He’s the anti-hero and we all love him, because we as a collective audience seem to admire a bad-boy hero. It’s a story and one that works almost every time on TV shows, in books and in movies. But, it is only a story. In reality it is much more likely that blindly sticking to old methods in anything will do little more than stifle progress.
Professional cycling is one such sport that has long since been full of self-appointed anti-heroes, breaking rules to get things done by the only way they know how. But, in light of an exhaustive list of doping revelations, the sport is starting to recognise finally that it has to make progress in the right ways.
Despite occasional disapproval from cycling’s ‘purist’ audience (that includes many of the people in charge of the sport) who believe that cycling should be a purely human and not technological battle, a new generation of riders and teams are getting the job done and finding the advantages they need, not through doping but through scientific and technological advances in every aspect of the sport.
One such rider who has become a strong exponent for anti-doping and of the development of the technological side of the sport is David Millar.
Cycling is a bonkers sport, it got a bit too mad the last twenty years, but we’re back to it being the right sort of mad
Millar has seen cycling come almost full circle, from the willful ignorance of the final ‘Pre-Festina’ season of 1997 (Millar’s first), when the scale of the doping problem was yet unknown, to the slightly surreal conclusion to the era that was Lance Armstrong’s confession on Oprah Winfrey.
In that time cycling played a game of hide and seek with the realities and responsibilities of becoming a major global sport. Despite the fact the world was changing cycling stubbornly refused to.
As part of a generation that at the time couldn’t have believed that things would ever change, Millar himself was involved in his own scandal. In 2007 having served a two-year suspension, he came back with a new mission: to put himself and the sport back together again. The big question then was; how were the riders involved going to find a new way forward and adapt, without themselves going backward and without alienating its audience.
I spoke to Millar about the changes that are occurring in the sport and how cycling is evolving through them, as well as why technology has not only just become the key to success, but has, in fact, always been the key to success.
Do you think that the influx of technology and innovation in the sport, that we’ve seen over the past four or five years, marks a different attitude towards performance; that doping is no longer the answer and there are other (legal) ways to gain an advantage?
It’s all unified. The Anglos have brought in the biggest leap forward, we have a different culture when it comes to cycling, we see it as a technological sport; Europeans have seen it as a purely physical sport. Where there are machines, and bicycles are machines, there are opportunities to increase performance through research and development. The sport as whole has realised this now, what was just an Anglo attitude has become a necessary attitude for everybody if they want to stand a chance of winning.
Do you feel that cycling neglected, or at least put the importance of technology and innovation, on the back shelf over the past twenty years because the sport had become so focused on doping, that all training and improvements were related to those practices?
Cycling is an old technological sport: unfortunately doping became the technology for a while there. I’ve had lunches with André Darrigade when I lived in Biarritz and he’d tell me about things they were doing with their bikes and tyres in the 50s that blew us out the water in the 90s.
The sport just lost its way, it was cutting edge back in the day, it became complacent and confused, now once again it’s becoming cutting edge (the right cutting edge!), although anyone would think the UCI is totally against this considering the many ridiculous limitations they put on manufacturers and riders.
From your point of view how has the importance and influence of technology in racing and training changed throughout your career?
The importance has always been the same for me (personally). It was having this view that helped me gain so many early successes in time trials against guys who had the physical advantage from doping. The majority of other pros (and even my team management) didn’t care about their position/wheels/gearing/skinsuits/helmets/shoe-covers: I did. At times I would buy my own equipment and risk the wrath of the team management and sponsors.
A lot of fans of the sport, and even the governing body can seem to be anti-technology, because the human aspect is what makes the sport interesting.
You are a rider who seems to have managed both very well. When you race do you still feel that the influence of technology ends somewhere and instinct takes over?
