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)

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The true professional.

Professional: n. 1. A person following a profession, especially a learned profession. 2. One who earns a living in a given or implied occupation: hired a professional to decorate the house. 3. A skilled practitioner; an expert.

What does it take to be a real professional. The last week of the Tour de France has been somewhat of an eye opener for that and question over the just what it means to be a professional, let alone a cyclist who is paid to ride his bike.

Much of the focus of this debate has been the allegedly simmering tensions in the Team Sky camp. First the focus was on the lack of protection given to Mark Cavendish and the miscommunication between him and Edvald Boason-Hagen in the early flat stages but this has subsequently swung to the growing tension between Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome. Or so we are led to believe. Nobody on the inside of the team has confirmed any tensions as would be expected and so the analysis has really involved reading between the lines from the outside.

Take for example Velonews’ take on the Wiggins-Froome rift. On Sunday L’Equipe published a an interview with Froome in which he stated that his riding for Wiggins was a “a very, very great sacrifice.” There is no denying that: Froome is in a purple patch of form which sees him lying in second place overall. But equally he is acknowledging that he, as a professional cyclist, has to sacrifice his own desires for the good of his employers. It may make things tense but it is the professional way of doing your job. He went on to say in the interview:

“If I feel that the Tour can be lost I will follow the best riders, be that [Cadel] Evans or [Vincenzo] Nibali, to preserve our chance and be sure of Sky’s presence.”

Velonews (shared by others implicitly if not quite as explicitly, was:

Imagine that. A top domestique hoping his leader gets dropped.

Slightly disingenuous I feel. Chris Froome’s comment could be read in that way. Equally, however, it is stating the facts of Sky’s strong position in the race: if something were to happen to Wiggins then Froome is ideally placed to ensure that the team takes the win. Again, a professional way of doing your job.  As he says, “I cannot lie to you, it’s difficult, but it’s my job.”

Which brings us onto what seems to be a vexed issue for some: that professional cycling is a job. During yesterday’s stage I spotted an exchange of tweets between various journalist during which Richard Moore – a journalist and author whose writing I have a lot of respect for – tweeted the following:

Exactly what do we want from sport? People to do job, or to pursue dreams & ambitions? #pragmatismorpanache

In some respects I am behind Moore’s statement. I despise video referees in sport: they slow the game, referees duck the decisions and importantly it removes the idea that all sports are refereed the same no matter which sports field they are played on.  However, the reason for introducing these kinds of measures is simple: money.  As more money comes into sport so the interestys of the investor need to be protected.  Sports stars benefit from this with increased salaries therefore making it possible to make a more than reasonable living as a domestique. Panache in the romantic sense was lost a long time ago, order has been increasingly placed on sport to make the outcome more controlled and palatable to the external funders.

All this talk about people doing jobs in a workplace. Really? Is that what we’re watching?

Yes, that is precisley what we are watching. At the end of the day this is precisely what professional cycling is, and it is no different from any other job. Some if the people can Chase some of their dreams some of the time. The rest are rewarded with a pay packet. The mark of a true professional is one who gets on with this. I have my doubts about some of the inferences that have made into Chris Froome’s actions and statements. Motives and explanations have been suggested where no concrete evidence exists to back them up. It is pure speculation and is disrespectful of a professional. That is the want of the press and many of its consumers. If Froome ultimately breaks from his role, decides to steal glory for himself and undermine his teammates in so doing then we can question his professionalism, For the time being is is making sacrifices and if not entirely happy he is being professional.

But for me there is one image from yesterday that encapsulates the true professional: Mark Cavendish, world champion and sent back to collect water bottles and rain jackets. Whilst he may not have liked it, he did it and his day of dreams will come around again. A professional is paid to do a job, but the true professional gets on with the job he is given.  Some who work in so-called professions would do well to consider this.

Mirroring Life

It is often said that sport mirrors real life. What is rarely acknowledged is that we all too often treat sport as being different from everything else. In particular we expect it to be played by the rules and don’t (or won’t) understand why some people cheat.  The problem with this view is that in real life we are surrounded by cheating of various degrees, some which is overtly frowned upon, some which is somehow ignored.  Why should sport be any different?

Comments following the cricket match fixing trial made me think about this.   One in particular (see below) almost prompted me to respond. But 140 characters didn’t seem quite enough so here is the longer considered version.

If Cricketers can be jailed, why not jail EPO using cyclists.

