Living through the dark – a reflection on David Millar’s Autobiography

“The man is greater than his victories and defeats, the man is worth more than the cyclist…In the champion beats the heart of a boy…a heart that needs normality and cannot be sacrificed to exploitation.”

Bishop Antonio Lanfranchi’s eulogy at Marco Pantani’s funeral.

Like Marmite, David Millar splits opinion. Unlike Marmite the categories of opinion don’t split neatly into a neat like/hate split. I know, I’ve got various shades running through the other 3 members of my family. So his biography – Racing Through the Dark – was always bound to please and annoy people to varying degrees. For me, this book made a lasting impact as much for its lessons in life as its revelations about cycling culture. Long awaited by some, bound to be dismissed by others, I was interested to read what was rightly or wrongly billed as the confessions of a poacher turned gamekeeper. What I didn’t expect was the honesty with which the book is written (though I appreciate some of you will immediately question that) and the insight into the life of someone under immense pressure. Nor did I expect any of this to relate to my life in such a strong way.

Millar’s choice of preface for his book is quite apt and shouldn’t be dismissed as trite. It is the euology from Marco Pantani’s funeral, the sentiments of which show that whilst a man is culpable we should not ignore the context in which he makes his mistakes. I can see why some would object to this. For some it smacks of a cop out, the dopers’ club feeling absolved through divine intervention.  But read those lines again and they make a lot of sense. The pressure of modern life in general and in particular a job which shapes them into something they hadn’t necessarily wanted to be is not just the stuff of professional cycling. It is something that touches many of us and is most definitely something that I have strongly felt in recent years. And whilst some will point out that if we feel like this we should go and do something else, this course of action is not so easy to do. And when you feel that what you are doing is in some way your calling, a devotion if you like, breaking the chain might almost be seen as a failure.

Racing through the Dark is not only an open account of the dark side of professional cycling but an honest account of how it affects the athlete psychologically, the pressure placed on the athlete to succeed (by themselves, by team management and sponsors and by team mates to name a few) and their abandonment by those who pushed them into their moment(s) of madness (see previous list). It is an honest account of the frailty of being human and our abilities to act irrationally – even if our action at the time seem to us rational in the context.

The drive for success has been all consuming for many professional cyclists.The physical consequences of a professional career can be seen in many an ex-rider. Yet despite the repeated patterns of depression, drug and alcohol abuse and even suicide amongst ex-pros, the psychological impact is somewhat ignored.  This is true of most professional/elite sport as exemplified recent events in football. And it is equally true in everyday life.  Pushing ourselves to the limit to do “our best” (working long hours, taking work home (literally and mentally), constantly networking) often takes it toll in all to readily unforeseen ways besides the physical symptoms. In this book, Millar makes a a clear recognition of the hitherto unstated link between the two.  Millar was lucky to realise before it was too late, others have not been so lucky. Take the case of Frank Vandenbroucke:

“That experience [taking EPO] had an impact on me. I began to think of myself as two separate entities: mind and body. My body was a tool that was capable of things that I previously hadn’t thought possible. Now I know why Frank Vandenbroucke was always pushing the envelope and seeing how far he could go. It was a game, in which he played God with his own body. And in the process, Frank lost his mind.”

No excuse is offered for what Vandenbroucke did – Millar reflects on the implications of VDBs actions for him as a teammate – but it tries to place what happened to him in an objective context. It is quite easy to see how and why professional athletes cheat and dope. It is part of the drive where the conscious and unconscious become blurred and a fight or flight response develops to the environment.  Many have put this down to selfishness but whilst cyclists are self-driven to succeed many have self-doubts and are surrounded by others who want to assist in this success. Although many of these helpers do so by fair means there are some who adopt the foul.  Millar quotes Matt White (ex-pro and one time Garmin directeur sportif whose employment was terminated after questionable use of a non-team doctor) on his coaching of non-cyclists:

“It’s easy. Athletes are all the same…They’re all insecure. You just gotta make ’em feel good.”

