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)

Feeling let down?

Ask MrsAB and it is an understatement to say I was disappointed on Saturday afternoon. A hard day’s work photographing a wedding and I receive a text with the news that Mark Cavendish had not won the Olympic road race. Not only that but the gold medalist is a cyclist who, despite his panache, is clouded by controversy. No, I was pretty dejected. But if I was, imagine being in the shoes of the five Team GB riders who put their all into that day’s racing. And then imagine being told that despite working so hard and against the spoiling tactics (for want of a better phrase) of your main opponents, you are labelled failures. And this, less than a week after one of those riders had won a certain French bike race, one had finished second and another had capped off 3 stage wins with his 4th in a row on a Parisian Boulevard. Fickle barely does this justice.

So let’s look at this from two perspectives of how to let down your nation.

The first is the way that teams rode the race. The British quintet rode with one thing in mind: getting Mark Cavendish to the line in a position to unleash his trademark sprint. They rode on the front of the race for most of the day and once the break had gone worked tirelessly to bring this back. In doing so they were helped little by others in the race. Put quite bluntly, some nations chose to lose the race themselves so that Cavendish didn’t win  either. If I was a fan from one of those nations rather than gleefully celebrating the disappointment of your opponent I would be feeling slightly let down by my team’s negative tactics. But that is bike racing, of which more in a moment.

The second persepctive is through the eyes of our own nation’s media. In the days leading up to the race Mark Cavendish had been portrayed as not just an odds-on favourite for the gold medal but a dead cert. How the press fuel the fires of confidence. Even the IOC President was reported as wanting Cavendish to win. No pressure there then.

Criticism of Mark Cavendish & Team GB

Voluminously negative headlines

So what happens when we “lose”. WalesOnline described Cavendish as a “flop”. The Sun’s well known cycling commentator Steven Howard claimed “the much-hyped home road race team miscalculated woefully to ruin our first big Golden dream”. The Daily Mail’s take: “In the morning they had already hung the gold medal around his neck. By the afternoon Mark Cavendish had sloped away from The Mall, his Olympic dreams in tatters.”  Build them up and throw them down.

Yet the BBC gets top marks for letting us down the most.  “Cavendish and co disappoint in road race” was the headline of the BBC Sports Editor’s blog piece. Cycling has consistenly delivered, he say, but “something clearly went wrong for the ‘Dream Team’ on the 250km circuit”. For us cyclists there was no one thing that went wrong, the race unfolded and the games within games within games unravelled. For those new to cycling it looked messy and that’s preceisley what a bike race is. But our journalists are more used to reporting on the success of our teams who play in more simple sports like football: two teams on a pitch defending one goal whilst attacking the other. Only cycling isn’t like that. Follow this analogy and you have upward of five or six teams and goals on the pitch, you know you have to strike at one and defend another but you aren’t sure which is which. And then they throw a few more balls at you to make life “interesting”. That’s cycle racing. Add in the weird alliances formed by differential team sizes and having your normal work colleagues riding for the other sides and it is clear to see the complexity of this “game”. I doubt David Bond has paid much attention to these complexities as they get in the way of a suitably critical and pithy piece.

Rather than report on the facts and provide measured and informed analysis, our press in large parts chose to drive heightened expectation and blame individuals rather than events when this failed to materialise. It seems some of our journalists have a lot to learn when it comes to sport, just as some of their colleagues have much to learn when it comes to everyday life. The success of the Olympics is measured in precious metal collections rather than effort, another colonial push, another expected right. A nation is left expectant and let down when it fails to deliver. Of course we want success but let’s savor that when it happens rather than before. And if it doesn’t instead of blaming our hard working athletes, the decision of officials, the course on which they ride or even the weather, let’s accept that this is sport, it is life, that we cannot plan its every turn.

The only people who have let us down are those sections of the press who build our athletes up and drop them when they fail to meet those expectations. Under a veneer of respectability they act like cyber trolls but get away with it unless we begin to ignore their callous calls. Whilst I feel disappointed by the result of this one race, I feel great pride in our riders. I just feel totally let down by our press and media – but what’s new with that?

Human, flesh and blood, made to make mistakes

“Once we saw that Nibali had cracked at the top of the Peyresourde, we knew we didn’t have the danger of him attacking in the final so it was at that point that I knew it was pretty much over. We rode away from the rest of the field and I lost concentration. I was thinking of lots of different things at that time. Chris wanted more but the fight had gone from me at that point…All the way up the last climb I almost had tears in my eyes.”

And so explained why after accelerating up the final climb of stage 17 of the 2012 Tour de France, Bradley Wiggins looked weak, Chris Froome looked frustrated and the Twiteratti exploded largely with the British disease of knocking a guy on the verge of history. The fact of the matter is Bradley Wiggins once again showed he is human. Thank goodness for that.