Sir Ian Botham yesterday suggested that this was cricket’s “darkest day”. If we are comparing this to the problems faced by other sports Sir Ian and others should probably be prepared for a bumpy ride. As he himself and others have rightly reflected, it is 10 years since former South Africa captain Hansie Cronje was found guilty of match fixing.  As William Fortheringham notes in Roule Britannia cycling has faced a drug-related scandal roughly every 10 years since 1967. Cycling is still not out of the woods.  FIFA lurches from one allegation of corruption to another, officials are only corrupt if caught after crossing too many swords with the wrong people and yet football remains the World’s sport. And I think we can leave the problems of England’s Rugby Football Union to another time.  Here is where sport mirrors life: despite problems, scandals, even deaths, these sports carry on and continue to be played/competed in; and corruption exists, cheats are found out but only after integrating happily in the milieu of that community.  Name a part of everyday life and these characteristics exist to a greater or lesser degree. It’s certainly not cricket but then it isn’t in real life either.

That is the first part of the response. The second part is the comparison being drawn with cycling. This is where it is easy to draw quick conclusions but look deeper and the situations are complex and subtly different.  David Brailsford and 100 Climbs raise an interesting possibility for deterring cheats through the criminal process.  Cricket has had to go through this process at the behest of the Metropolitan Police and Crown Prosecution Service following evidence presented by a newspaper in a sting operation.  It is doubtful if this was the route the cricketing authorities themselves would have chosen nor were they seemingly proactive in tackling this issue.  Cycling, as with other sports, has already faced the criminal justice system in relation to doping.  Joe Papp was recently prosecuted under existing US laws on drug trafficking, The Festina Scandal and Cofidis affair both ended in court appearances and prosecutions in France and France, Germany and Italy, to name just three countries, have adopted laws which class doping as sporting fraud.  The “jail the doper” call is a nice soundbite but it is neither innovative nor fair.

To compare match fixing with doping is difficult. Whilst they are both forms of cheating this is where the comparison ends.  The aim of a cricket bowler is to bowl the ball effectively enough to gain a wicket and not give away runs. To bowl a no-ball goes completely against this and cheats your own side not the opposition per se.  The aim of cycling is to cross the line first and win the race. Doping in order to enhance performance to do this is a logical step and for many has been seen as part and parcel of competing professionally. So immediately we are at odds in comparing the issues.  To partake in either is driven by different motives and involves a set of circumstances driven not just by the perpetrator of the crime but by a backroom staff driving the culprit on.

Dopers in cycling rarely do it on their on or for themselves alone, there is a pressure to dope from peers, from sponsors, from public expectation to perform, be that winning or being there to help someone else win.  In a way this makes the problem in cycling more logical and, one would hope, more straightforward to tackle.  To jail the doper ignores the system which drives them to dope and supplies them with the product, not dissimilar to other drug addicts in real life and we are far from addressing that complex set of problems in our communities.  Why expect it to be different in sport.

The popular view is that these Pakistani cricketers were driven by the financial reward cheating would bring. Clearly there’s no denying that but why would they do so if the penalty was not only a sporting ban but a prison sentence.  Mohammad Amir perhaps encapsulates the reasons why: born into a non-affluent background one of 7 children, left home at 11 to play cricket, rose to stardom by the age of 19 he had rapidly risen to stardom and now playing amongst some of his heroes.  It is not difficult to see how the money earned from cricket helped his family nor is it beyond the realms of fantasy to think that he was under immense peer pressure.  As with cycling, it seems that a lack of support from within the team and the influences of key players drove one person to go beyond the line of what is fair and right.  It is quite conceivable that financial motives drive the decisions of them all as did the fear of alleged reprisals on their families for not doing as they were instructed, indeed these are more about self preservation that the dopers lament. The 3 cricketers jailed are also victims, whilst they clearly cheated there is a cast of thousands behind them who may never face the consequences of their actions. To address corruption in cricket is therefore not just about the players, it is also about the living conditions from which they and their families come from and the political system in the countries the represent.  Again, we are not making great progress in these either.

If only dealing with cheats was so easy, the world would be a better place not just in sport but in our everyday lives.  As we witness each and every day that is simply not the case. Ultimately we are all human. Fotheringham illustrates this in his chapter on David Millar in Roule Britannia:

I asked Millar to describe the margin between taking drugs and staying clean. “It’s that,” he says, and holds up finger and thumb in front of me. The gap between them is half an inch. “I was 100% sure I would never dope, 100%, then all of a sudden it was out of control. Cycling had become my life, the only thing that defined me and I resented that. It was ‘fuck it’. It was like flipping a coin. You don’t stop and think. If you think about it, it’s game over.