I’m a racer, always have been and always will be. I don’t have a very good, to use the Steve Peters ergo Sky terminology, ‘Chimp Management System’. This means that most of the things I do in a race are instinctive, very little is planned… I’ll be first to admit this isn’t ideal, and there’s a part of me that is quite happy not changing it. I’m the same I was when I first raced as a teenager…only a little more windswept and interesting.
Doping vs. Technology: How do you compete?
When team Garmin Sharp first entered cycling with the clear mission of being a clean team, they knew they couldn’t compete with anyone doping either on General Classification or in stages with significant climbing, as EPO gives up to a 20% advantage on mountain stages.
Instead, they they targeted Time Trials, and specifically Team Time Trials, where the benefits of doping were best combatted, and the benefits of technology, aerodynamics, team coordination and careful planning were greatest.
Jonathan Vaughters, Manager of team Garmin Sharp says, “Any high speed event allows aerodynamics to benefit the rider more than doping. In low speed disciplines, like climbing, that’s more difficult. But in the team time trial, overcoming doping, by use of faster materials and better positioning, is possible. You just have to put in the time in the wind tunnel.”
Significantly, the team’s first major victory came in the Team Time Trial at the 2008 Giro d’Italia.
Do you think that cycling will always retain its essence no matter the technology that is introduced, or do you think that it could be significantly changed over the next generation of innovations?
If we have twenty Team Sky’s then yes, it will have lost its essence. But there is only one Team Sky and we need them in the sport to push everybody forward. Similarly there is only one Team Garmin-Sharp, and if there were twenty of us then the peloton would be trying to find a way to race on the moon, just for a bit of fun. Cycling is a bonkers sport, it got a bit too mad the last twenty years, but we’re back to it being the right sort of mad.
Team Garmin Sharp are widely viewed as innovators, bringing new technologies and ideas in to the sport. How hard has it been to make progress happen in a very traditional world?
It’s not been easy that’s for sure! We were renegades when we arrived in 2008, we also didn’t mind being different and being laughed at. We said we were going to be 100% clean, we were vocal against doping; no team had ever done this. It was our mission statement to change cycling and give people hope again. We knew other riders were still doping, and we knew if we wanted to beat them we couldn’t rely on our bodies alone. We experimented with training and equipment and pre and post-race protocols.
We wore ice-vests before the Giro d’Italia TTT that we won (in 2008). We may have been laughed at when we rolled up to the start line in our vests, but nobody laughed when we won. We earned respect, and we have led the way, to this day we have no fear to try new things, it’s part of the culture of our team. We are respected for it now, and more importantly, we’re copied.
It seemed to me that a lot of the doping culture was based on generations of cyclists blindly following what others were doing without questioning the road the sport was going down, because the reality was everyone was just desperately trying to keep up with the next man.
With teams like Garmin Sharp, and Team Sky proving that by actually taking your head out of the sand and trying something else you can make a difference, do you think that the attitude will change and all teams will start looking to innovate, or do you think that it will be a case of a small number of teams innovating and others following?
A small number of teams are innovating, many are following, and a few are unchanging. The bottom line is that if you don’t have the right people and sponsors onboard then your development is limited. We’ve always been very careful to have sponsors who understand our philosophy, it doesn’t matter how much will there is, if the sponsor does not help in finding the way then nothing happens.
We’re very lucky with Garmin, Sharp, Castelli and Cervelo; they’re all sponsors who give us the will and the way to move forward. This isn’t by chance either; Jonathan Vaughters has never deviated from his original vision. And we have probably the smartest guy in cycling in charge of our science, Robby Ketchell. It’s a bit of dream team when it comes to pushing the envelope.
What do you think about the direction the sport is going in now, compared to say ten years ago?
I think it’s fucking awesome.
Clearly Millar is relieved that a change has come, and is excited for the future of the sport. It is exactly this kind of change in attitude amongst riders, sponsors, and fans alike, that suggests the sport is finally ready to accept that it is time to change its ways and, more importantly perhaps, that the methods required to do so are already here.