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David Millar's fall from grace

David Millar in 2000

© Empics

It seems incredible to be looking at the career of a fit 28-year-old cyclist and wondering what might have been. But it seems it has been only realised in retrospect that David Millar could have been this country's greatest road cyclist.

Even if Millar's current ban for taking the illegal blood doping product EPO is reduced to one year, it is difficult to see how he can return to the level of World Champion again, never mind become a Tour de France winner, which commentators predicted for him at the start of his career.

When he broke through in the millennium Tour de France, winning the prologue and then retaining the yellow jersey at the age of 23, many thought the tall Scot had a long future challenging for his sport's greatest honours. Good placings in the Vuelta de Espana and the Dauphine Libre showed he could also perform away from the tour. Back in 2001, he was ranked the 16th best cyclist in the world.

Now, if Millar wants a reminder of where he could be in the sport, he only needs to look at the career of the Italian rider Ivan Basso. Both 28, Millar and Basso have been strong contenders for the white jersey of best young rider in the Tour de France, with Basso winning the jersey in 2002.

Last year the CSC rider finished third in the Tour and for long periods was considered the only credible challenger to Lance Armstrong's dominance.

Unlike his namesake Robert, David Millar was more of an all-round cyclist in the Armstrong mould. He could climb, time trial and has the stamina for the longer tours. If there was a weakness in Millar's armoury, it was his mental strength. It was wondered if his easy-going nature meant he lacked the will to win.

But Millar's independent spirit caused many to wonder if he had the siege mentality to be a true champion. After crashing twice in one mountain stage of the Vuelta de Espana, one fall being caused by the team car of another rider, he climbed the final mountain of the stage and then stepped off his bike without crossing the line, in protest at the lack of protection the riders were receiving from the organisers.

David Millar

© Empics

And when he didn't win his speciality, the prologue in the centenary tour, he blamed his team manager Alain Bondue for his faulty chain ring which sabotaged his chances of wearing yellow.

"He's the one who manages the contracts and the choice of equipment," Millar explained at the time. "To me it's clear, the equipment does not perform well enough."

Ironically, by taking the highly dangerous blood booster EPO, which has been linked indirectly to the deaths of many cyclists, Millar finally proved he had a winner's mentality.

Millar was first implicated in illegal drug taking at the beginning of 2004, when the Cofidis scandal broke.

In June, French police brought Millar in for questioning. His apartment in Biarritz was searched and two used syringes of EPO were discovered, which Millar claimed he kept as a reminder of what he had done to win the World Championships.

David Millar in the Tour of Spain

Photo courtesy of John Cairns

The most unusual thing about Millar's drug taking was that he confessed. The code of cyclists and in fact sportsmen in general is to take the defence of the naughty schoolboy and deny everything.

Even Raimondas Rumsas, whose wife was arrested leaving France in 2002 with a temperature controlled suitcase full of banned substances after Rumsas came from nowhere to finish third in the tour, claimed the drugs weren't for him but his ailing mother in law.

Richard Virenque who was banned after the Festina affair in 1998, also denied any wrong-doing, later claiming that as everyone else was cheating, why should he admit it? Of recent riders, only Jan Ullrich held his hands up and admitted taking some pills in an east German disco when he was out injured.

Millar's confession gave a fascinating insight into the insecurities and guilt, which plagued this outwardly confident young cyclist.

In the confession he said: "I had dreamed of becoming world champion. I did it, but I cheated. You dope because you become a prisoner of yourself, of the glory and the money. I'm not proud that I doped myself. I wasn't happy. I was a prisoner of the person I had become."

He went on to describe the chain of events, which culminated in his being stripped of the rainbow jersey of world champion that began rather innocuously with the rider falling down stairs at a party in 1999, breaking his heel. He stopped training for four months, adding: "I had real difficulty starting to train again, and I wasn't very happy with my professional life."

"Despite that, I went to the Tour, where everyone expected me to do well in the prologue, having won it the previous year. My parents were there, my friends, my fiancée – I gave it everything. I ended up crashing, injuring myself badly. I suffered for 10 days physically, and especially psychologically. I finally quit after 10 days.

Millar prepares to ride the Tour of Spain

Photo courtesy of John Cairns

"It was during the 2001 Tour de France, when I was feeling bad, that I found myself sharing a room one evening with a team-mate. He told me that we would prepare ourselves well for the Tour of Spain," Millar recalled.

"He told me we could take a trip to Italy, and I understood what he meant. I stayed with him for two weeks in August 2001, and we went and bought EPO from a number of different suppliers. I would stay in the car and give him around €400 for a syringe of EPO. He bought it, and he showed me how to inject it.

"I was a cheat. I'd crossed the line, and I didn't feel good about it," he said. "I'd doped myself because my job was to finish high up on the classification."

Did Millar intend to be caught? Why else keep incriminating evidence when he knew he was likely to be under-investigation? If that was the case his desire to return to cycling could be seen as an attempt to start again, clean. But as the sport, which has become synonymous with drug taking tries to clean up its act, it is difficult to see who would employ him.

Written by: Gordon Cairns

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