Good people can do bad things without clear explanation or reason.  That is life.

Sport does mirror life warts and all.  If we want to address the cheats in the reflection we need to tackle them in real life as well.

Act, Dream, Plan, Believe

Like many other cycling fans I spent yesterday sat on the sofa with the Elite Men’s World Road Race on in the background.  For me it was an enforced period of rest, laid up as I was with a throat seemingly wrapped in sandpaper and joints which felt they had been knocked about with a sledgehammer – the perils of looking after your young niece and nephews! So at times, the race was a kind of comforting wallpaper, but as with many other British cycling fans it ended with the delight of watching our first world men’s professional/elite road champion for 46 years – a fact I know has delighted one other cycling Manxman well known to this blog.

I also decided to avoid Twitter for the duration of the race. And I have to say it was much better for it. The urge to send a quick opinion bubbled but was kept in my own head. And for some this is a small lesson – we all have thoughts, we all have a right to air them but sometimes it is better to keep them in our own heads. Therefore in the run up to the race we saw opinions on the presence of Sky on GB jerseys, during the race an ongoing critique of Team GBs tactics (therein is a lesson in holding opinion until an eggy face can be avoided) and subsequently the way the course was made for sprinters and how Cav benefited from a “pro-team” set up due to the large number of GB riders from one trade team. I’m sorry folks but I’ve lost interest in most of these tired arguments.  So here’s a more considered take.

Clearly the race was made for sprinters. Whilst some nations complained, the parcours will dictate the eventual winner to a large extent as, as one of the more witty comments on Twitter pointed out, the Italians didn’t complain in Zolder when Mario Cipolini won. Not that the race was easy – whilst there were no decisive climbs, the rise to the finish in itself added interest to the sprint and the fast nature of the course made it difficult for breaks to stay away but equally brought a large bunch to the end and thus a hard race to control. That Team GB rode the race they did should be seen as a master-stroke in planning but more so a genuinely superb team effort on the part of Team GB. At times the armchair fan To accomplish great things...might have questioned the tactic to try and control the race almost alone but by 3.30pm that decision was vindicated – a brave move unseen in recent World’s.  All of which is underpinned by the bigger project, nicely summarised by Inner Ring’s blog but visually captured by Adrian Timmis’ photo. We can all have gripes with the backers of British Cycling and Britian’s own Pro-Team – Sky, BSkyB, call them what you want – but the fact is they have chosen to invest in cycling at all levels. At the top end this has paid off with track and now road success at World level. At the other end it continues to be a part of the growth in the popularity of cycling – as Richard Williams suggested this morning, bike shops are now “virtually recession‑proof”on the back of it. I’m not overly enthusiastic about the puppeteers behind this company but if they are willing to back a sport I love I’ll happily take the money.

Then there is a puerile suggestion that GB are using Team Sky to get around the trade team rules for the Worlds. In a two earlier pieces I highlighted the way in which British Cycling have successfully taken forward a focussed project to be successful in world road cycling and, in another, the contradictions that the world rankings system presents for World championship qualification.  Team GBs qualification points undoubtedly were helped by the performance of Team Sky. Yet Cav himself earned a fair share of the points and was further assisted by other non-Sky riders such as Adam Blyth of Omega Pharma-Lotto.  But lets look back at the history of this project. Richard Moore’s book on Team Sky, Sky’s the Limit, highlights how its foundations are in the Academy system set up by David Brailsford and run by Rod Ellingworth. And who was in the Academy together and the same time? Mark Cavendish, Geraint Thomas, Stephen Cummings and Ian Stannard. Add in Bradley Wiggins (whose 1.5 lap pull on the front makes up for any previous “disappearances”) as a key member of the GB track set up and 5 of the 8 riders out there yesterday had been integral to this project. Frome, Millar and Hunt all provided experience and determination.  When was the last time a national team from any nation looked so committed, focussed and together than this one yesterday.  With the intricacies and contradictions that road racing brings, Team Sky has taken a different approach in its aims and its execution. It has learnt a lot and it has developed a lot, but there is nothing wrong with that. Nor is there anything wrong with a national team having a backbone from one trade team. More often than not the World’s has teams within teams, alliances between trade-teammates which undermine the national cause, something which Great Britain have not been immune. And there is nothing wrong or conspiratorial in one rider who doesn’t ride for the trade team making up the bulk of the squad to be assisted by or benefit from those who are. I’d actually say that was quite mature, whatever future rider movements suggest.  At the end of the day, the comments of all the team have indicated a huge amount of camaraderie which is something we should all look at with pride.