For many years cycling fans have grown used to the infallable, imperial march of Tour champions. Last year’s race together with this have thrown up leaders who have differed from this script. In comparison to a certain American, Cadel Evans and Bradley wiggins have looked strong but fallable. They have not treated winning the Tour as their right, they have looked and been seen to have their weaknesses yet they have ridden through them, battled and shown courage, determination, dignity and respect. Above it all, they have not only looked human, their interviews have been human too. Witness Wiggins’ interview last week.

Last year’s winner Cadel Evans looked fragile in his win then and this year has seen his fair share of misfortune. At the end of stage 16 he sat on the steps of his BMC team bus and spoke candidly to the reports crammed outside:

I had a few stomach issues just before the race … when it’s an hour or two hours before the race there is not a lot you can do. I didn’t think it would affect me in the race, but obviously that’s not my normal level and it’s pretty much Tour de France over for me.

Anybody who has ever had “stomach issues” – and you know what we mean by that –  knows what Evans must be going through. To ride a bike any distance let alone up 4 Pyrenean climbs in the heat of a French summer doesn’t bare contemplation when you are in that state. Fallable? Foolish? Probably both but that’s what makes him human.

For Wiggins there has been a genuine humility when interviewed, shown in his respect for the race traditions, for the racing and especially for his tea. Anybody who has read In Pursuit of Glory will understand that for Wiggins the team environment matters. In the past, being in the wrong team has exposed Wiggins’ weaknesses and put him in his comfort zone on the track. Now in Team Sky he recognises the value of his team and the team ethos that has developed over time,

We are a close group and we have been all year. That’s why we’re in this position now. We’ve gone out there each day and proved on the road that there isn’t a problem.

And on Monday he praised the team for their collective efforts.

This is a star team, not a team of stars. What we do well is we race as a team. We’ve done that all year. I am surrounded by incredibly talented bike riders… We are a close group and we have been all year. We’ve proved on the road that there isn’t a problem.

Brian Clough would be proud. And in particular he singled out Mark Cavendish who has put aside his usual haul of stage wins and been a dedicated team mate for Wiggins’ pursuit of the Yellow jersey.

Mark has been fantastic these last two and a half weeks. He’s been so committed to my cause – to the yellow jersey – and he’s a great champion and a great friend.

And of the man who according to some tried to drop him on stage 11 and on stage 17 was accused both of making his leader look like a fool and of being held back unfairly from a second stage win?

Chris was super strong again today. He’s super excited. He’s been a fantastic team-mate during this Tour de France. For sure, one day, he’ll win the Tour and I’ll be there beside him to do it.

Watch the video of this interview, those do not come across as hollow words said because he should. Though the heat of the moment can sometimes suggest otherwise, there is a genuine respect by Wiggins for others – teammates, opponents and officials.

But Wiggins is a much more complex character, a man who I have identified with in the past and still do today. He’s a rider who has reached great heights already but who has a tendancy to knock himself down. A rider on who there are great expectations but who often thinks he has let people down. Sound familiar? It does to me. Here is a man on the verge of making history and who has quite understandably had a moment of shock and realisation. It’s not the invincibility we’ve seen from past Tour winners and to me that is a good sign for the sport.

One clear message from this year’s Tour is that, in the words of the late Roy Castle, dedication’s what you need. His outburst last weekend is borne of frustration at the lack of recognition of just how hard he has worked and the sacrifices he has made to achieve this. Wiggins’ quite rightly criticised the cult of empty celebrity,

It’s nice to be recognised for achieving something in life because so much of British culture is built on people being famous for not achieving anything. It’s nice in sport when people stop you in the street and respect you for something you have achieved.

These are the things that endear him to me. These make him a champion. Wiggins is human, he has faults but he is determined to succeed. He’s a family man, a dad who looks forward to taking his son to rugby camp after winning a Tour de France. A man who doesn’t mind if people don’t recognise him in Wigan. He wants recognition but he values his space.

What will I do if I win on Sunday? I will concentrate on the time trial of the Olympic Games and when all is over, I go back to my home, come back to reality and go and buy bread and milk.

Long may the humanisation of cycling continue. I can’t imagine some recent Tour winners even knowing where to buy bread. With 3 stages still to go I do not want to tempt fate but despite (and probably because of) his human traits Wiggins is looking good for the win in Paris. Whilst it will be great to have a British winner of the Tour it will be even better to have a champion who is an ordinary guy that most of us can identify with in some way. Allez Wiggo.

A Mental Coach

At last, back to some sort of terra firma with the blog and an opportunity to combine the Tour de France with mental health*. Argos-Shimano’s Koen de Kort has been writing a diary for the Financial Review during this year’s Tour and in his latest entry looks at the imminent loss of his “mental coach” from the team. What is a mental coach? de Kort eloquently explains the role Merijn Zeeman has played in his cycling. The way he describes Zeeman as a friend underlines the importance of having the right fit of people around you to support your psychological well-being.  So is de Kort weak or fallable? As he says:

I’ve found that a lot of people think that a mental coach is only beneficial for athletes with mental weaknesses, but I’ve come to realise they can help all athletes at any level.

Which just goes to show how none of us should be complacent about our mental well being and how letting others in can be beneficial.

