David Millar, Racing Through the Dark interview and review

I spoke to David Millar while he was doing his press tour of the UK. Unfortunately my interview didn’t run as planned but, in keeping with my policy of publishing where I can, I’ve decided to put the interview out here, unabridged. I spent a lot of time arranging the interview in my spare time so it seems a shame to let it go to waste.  Listen to it below

David Millar, Racing Through The Dark interview, 06 June 2011 by leguape

I didn’t see much point in going in on an aggressive line of questioning. I think that’s rewarded with some interesting answers on the role of the judiciary in fighting doping, the lack of a unified direction in the sport, the need for independent doping sanctions and other areas of the sport.

Racing Through The Dark review

Judging a book on the cover used to be a feature of Simon Mayo’s BBC Radio 5 live book reviews. David Millar’s Racing Through The Dark is clearly a book about the dark and the light of one man. It’s a stark portrait, cast in a harsh critical light, an interrogation of his worth and meaning.

The willingness to examine his own weaknesses and failings as a human being that make Racing Through The Dark a much better read than other cycling autobiographies. The human narrative of the relationships in Millar’s life lift the book some way above “how I won” banality. Millar’s view of his young self is “you were a bit of a wanker” and sets about unpicking how that led to his own downfall.

But it is also a posed portrait – selective and studied – which avoids a simple chronological retelling of his career in favour of following the story of his own fall and redemption as both a professional cyclist and as an individual.

The book initially traces Millar’s rise to the top of the sport. It follows his own arrested development, the search for his own sense of self through sport and ultimately the death of his own idealism as adult professionalism curtails childish amateurism.

The route into professional cycling is a well-worn narrative path: discovery of aptitude, initial successes and failures, the all-consuming desire “to turn pro” setting in motion an amateur career, ending with the signing of the first professional contract. Millar feigns resistance, citing the possibilities of art college, but with every page it’s an increasingly clear portrait of someone with a fierce determination to define himself by succeeding in the sport.

While physically Millar is a perfect fit, emotionally, socially and culturally he struggles to find himself in French cycling. This is the most fascinating aspect of the first act of the book as he details painful, monastic loneliness; crippling fear of failure; and his own zealotry in search of his goal.

Christophe Bassons talks of the “something missing” which pushes people towards success and which is a component of taking the “professional” decision to cheat. There’s a wistful envy in his description of his Cofidis teammate David Mouncoutié, whose own ambition is tempered by the knowledge that after cycling he has somewhere to go in the form of the family-run post office. Mouncoutié never succumbed to doping and it is implied that his moral compass never wavered because he knew that something else lay beyond the cloistered world of professional sport.

Millar, in contrast, turns pro not knowing what else he would have been and remains unaware of how his own human failings – a desire for approval, his projection onto the team of paternal authority – as they suck him closer to the drain of doping. That same lack of other options later becomes a grace as he tries to rebuild himself following his ban.

His rootless childhood fuels his desire to escape to the continent and re-make himself there. His experience as an ex-pat in Hong Kong and Englishman compliment each other and explain how he survived exile on the continent where others fail. Like many a joiner of the Foreign Legion, he seems to cut himself off from his friends and family as a means to surviving the initial shock while taking the opportunity to redefine himself in their absence and far from their influence.

The second act covers his professional career with Cofidis and how he came to dope. Millars enters the sport at a unique junction, post-Festina affair, when the sport was given a moment to re-invent itself and move away from the stigma of doping. The most damning aspect of Millar’s story is how indifference and venality from all parties squandered the opportunity.

Perhaps most alarming is the speed with which doping returned to the peloton and became endemic after Festina. It’s precisely as if nothing had changed. Indeed it hadn’t. In that context Millar’s moral collapse comes as no surprise, but the ease with which he crosses the line and the banality of it still strike me as an awkward truth.

The permissive attitude of teams like Cofidis is pitched as a contributing factor but equally clear is that Millar’s desire to succeed is to blame. The identity that he has lovingly built for himself – dandy, playboy, star – and which nobody seems to have challenged proves his undoing as he struggles to match the expectations of both himself and his team.

The final act is his redemption, the goal the book works towards from the first page. For me this proved far more interesting than the previous sections as we find out how his redemption has been less clear cut than some imagine. His return seemed to have been been more troubled than I had previously imagined with numerous obstacles along the way before his deliverance in the form of Team Slipstream, an unlikely band looking to escape their collective past.

But first he has much further to fall as the arrogance of a sporting star meets the French judicial system, both for his doping and his tax affairs.  While the judge makes use of the opportunity to get some training advice, the taxman simply wants what is owed forcing Millar into effective bankruptcy that cast a shadow over him until recently.

The book is at its most interesting when the subject is Millar is forced to cope with the world outside the bubble of adoration and stardom. It is a strength of the book that it engages as a human story as much, if not more than as a sporting one.

His relationships with key figures are well written and nuanced. It is this aspect which really gives the book a depth that pushes it beyond a niche cycling book and should engage the casual audience who have only ever heard of one race.

L’Equipier (not named for literary and personal reason rather than legal it seems – if you want to know, google it, it’s a matter of record) is as easy to understand as his sister Fran who is his supporter in the broadest sense, both cheering and chiding him in equal measure.

Perhaps most surprising is how close he is to Dave Brailsford, the Team GB mastermind, and how much Brailsford is willing to risk to support his friend at his lowest point. It says much about both men that Millar’s betrayal didn’t destroy their friendship and working relationship.

There are also some well drawn vignettes of some of the sport’s biggest characters, in particular the curious fish that is Lance Armstrong. Millar proves that he is no lapdog in one incident and his appraisal of Armstrong’s forceful character is well-judged enough to survive the lawyers’ wrath.

Elsewhere his appreciation of the likes of the Taylors (long-serving supporters of British cyclesport) and his ability to pick out the most interesting aspects of those around him help to move the story along without drawing too much away from his central narrative.

As a book tracing the problems and contradictions facing professional cycling in the seemingly endless procession of scandal it bridges an important period, the details of which we are only just starting to fully appreciate. There is another book to be written on the moral failure within the sport, but this serves as a bridgehead to exploring the more complex issues behind his experience.

Racing Through the Dark deserves to be recognised as one of the best books of recent times to explore the human cost of professional sport, something which autobiographies so often ignore in favour of the glory.

Racing Through The Dark is published on 16 June 2011 by Orion Books. My thanks to Angela at Orion for arranging the interview and to David Millar for his time.

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