Bec-Hill-Climb-David-Millar

David Millar’s Hill Climb Farewell

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.

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Alex Dowsett’s Anger – How Essex’s Finest Export Turned Silver Into Gold

With gaze finally shifting from the velodrome, today saw the men and women take to the Glaswegian roads in order to contest 2014’s Commonwealth Time Trial. The slightly rolling course was expected to favour those with a stronger background in road racing than the thoroughbred time trialists, as the riders were sent out into the surrounding countryside. Thankfully the morning’s rain had subsided somewhat as the women took to the road; by the time the men began later in the afternoon, the Scottish sun(!) had burnt most of it from the race-line.

Pooley Close To The Perfect Farewell:

There was great anticipation as the crowds waited for Emma Pooley to roll onto the course having recently announced her impending retirement from the sport. It did not take long to realise that Pooley and Kiwi Linda Villumsen were to be the main protagonists as it came to contesting the gold medal. Despite having led throughout the intermediate time checks, Emma Pooley could not maintain her blistering pace, succumbing to Villumsen’s perfectly timed late surge to take the Commonwealth title in 42:25.46. Australian Katrin Garfoot completed the podium in third as Scotland’s wonder child Katie Archibald missed out on a medial, despite her early pace, finishing fifth in the end. Elinor Barker of Wales and Joanna Rowsell of England finished 7th and 13th respectively.

Dowsett Rides To Gold:

The men’s race proved hard to predict before starting and even tougher as the main contenders reached the end of their efforts’. With Bradley Wiggins’ bizarre change of season goals before the Commonwealth Games, it was seen to open the podium up slightly to the chance of an unexpected medalist. This year’s Le Tour de France played a role in the conditioning of the riders heading into the day’s time trial, as those who had recently finished the three week campaign were a mixture of burnt out and hardened by the experience.

Luke Durbridge and Svein Tuft certainly appeared to be showing signs of fraying after staying the course with Orica-Greenedge the last few weeks, soon failing to match the pace of their bright starts. Jesse Sergent was the last to falter in pursuit of the medal placings, possessing greater freshness having not ridden the Tour, but fell away as Geraint Thomas, Rohan Dennis and Alex Dowsett pulled away from everybody.

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Geraint Thomas appeared to be riding in the typical Team Sky style of a negative-split, riding smoothly throughout in search of a rapid finish to take a medal. As the graph from VeloUk displays below, Thomas began to gain time after the halfway point as planned, but ran out of steam in the final stretch – no doubt a stressful tour blunting his pace somewhat. Rohan Dennis had recorded the best competition times this season out of the entire field, yet he seemed to be touted below Durbridge as Australia’s threat, but Dennis dismissed this myth with a blistering increase of pace between 17km and 32km. However, this acceleration was not enough to counter a determined Alex Dowsett who dipped out of 1st, even momentarily into 3rd, before finishing the strongest out of all the riders. Managing not only to over-turn the 7 second deficit from Dennis, but also take the title by 10 seconds.

Fluctuations made the podium battle hard to gauge.

Fluctuations made the podium battle hard to gauge.

Dowsett told the BBC post-race “I got a silver in Delhi and with with the disappointment of missing out on the Tour de France, I’ve been angry the last month. When I’m angry I pull something out of the bag so it’s very special.”

Bowing Out:

Meanwhile, David Millar was writing a new chapter in his career as the medals were being passed amongst the top three throughout the time trial. Only the second time competing in a Scotland kit and well into his retirement swan-song, Millar taking a medal at his home games is what the fans craved. However, it took blind faith to really show any confidence in Millar finishing with a medal worthy time given recent time trial performances and it will be no shock to see him making a greater impression upon the road race instead. Even then though, he would have to be more competitive than his showing at the British National Road Race, a performance which subsequently saw him cut from Garmin’s tour rosta.

The Future:

A noteworthy performance also came from James McLaughlin of Guernsey, who backed up his tenth in the National Time Trial with another tenth place in this Commonwealth race. Making him the first non-WorldTour rider home in both events, a great sign for the 23 year old.

The British Road Race Championship – Hitters and Family Feuds

2014’s Road Race title offered little in shocks when it came to the crucial selections of the day. A breakaway comprising four of the black and blue men (Edmondson, Rowe, Kennaugh and Swift) were the majority members alongside Orica’s Yates twins and an effervescent Mark Christian of Raleigh. The group made it to the Abergavenny circuits intact before the final laps were left to be contested between Ben Swift and Peter Kennaugh after a stinging attack by Simon Yates broke his namesake and Christian; but in turn left himself bereft of the energy to follow Swifty and Kennaugh when it mattered later on.

With only a moderately undulating course forming the town circuit; it seemed to be playing into the hands of Ben Swift to take it via a sprint, as Kennaugh repeatedly failed to drop his man. Swift’s recent podium at Milan-San Remo certainly hinted towards a man strong enough to hold the wheel, yet smart enough to retain the stinging pace in reserve to take the win from his track-come-mountain goat team mate. Kennaugh proved however that experience counts for a lot more than perceived ‘horses for courses’ of Swifty; who succumbed to the more wily knowledge of Kennaugh as he turned 2009’s defeat here into victory for 2014. Nipping out from behind Swift late on to glide across the line first with the British bands calling him, Kennaugh put in a glorious display of grit and skill to claim his first senior National title.

The most ‘against-the-odds’ performances of the day earned themselves a Hitter’s badge of honour.

Hitters:

Mark Christian – Like recent years at the Nationals, it seemed unlikely to see a domestic rider involved with the crucial move of the day. Whether this is seen as a gulf in talent or the asphyxiation of racing by Team Sky, it was still inspiring to see Mark Christian pushing the seven man break through Monmouthshire with zero intention of riding the wheels. Sadly his inspiring performance burnt out in the final laps of Abergavenny, but it is worth noting that Adam Yates was dropped alongside him in the same attack by his brother. Mark was the standard bearer for an often undervalued British domestic scene, doing his fellow riders and fans a great honour of representing them during the day.

Luke Rowe – Abergavenny was screaming all day for a Welsh winner to be crowned on home soil; but the perfect ending was never to be. Rowe was possibly the most antagonistic rider of the day, being involved early on with speculative breaks seemed damaging to his day’s prospects at the time. He was not just a member of the seven man winning break but a key animator who tested the will of his fellow Sky riders and friends repeatedly.

Dante Carpenter & Dan Pearson – The reserve list’s existence is to make up the numbers when other rider’s hopes are dashed before they even had the chance to clip in. Thankfully the Zappi’s team shone a more positive light upon the opportunity gifted to them. Dante and Dan earned a call up, and in turn the stage, to showcase what they have learnt on the continent under the guidance of Flavio Zappi. Not only did they both podium in the U23 race (Dante Silver & Dan Bronze), they also split from Kristian House late on to finish ahead of the ex-national champion; proving Zappi holds a heady mix of talent and hard work amongst his ranks.

Geraint Thomas – Once the riders had descended upon Abergavenny, the spectators had to endure tugged heart strings with each passing, as locals and fans alike witnessed Thomas’ attempts to bridge the gap to the leading seven. Unlucky to be absent from the winning breakaway due to a gear issue during the ascent of Celtic Manor; Thomas displayed immense passion to claw the gap back. Dropping behind to the peloton when inviting Alex Dowsett and David Millar aboard his escapades, he was not disheartened when he was told they were not ‘up for it’ and so gave pursuit regardless. Holding an average gap around fifty seconds against seven, mostly WorldTour riders, was a fine reflection of the form he is producing in the prime years of his road career.