Koen de Kort’s article can be viewed at http://www.afr.com/p/lifestyle/sport/cycling/koen_de_kort_diary_second_rest_day_PnGx0GOE6chenddGeslRrO

* Thanks to @melaniebbikes for bringing it to my attention.

The Art of Noise

The Thriller in Manila it was not. And though some “correspondents” would like to make it out to be it was far from being Anatoly Karpov versus Garry Kasparov. I’m talking about the last 5 km of yesterday’s stage of the Tour de France. In particular the “attack” made by Chris Froome which put his teammate Bradley Wiggins into trouble off the back of the leading group of contenders. A lot has been made of this move, the subsequent pressing of earpiece by Froome and the interview he gave immediately after the stage. Gripping and intriguing it certainly was, but there seems to be an appetite to turn every twist and turn into a Machiavellian subplot.

Of course differences within teams is nothing new. The 2009 Tour saw the Contador and Armstrong destroy the Astana team. 1997 witnessed Jan Ullrich dethrone his teammate Bjarne Riis whilst also chasing the green jersey for Eric Zabel which, as an article in Procycling magazine illustrates, created 3 teams of 3 under one banner. And of course there is the ultimate internecine battle between Lemond and Hinault which Richard Moore covers beautifully in Slaying the Badger.  Whilst this has the makings of such a battle, from the events of this Tour so far it still lacks much of the background which those others had.

Some argue this was Froome putting his marker down for leadership of the team.  Despite stating that he riding for Wiggins following his own stage 7 win and reiterating this yesterday correspondents – both professional and amateur – have taken to reading into his words and body language to suggest that there is frustration at having to play second fiddle. A second place in last year’s Vuelta is somehow the justification for the conspiracy theories. But one Vuelta does not a Tour winner make. Take into account Wiggin’s return to racing from a broken collarbone in that race and his superb form this season combined with Froome’s own fragile health since Spain and the equation being posed by some starts to look slightly lopsided. The most astute observation I have seen so far comes from my friend and Real Peloton’s Steve Trice in a Twitter conversation with Matt Rendell:

We don’t know how much Froome benefits from Wiggo bearing leader’s responsibility & attention. Stepping up to no. 1 is a big step…Being team leader is like in a sprint – you don’t know how strong your legs are until you leave the slipstream and take the wind.

I’ve not seen that in the reports I’ve read so far.

Over exuberance by the younger teammate? A coup d’etat at La Toussuire? A simple error of judgement in the heat of the race? Only Froome will know for sure. But I have a small theory of my own and it is all based on noise.

Anybody who has ever been to or ridden in a race will know how it is an assault on all the senses. Stand by the side of the road when the Tour of Britain whizzes past and the sights, the sounds, the smells all collide. So imagine being in the midst of that, on the other end of a thousand shouting spectators, pursued by mankini wearing self-publicists, dodging motorbikes and cars whilst trying to do your job. Workplace communications are never perfect at the best of times but this office is open plan to the extreme and instructions can be misheard and missed. When the boss can’t be heard and/or doesn’t respond you make what you think is the best decision and deal with the consequences later. This is the art of living with the noise. Maybe this is what happened, but as I said, none of us will ever really know.

The second part of my theory revolves around the reliance on race radios. As the riders are more accustomed to the input from the radio, so perhaps they adapt their behaviour and in so doing become more complacent? It is another noise and one which takes over (some of) the riders. Froome’s attack yesterday might well have been to help not hinder Wiggins, a response to earlier attacks from Wiggins’ rivals. And maybe he was waiting to be told what to do? Based on the pictures we saw of him alternating between earpiece and mic did the remote control not work? Not that this is the only time radios might actually be to blame. Whilst the first week crashes were blamed on various causes from climbers to road furniture and finally over-enthusiastic amateur photographers, I wonder if the ability of the professional peloton to work together and warn each other of dangers has been lost. Ride with your local club and there are shouts within the bunch to warn of imminent dangers. My theory is that riders have become to reliant on someone telling them what to do, when and how that the basics of racing are possibly dying. I’d be interested in the thoughts of others about this.

Whilst we are on the topic of noise, the external cacophony of armchair experts has been added to by so-called “Sky WAGs” Twitter-spat. Of course I am excited that there is a British rider with a real chance of winning the Tour de France, I’d be lying if I said otherwise. But these posts are trying to be as objective as is possible in commenting on these events. Earlier in the week I indicated the discomfort I have with some of the noise on Twitter and unfortunately the exchanges between Cath Wiggins and Michelle Cound take this to a new level. It is quite understandable for both to have intense feelings when watching the action but many is the time MrsAB has returned home from work, told me what has happened and I have wanted to vent my spleen to someone. I don’t, however. Please Cath and Michelle, you are intelligent people, let’s keep this “in house” if we must, you’re not Coleen and Victoria and I’m sure you’ll never want to be.

The story is so familiar: a potential British success undermined by both British fans and from those within. Could we not avoid the mistakes that other sports have made in this respect?