An array of baked goods to make the Womens’ Institute weep, that was the point at which I noted just how eccentric British cycling still is in the era of ‘Wiggins Cool’. The cake stall perched precariously on White Lane’s foreboding gradient offered its ‘anti-bonk’ remedies at prices fitting of the inaugural open Bec CC Hill Climb in 1956. The sight which would have met any stranger peeping through the surrounding woodland would have been a surreal one for the uninitiated; a variety of men and women in garish lycra. Most attempting their best to sashay down the soggy leaf strewn hill upon rigid cleats, icy expressions disguising the peril at the prospect of slipping; sending hot tea and Victoria sponge skywards before the gathered crowd of self-proclaimed cycling buffs.
There is one man however who appears separate from the ongoing raft of peacocking enthusiasts; dapper and happily chatting with friends – the man is David Millar. A drizzly country lane in the middle of nowhere, hidden by a stretching canopy of indecisive autumnal leaves. Those which have fallen, now form a path of burnt amber cobbles which pave this vicious tongue of slicked tarmac. It is not just summer which ends here today.
David Millar is arguably Britain’s finest export to a cycling mad continent, yet there are no droves of people swarming around the charismatic Scot here, just the casual nod or smile of familiarity over butter icing and steam. He is the only British born rider to have worn all three Grand Tour leader’s jerseys, a career which could justify a bold and brash statement – statues, monuments, velodromes could all bear the name ‘David Millar’. But no, an understated cycling fête is instead the last hurrah; but why should he deem such a modest action so fitting?
Though a great, his name remains burdened by decisions of a past-life within the sport, a contributing factor to this modest departure perhaps. Doping stories cut through cycling’s history and its riders like the estuaries and tributaries of the Dutch coast. The professional redemption of David Millar has been well documented, primarily due to the positive impact he has had upon the sport and other riders who have found themselves boxed into similarly compromising positions. However, not everyone is so easily forgiving when looking upon Millar’s past; his critics accuse the British mainstream cycling press of being overly eager to serve the veteran his redemption so swiftly.
The UK’s recent spike of interest for the sport has resulted in a greater amount of public opinion of David Millar’s doping, but not necessarily one which is informed by experience of the era in which these crimes occurred. A growing notion of ‘one strike and you are out’ is understandable for people who have come to the sport before the backdrop of Armstrong’s downfall and the disintegration of a hierarchy which knowingly protected him. Though such crimes committed in a post-Armstrong era may well be treated more black and white, to convict or redeem any individual similar to Millar is an intensely complex debate.
It is a struggle to decide whether I truly remember David Millar pre-suspension; vicariously acquired memories from Eurosport’s highlights as a child being more likely. His career since however has a designated area of my mind to itself, earned by stylish time trials and breakaways garnished with panache. Though I enjoyed the sight of racing as a child, people such as Lance Armstrong or Jan Ulrich held little fascination for me, thus I desperately needed somebody to back.
The concept of supporting an entire team is new to the world of cycling, born predominantly from the brand dominance of Rapha and Team Sky. Drawing in the middle aged man who applies the same notion as backing your local Football or Rugby team. Unlike supporting a club which represents where in the world you come from, as well as a raft of common stereotypes, cycling has always been focused upon backing riders which exhibit the attributes you find iconic in a competitor. For me, David Millar expressed what I thought a true athlete should when in the midst of competition; he was equally determined when sacrificing all for a team leader, as he was when attacking with his nose to the grindstone.
But most of all, he remained a gentlemen of the peloton at all times, never inclined to benefit from another’s misfortune; nor shy away when things had gone wrong. Eloquent enough to inform and educate cycling fans; I was never interested in how the bland Armstrong had won another stage, tactical analysis and honesty of the day’s struggles was (still is) more engrossing.
Two hours had passed while standing on White Lane beneath the lazy drizzle. Between each rider’s moment of heroics, memories of Millar bubbled with greater effervescence. Yellow jerseys won against the clock, a disastrous mechanical in the miserable Italian rain, victory written in the name of Tom Simpson. Perhaps holding command of the British squad in Copenhagen will be looked most fondly upon, turning years of qualification points into a rainbow jersey made alchemy look child’s play. A lifelong blur of medals, jerseys, podiums and mountains of all kinds would appear to warrant a similarly extraordinary farewell gesture. That is exactly what it got.
Though a bamboozling announcement at first, ending his career in the middle of nowhere amongst a crowd of enthusiasts who consider waiting in a lay-by on a Sunday morning fun, it became obvious how typically ‘Millar-ish’ this move was. The great Scot had ignited his career when cycling (especially Time Trialling) was a rather eccentric British past time for the few who did pursue it. Since then, Britain’s profile has grown to gargantuan proportions on both the road and track; bearing the household names of Wiggins, Trott, Froome and Pendleton. Yet one facet of the sport has remained uniquely British, untouched by the globalisation of the nation’s riders as a product; the Hill Climb.
A lung busting event perpetuated by the amateur, bereft of the effortless scything of air heard at road races, the soundtrack to a Hill Climb is the gasping of bodies attempting to draw in any extra ounce of energy from the gathered crowd. These riders’ engine rooms were screaming for more when nothing was left to give, while some seemed to be in a state of suspended animation, faces yet to be etched deep with the effort until the top had been crested. Other members of the Millar clan, clad in the effortlessly cool VC Rocacorba livery, had already done their best to soften the gradient for David’s run. The conveyor belt of those brave (or stupid) enough to challenge White Lane had been rapid, now providing everyone with the sudden dawning of who was next to duel this tarmac tongued beast.
Steadily at first, at the base of the hill, where out of sight a soft gale was blowing. This was no meteorological event, it was historic, Millar was on course. With the passing of thirty seconds this gale had built to a howling Mistral as a rangy figure broke through the foliage some distance below. Whether wall or Willow, brother or sister, everything was a perch in an attempt to see the main attraction. Never will I again hear such a cacophony emanate from a country lane in the middle of nowhere, like a unifying battle cry willing David Millar to the summit, they wanted this man to win.
Within the space of three seconds he was in front of me, parallel and then gone. Leaving the crowd to crane their ears towards the tannoy in anticipation of Millar’s time once he had burst past the cake stand and across the finish line. It was modest, he had not turned up to claim the win or trophy, rather to leave us with something instead. A glorious spark in time which put one of Britain’s finest riders before the backdrop of one of the nation’s most bizarre pursuits. He had ensured himself a farewell alongside fans who appreciated why he had chosen this gesture to draw a curtain across his career.
David Millar was once a keen enthusiast waiting in a lay-by for the start of his time trial. He has since accumulated a treasure trove of merits from the top tier of cycling, in both his darkest times and brightest too. But by riding the Bec CC Hill Climb he achieved possibly the most impressive feat of all; stepping back in time and becoming an amateur once more.