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)


In lieu of a blog post this week I thought I’d share this one on Coffeeneuring. Looks like just the kind of thing I’ve been looking for. Anyone joining me?

That’s right, people. Coffeeneuring Challenge time. Another six weeks of rule-based biking and imbibing is here! Yeah!

Some of you may recall that coffeeneuring is based on an idea developed by Joe Platzner, a member of the Seattle Randonneurs, as he discussed life after last year’s Paris-Brest-Paris. He noted:

A bunch of us have trained pretty hard for PBP. After PBP, I’m probably going to lobby RUSA for an official “Coffee Shop Run” medal. To earn it, you need to ride your bike slowly to a nearby coffee shop and enjoy a fine beverage. I think this would be a big seller in September.

I wholeheartedly agreed and the Coffeeneuring Challenge was born!

The Coffeeneuring Challenge is a relaxed weekend cycling endeavor for cyclists everywhere. If you like riding a bike and enjoy drinking coffee or tea (or even hot chocolate), you should consider giving the challenge a go.

In a loving nod to the French, the Coffeeneuring Challenge…

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The Wall

Hit a wall today. Literally. Had a choice between a stopped team car’s back window on a steep and blind corner or a wall, chose the latter. Apparently I bounce like a rubber ball. Not that it felt that way but I’ll take that rather than how a French guy smashed into the same wall. I’ll live to fight another day. Not so sure about the wall or the hedge though.

Dan Craven (@DanFromNam), Team IG-Sigma Sport, Stage 7 Tour of Britain 2012

There was something strangely familiar in reading Dan’s tweet, a feeling of knowing how he felt. I feel for Dan, he’s a nice guy and a great cyclist, but as he says he’ll bounce back. Me on the other hand…Whilst not having the pleasure of familiarising myself with a Devonian field boundary, for some time I’ve felt like I’ve been bouncing off a barrier or two. In that feeling known by many an endurance athlete, I’ve hit the wall.

Those who know me and those who have followed this blog for the last 2 years might be forgiven for thinking things were progressing well. In many ways so was I. Yet in the last few months I’ve felt things slowing down, that there’s something holding me back and I’m really starting to get annoyed with life once more. I’ve been told many times that I am on a journey, I’ve repeated it to myself over and over but at this very moment I feel my journey has reached some kind of barrier and it’s both frustrating and depressing.

In essence I’ve run out of ideas. As a positive step I have recently I started seeing a life coach to help me through this barrier and here’s why I need that help. And this is why.

When I returned to work two and half years ago I promised myself I wouldn’t be there long. Three months after returning I sat in a meeting about the future of my department and told myself I wouldn’t be there in 12 months. Another 27 months later and I’m still there. I’m stagnating and it don’t feel good.

Why do today what you can put off inevitably?

By stagnating I’m not only standing still but I’m now not doing – even avoiding – things that might move me forward. Worse than the frustration of not moving on I’m now feel bored and as a result feel numb. I can’t even be bothered. Work (yes, it’s easier to type this than admit it out loud), play (cycling has become even more of a chore), rest (need I say more) – it all feels like too much, a decision too far, an action that won’t lead to much. I’ll fritter time away on “anything but”, my attention elsewhere though I’m never entirely sure where.

“I tend to drink too much. I don’t know. I think it’s a symptom of boredom really. And my mind can drift off.”

Peter Cook

But here’s the irony: Ask me what I want to do and my usual answer is “I don’t know”. Whilst saying that feels like a cop out for me and what I assume the other person is thinking, it is a genuine feeling and implictly encapsulates that remoteness I feel from life. Life carries on but it doesn’t matter what I do nothing really changes. In fact, give me a shell and I’ll crawl into it, it’s easier that way. In the words of Pink Floyd, I’ve become comfortably numb. And so, in this frame of mind, I was asked by my coach what options I had for the future. I told her I didn’t know. I told here that it felt like a blank. Okay, it wasn’t totally blank. There are a few things I do want. But the overwhelming feeling is like facing a brilliant white wall in front of me. From afar it looked like the blank canvas, a future with unwritten potential but get nearer and it’s a hulking great barrier in disguise spread infinitely either side and far too high to see the top. The only thing to do, I worked through in a coaching session,  is fight it.

Energy breaks me down

My problem is I’m tired from fighting what’s behind me. It’s like the marathon runner who hits the wall – 21 miles seemingly “under the belt’ but those miles are the undoing of you at that moment. I know what I don’t want, though when I say that there are things I hang on to “just in case” and that saps energy. There are expectations and commitments that I can’t – or don’t know how to – extricate myself from or change. Moving forward isn’t about a blank canvas rather it is a negotiation with release clauses yet to be agreed.

Where this leaves me is hard to say and that is why I’m seeing a life coach. I want some answers. I need a map to move me forward. And whilst I’ve tried some things to do this they aren’t, in my present state of mind, the answers.  My current task is focussing on the feeling of kicking down the wall. The problem is getting that feeling. A lot of the time it just sin’t there.

Whilst none of this is designed to be an excuse for my lack of attention – to you, to those I know, to my work – it is an explanation. I don’t feel great about it and in fact it worries me. But I need to find another way forward, to break down that wall, to find some ideas and take the next steps on what is at the moment feeling like an everlasting and tiring journey. And as much as this is a confession and a reflection it’s also a plea for ideas. So, anyone got any bright ideas?

Boys don’t cry?

Felix Sanchez (Dominican Republic – Olympic 400m Hurdles Champion) – He’s not afraid to cry

It started on Monday night. Felix Sanchez, Olympic Champion in 2004 ran the race of his life and regained his crown 8 years on.  Come the medal ceremony, he stood behind the podium, his eyes welling up, his lips a quiver, the commentator struggling to remember the last time an Olympic champion sobbed his way to receiving his medal.

The Tuesday came. Chris Hoy stepped up to the track for the Keirin. A race of strength and lottery in equal measure. His mum could barely watch. We thought he’d lost it as Max Levy briefly took the lead on the last lap. And then in the favoured words of the commentators he “put on the afterburners” and took the race. Now the most successful British Olympian, the pressure was on as much as it was off. This gentle giant couldn’t contain himself either as he stood up to reveive his medal his eyes welling up and by the anthem the tears had fallen.

Chris Hoy – Tears of Joy and the Stuff of Champions

So why comment on this? As men crying is far too often seen as a sign of weakness. Yet these two men are not weak. Winning an Olympic champion takes strength, physical and mental, to prepare and hold it together whilst pursuing their target. So this outpouring of emotion is a natural thing, a healthy process and a much needed release.

Boys don’t cry? Don’t believe the hype. It is fine for us men to cry, it’s actually the stuff of champions.

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?