So this one really goes out to the doom merchants out there: for the British cycling fans it is a lesson in grumbling less and enjoying more – we’ve waited a long time for this and the guys did us proud; for the overseas fans you’re time will come, probably next year, that’s the rich merry-go-round of cycling results.  Despite feeling lousy all day yesterday, that race brought a smile to my face. But as well as Cav’s win, there are a lot of positives which can be taken from yesterday and a new chapter in cycling history, both British and International.  I’m already looking froward to next season.

In the jungle

There has been a growing crescendo of opinion voiced over the last few weeks amongst the cycling Twitterati concerning team ownership, team loyalty and, it would seem, a team fandom. And this crescendo seems to have reached a natural apex this morning with the emerging news that Leopard-Trek will be no more next season.  In many ways this is hardly surprising given its history: it has always been essentially a personal project for the Schelcks, a means to “escape” the Riis empire and do things their way; the team has had high ambition and been overly confident despite the poor return in terms of results; and importantly it has always lacked a headline sponsor. In sport the first two of these have always been a fact of life. In professional sport it is the latter which is crucial – it is a business.

The initial discussions I followed were linked to the fluidity of team identities and the fickleness of team benefactors.  Whilst the criticism of these discussants appears to be levelled at team directors for accepting the “gifts” of seemingly capricious backers, the implicit issue seems to be one of “who do we support”.  This is an interesting issue given the fluid nature of cycling teams but raises an interesting question about the relationship of cycling fans to the sport.  For me, one of the attractions of cycling is the far less partisan nature of the support. Growing up in England the peer pressure to pick a football team to follow was immense. Choosing the “right” team even more so. It took a move to Wales before I realised that my Father’s instilled belief in me that I was Welsh was incorrect. This tribalism has been largely absent from cycling: yes, we all support various stars and have preferences for one team over others but by and large we give our support to the entire peloton. One of my good friends used to say at the time Welsh rugby adopted regional “super teams” that she was “a fan of rugby at Rodney Parade”. At the time this made little sense to me but looking back on the days I’ve spent on hillsides watching racers toil against the gradient I can see exactly what she means. And cycling has always had this.

For team backers this is part of the world that they are entering into and to describe their decisions as fickle or capricious belies the economics of this business environment. It is also in danger of comparing apples with pears. Cycling is not football or rugby or any other sport with a fixed location. It attracts crowds who the vast majority of the time do not pay any entrance fee to watch. Even where teams do build a following, there is only limited financial return for the backers and much of this is indirect return through sales of their products. Of course, this can turn quite mundane products (e.g. adhesives and sealants) into glamorous sports sponsors (e.g. Mapei) but I’m sure I’m not the only cycling fan not to know or even care what some of these sponsors do. You see, as humans we are fickle too and care only about what we want to take from the occasion. As cycling fans we want the race to watch (and for some, to moan about). Therefore team backers are reliant on exposure in the media where a recognisable brand catches the attention of the wider public.  It is amazing how HTC phones and Skoda cars have become popular amongst cycling fans but the economics of this business mean that they have to reach beyond that audience. HTC pulled their sponsorship of the “world’s most successful team”.

And so for a team whose major backer has no visible identity in the team’s name, its brand or its jersey, what is the point in being involved. For the backer of a World Tour ranked team the costs run into 7 figures.  True, cycling sponsors in the past did enter the sport for the love of it thought the costs of entry and involvement were much lower in an often nation-based calendar. And if we compare this with football at least the club chairman/owner has some tangible return on investment, if not in a net profit on gate receipts then through the returns available on property in and around the ground, as well as the personal ‘honour’ which goes with the position. Again, cycling is simply not the same and offers few such opportunities.

It is therefore little wonder that in the jungle, the leopard is about to sleep.  Whilst some will deride Flavio Becca for his involvement he gave rise to a potentially great team. That it didn’t reach the heights that might have been expected of it are the result as much of the nature of sport as to any deliberate flaw in the riders. Becca gave it a chance and it didn’t work. Shouldn’t we as cycling fans be grateful for that? Equally, many deride the UCI for its World Tour (for which I am as guilty as the rest) yet this is precisely the type of certainty which sponsors want in order to commit large sums of money to backing a team. The fact that neither the ProTour/World Tour nor “philanthropic” team sponsors is as much to do with economics as it is to do with organisation and bureaucracy. It is difficult to see how professional cycling can buck a trend in wider global economics on its own.