The insecurity is the key. Build up confidence and make the athlete believe in themselves. And if certain products are needed then so be it. So what insecurity do we mean? Insecurity that you are not as good as others think is one, insecurity that you can’t win is another. But what about job insecurity? Professional sport is not reknowned for its stability of employment and to keep your job there is pressure to do what you are told.  For Millar there was pressure to win to keep a sponsor for a team and employer for his teammates, a team within which there was an established culture of doping and in a sport where at that time drug taking was seemingly not only tolerated but expected. When faced with the need to win, with support provided by those who already cheat and with an employer prepared to turn a blind eye until things are found out, the reasons why a rider might dope no longer come down simply to ego. Whilst this is no excuse how many of you can say you have not been put under pressure at work to do things which bend if not break the rules? Recently I was told by someone working as an electrician for a large “solutions provider” that although there are set safety procedures which include turning off the power before doing work, electricians are regularly told to carry on on live circuits to save time and inconvenience. There are few qualms about the safety of the worker in the face of competition. Yes the worker can do the job by the book but what happens when they don’t hit the targets they are set? For me this is a similar situation that faces professional athletes. It is not an excuse for doping per se but begins to explain the pressure leading to that decision. There is a context to every action yet so often we fail to see the whole picture.

For me Millar is a good guy who did a bad thing. To that end he is human. And whilst some will question if Millar is telling the whole truth in this book, Racing Through the Dark goes a long way to providing an insight into the wider context of doping in professional sport and cycling in particular. It exposes the psychology of the athlete, the pressures from those around him and the continued lack of focus by the authorities on the systems which enable this to persist.  Millar doped, he confessed and he did his time. He apologised, returned to the sport and is now working to make a positive difference. There will remain those for whom his past misdemanour is enough for some to write him off for good but hold your hands up if you’ve never made a mistake and been given a second chance. His sometimes messianic words rankle with others but this is equally his passion. And though Bradley Wiggins and other British riders can be upheld as clean and commendable examples for young people, for me Millar is equally a positive example and one we need to learn from. In making a mistake he learnt a lesson and in working hard to make amends he is exposing the realities of why athletes dope and exposing many of the unanswered questions which have to be addressed if cycling is to win it’s battle against drugs.

But Racing Through the Dark is more than a sporting autobiography, it is an enlightening tale of the competing pressures made on us by everyday life. And though it provides few answers, in exposing the wider context in which we make our decisions and our mistakes, it is a useful set of lights when riding through the dark of life.

Racing Through the Dark: The Fall and Rise of David Millar by David Millar is published by Orion (ISBN 9781409120384)

As good as your last

There is that old saying that you are only ever as good as your last anything.  In cycling a pro is said to be only as good as his (or her) last race. And so maybe I was destined to become at best a very conservative and at worst very cynical directeur sportif. If not in cycling then at least in more immediate and tangible moments of life this seems to be a niggling mantra that holds me – and those around me in the connected activities – back from exploring and expanding my horizons.

Why do I say that? On Friday night MrsAB decided she wanted to find some new work clothes and in need of a good read so I went along with her to a large, out of town shopping centre to grab myself a book. (Some of you may already be querying the choice of shopping venue. It was the best thing on offer is all I can say in my defence.) After visiting two book emporiums I still left empty handed. One even had two floors worth of books to peruse.  Despite the choice I simply couldn’t make a choice and the over-riding thought in my head was of the previous books I have read and the need to satisfy an urge to have something just as good.  Yes. I know, the whole point of a book is to be a journey of discovery, a trip into the unknown and the satisfaction of each twist and turn taking you further from or nearer to the conclusion you feel the story is headed.  As I wrote in the summer, a good book I have found is one that I can’t put down, a book so good I am happy to have my train or bus delayed for so I can indulge in a few more minutes of fantasy.  What stops me picking up the next potential escape is the feeling that the last book was too good to be repeated.  And so it is that despite the shelves and tables of recommendations and offers I leave two stores without a new read.

And tonight MrsAB and I were discussing where to go on holiday this year. No prizes on offer for realising what happened here but all I can say is that the oyster is far too big for dinner tonight.

Part of the problem is that life is always as good as your last experience. The last book I read shapes my feeling about what to read next. The last holiday I had defines what I want from the next. The last meal out I had is the experience I want to replicate. In some ways there is nothing wrong with some of that, it helps make sure that each experience has the potential to be as good as if not a better experience than the last.  The only problem is that it is preventing me from taking the leap of faith into a new adventure, a new read or that new restaurant for fear that it will be worse.  So living a life as good as your last ultimately undoes itself and becomes boring. What I need now is a half way house so as a first step can any of my readers help me out with a few recommendations to expand those boundaries be they places to go on holiday, good restaurants to eat out in or even just a good little coffee shop and a book to read in it.  I’m going to try and make the last as good as my next.