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Robert Millar: Reclusive Star

Robert Millar displays his King of the Mountains jersey

© BBC

For many, Scottish cyclist Robert Millar is this country's greatest road cyclist ever. His fourth place in the Tour de France of 1984 is the highest finish by a British cyclist and the King of the Mountains' polka-dot jersey he won in the same event is the only jersey won by a cyclist from this country in the hundred-year history of cycling's premier event.

And with David Millar's current difficulties, it is unlikely Millar's achievements will be matched in the foreseeable future.

Yet if it had not been for a series of unfortunate events at the Vuelta de Espana in 1985, the diminutive Scot's achievements could have been even greater, as the first Britain to win one of the sport's three major tours.

Yet Millar could probably walk down any major street in Scotland without being recognised. In today's world of television channels devoted to sport, Millar's greatest success of only 20 years ago could have came from another era, as it was not broadcast here on any television channel.

Millar's first trainer Billy Bilsland is unequivocal when he assesses his place in the pantheon of Scotland's sporting stars. He says: "Robert Millar is the most successful Scottish athlete ever. No Scottish athlete has achieved what he has done on the European Continent."

Millar was part of the first wave of English-speaking cyclists which took the European world of cycling by storm in the 1980s. That group included American Greg Lemond, Irishmen Stephen Roche and Sean Kelly and Australia's Phil Anderson.

However, the success of the "English" caused a lot of resentment not only amongst the fans and the continental peloton, but also amongst their own teammates, which makes Millar's achievements even more remarkable.

Robert Millar takes a left-hand bend

© SCRAN

Bilsland, like Millar, rode for the French Peugeot team for six years and understands well the pressures of riding on the Continent. He said: "When you arrive on the Continent you are alone. First of all you have got to learn to speak French and even then you are still seen as the outsider.

"A lot of great British cyclists couldn't stand being alone on the Continent, staring at the wallpaper every night after training. But Robert was single-minded and could hack the loneliness."

Millar, born in 1958 and brought up in Shawlands in Glasgow's south side, moved to Paris in 1979 after being offered a place on the top French amateur team ACBB.

Almost immediately he became a success, winning the Merlin Plage, a trophy for best amateur of the season in 1979. He soon won a place with the French professional Peugeot team and he immediately gave notice of his ability in 1983 by winning the Pyrenean mountain stage to Pau of the Tour de France at only 23.

That night, Millar described his first ever-professional victory to an English journalist with his customary coolness: "I looked round at three kilometres to go, and I could see the guy [Delgado] coming. So I put myself on the rivet again. And then at 500 metres, I took the hat out for publicity, put the hat on-nice. And put the arms up. Always have to remember that."

Robert Millar relaxes

© SCRAN

By winning a mountain stage at an age when most riders are considered not strong enough even to compete in the world's most gruelling sporting event, the shy young Scot had issued a statement of intent, and was considered by many to be a possible future winner of the tour.

This expectation lived with him until the end of the '80s when it was realised that he was not team leader material, and therefore could only focus on winning stages and shorter tours.

The following year, he fulfilled his potential and achieved his greatest success, King of the Mountains and fourth overall in the tour, winning another mountain stage.

Yet only one year later Millar's great promise as a cycling champion seemed to evaporate. On paper, finishing second in the Vuelta de Espana shows another step closer to becoming a great champion, but the manner of Millar's defeat leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

Millar was wearing the race leader's yellow jersey on the second last day of the tour with a seemingly unassailable lead of more than six minutes, when he punctured. Two Spanish riders Pedro Delgado and Jose Recio chose this moment to attack and built up a seven-minute lead, making Delgado race leader on the road, while Millar was shaking the hands of his closest rivals believing he had won his first major tour.

Millar's French manager should have kept him up-to-date on what was happening to him and also paying other cyclists to work to get Millar back into first place but he didn't do anything until it was too late. None of the riders in the predominantly Spanish field had much desire to help the quiet young foreigner who wore an earring against the Spaniard Delgado. And so Millar "lost" his first tour.

Robert Millar in Peugeot colours

© SCRAN

A touch of conspiracy was also involved. Apparently Millar's Peugeot team were unable to help him at the front of the bunch as they were delayed at a level crossing for a train that never came.

That same year, Millar finished 11th in the Tour de France, a highly respectable place for a 25-year-old, but for Millar, who was having more problems with his French team, nothing compared to his exploits of the previous year. Millar's French team-mates had no desire to work for the out-of-form foreigner, leaving it up to Australian Alan Peiper and Englishman Sean Yates to act as domestiques for the Scot.

Millar moved the following year to the Dutch Panasonic team and then to Fagor in 1988 where he was to ride for Tour winner Stephen Roche. However, this season also ended unhappily as Roche spent the season out injured and Millar took on team leader's duties that he was uncomfortable with.

His career ended rather ignominiously when the team he was riding for, Le Groupement, collapsed mid-season, denying the veteran one last season in the sun.

At present, Millar's whereabouts are unknown. Bilsland describes him as leading a reclusive lifestyle far from the world of cycling and admits he is not even sure what country he now lives in. In 2003, he was awarded with one of only 14 places on the Scottish Sports Hall of Fame but was nowhere to be seen at the awards ceremony.

Written by: Gordon Cairns



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