all. however, though i figured i'd probably manage better than fifty-percent, i wasn't quite prepared for the high mark printed on my certificate.

perhaps i was more aware than i'd believed.

the oddity nowadays is that i find much of present day physics quite fascinating, though in truth, i'm not sure i comprehend things any better. on the plus side, nobody ever got sniggered at by announcing they'd watched two episodes of horizon the evening before. in a perfect example of if i'd known then what i know now, maybe if i'd stuck in at physics when at school instead of drawing pictures or writing essays, maybe none of you would have to be reading this stuff today.

david millar, in his last season as a professional racing cyclist appears to perhaps have come to a similar recognition. despite describing the classics riders in his garmin team as ..."the crazy bastards, frothing at the mouth, champing at the bit for early season form in Qatar.", he later realises that though his annual race programme has concentrated on the stage races, perhaps he was a classics rider all along. quite how this affects a top professional at the tail end of his career, we're unlikely to learn from millar, for his final season as a pro featured far more twists and turns to occupy his headspace than a possible dip into nostalgia.

"I had, over the years, grown a stage-racing mentality. [...] I had made an early career choice to avoid the Classics: they were so long and hard, and I'm not ashamed to say that, at the time, I didn't have the skill set for that."

later in the book, millar shows he had cause to reconsider. he also feels that it may well have been possible for certain of the classics riders (those crazy bastards) to win without resorting to doping. "I don't believe it was possible in the Grand Tours at that time."

david millar could conceivably have become an altogether different character had he, with hindsight, taken his own classics advice a little earlier in his career (as indeed, one or two pundits had voiced at the time)

in much the same way that members of parliament are required to make plain any interests or considerations that might be thought to prejudice their position, i think it only right that i should do likewise. though millar is often touted as being a scottish rider, i've never quite seen him in that light. additionally, his admittedly media-promoted persona frequently came across as something of a prima donna, a privileged individual who could seemingly do no wrong.

however, in the face of this self-effacing, warts and all narrative of a season that provided at least one major regret in his career, i must offer a volte-face; by the time i reached the final chapter, i had gained a great deal of respect for a rider, a father and a human being that i have obviously seriously misjudged. anyone who can resist the temptation to tell his employers just where to stick their job after a last-minute none-selection for what would have been his last tour de france, and one that commenced in the uk, has my utmost admiration.

"They treated me like a journeyman professional with whom they had no history or personal relationship."

millar's chance to represent scotland at the glasgow commonwealth games was thus severely compromised, racing against those who had come out of le tour with the soupless gained from three weeks of hard racing. this must have been particularly galling after such a successful british championships race over the same course in the preceding year.

of course opportunities and results such as those only happen in the movies; or at least they would do were it not that millar was the subject of just such a moving picture, directed by finlay pretsell, during that final season. "Myself and Finlay both share a similar vision in wanting to capture what it's really like in the modern peloton." if only things were that simple.

"We had two more hurdles to overcome before being able to begin filming: the first was getting permission from the race organisers to film in their races; and the second, surprisingly, was permission from my team to allow me to do so."

filming of this work in progress required the services of a personal motorbike following the peloton, allowing film photographer martin raddich to position himself facing backwards. the pilot of said motorbike was a french gentleman by the name of patrice, a man with "...more than twenty tours under his belt and sporting the sort of moustache last seen in the RAF during the Second World War. [...] He is from another time, an absolutely brilliant pilote de moto and, most importantly, has no fucks to give."

my former appreciation of david millar was not likely to be altered by the subtitle of the book "We lived on the road because we loved to race." if you'll pardon my disrespect, that smacked of pretentiousness. but of all people, i ought to have known a lot better than to judge a book by its cover, for not only is this a particularly enjoyable, well-written and well-crafted read, but the truth of that particular statement is never better understood on reaching the final page.

millar does little to aggrandise his own skills and efforts throughout this last or previous seasons, though he is astute enough to admit to his strengths. there's also an honesty about the abilities of a seasoned pro that do not come across as diluted self-deprecation. "My feelings for January, now more than ever, show how old I am. [...] I used to count on the fact that I could get fit quickly. I relied on my body's ability to rapidly adapt to almost any workload I put upon it. [...] Now everything takes longer."

"I fucking hate January."

though understandably less than complimentary about certain members of the garmin team's management, millar is never less than commendatory towards his team-mates. ryder hesjedal in particular, a team-mate with whom millar often roomed when on the same race, is described by way of his life story in cars. and unusually amongst the allegedly self-obsessed, he also offers gratifying print space to the merits of his team mechanics.

"I've always thought it weird that they're treated as the bottom of the food chain when theirs is one of the most important jobs on the team."

the book is presented in small, sub-headed, managable chunks rather than long, roaming chapters. these are often provided with intriguingly worded headings such as 'I am light, I am strong', 'Welcome to the Suck' and 'The theory of crashes'. though this admittedly makes reading a far less onerous affair than some autobiographies i could name, the pacing and writing are such that there was never a time when i wanted to go do something else instead. on the contrary, while in the process of reviewing several books at the same time, i pretty much always over ran the notional time i'd mentally allocated to this particular publication.

but the over-arching theme throughout all 304 pages, aside from a healthy sense of humour, is the postcards. as a means of dealing with long periods away from his wife and two children, on arriving at each of his designated races millar searches out any tourist postcards in the immediate locale, then writes and sends them to sons archibald and harvey. he has a stylish hand, if the illustrations at the beginning of each chapter are anything to go by and commendably, saying a lot more than 'wish you were here.'

though his film project with finlay pretsell was designed to give us all an insight into the heart of the professional peloton, david millar may have outdone his own big-screen intentions with publication of the racer. for me at least, it has revealed a man i didn't know existed. and for that, i am truly grateful.

david millar's 'the racer' is published on thursday 1 october by yellow jersey press.

wednesday 30 september 2015

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