Friday, 26 August 2011

I’m tense and nervous, can’t relax: the David Millar mantra

Being involved in cycling is like being in an 80s nightclub: even if you’re not on drugs yourself, there’s the foreboding feeling that a lot of the people are. The place is awash with bad mullet haircuts and gold chain accessories. There is an abundance of waggling and pumping limbs sheathed in luminous lycra, altogether giving the impression of some enormous spandex-clad millipede. The same light-headed clamminess experienced after dismounting from an unexpectedly gruelling bike ride to the shops and back can be felt in the otherworldly, weary walk home after an all-night disco, accompanied with rasping throat and an unnerving spate of heart palpitations.

Into this context steps David Millar with his retro, buttoned-up shirt and lapelled jacket; there being no better spokesperson for a sport accepted for all its highs, lows, dangers and joys. William Fotheringham labelled Millar’s appearance as ‘artistic grunge-chic’, author Freya North saw him more as a member of a student indie rock group. With his intense, dark eyes and fringe flopping onto a sweaty forehead, he resembles more a Talking Heads-era David Byrne. Each man is indefatigable, able to endlessly run on the spot and perform the flailing mime of a drunken cross-country skier. Both are also strangely angular and stiff with awkward upright postures, as if straight-jacketed or wearing drastically ill-fitting clothes.

When Millar talks about his past, it conjures a slightly seedy image of over-populated hotel rooms with curtains drawn, ice buckets everywhere and used syringes tossed carelessly under the chaise-longues. The motto on everyone’s lips is: ‘whatever goes on tour stays on tour’. For cycling used to be, like rock n’ roll, where drug-taking was as commonplace as having a cup of tea. So much so that this is now considered hopelessly unfashionable, and new, more dangerous methods of getting high are in vogue, evoking the same nightmarish scene, but this time someone's blood is hanging in translucent bags at the back of the cupboard.

Millar talks of a sport full of bad influences; from conspiratorial entourages to mysterious therapists and team managers acting like desperate, publicity-crazed Malcolm McLarens. A world of young and impressionable cyclists being encouraged to push the limits and act as self-destructively as possible, where instructions to ‘go and prepare correctly in Italy’ is a euphemism for having a black market, white-coated chemist syringe hormones into your body.

But Millar is testament to a shift; a change; a redemption. Like David Byrne, he is now someone who is palatable, mature, and clean-living; someone who might wear the spectacle/cardigan combination of a familiar uncle; someone you would trust to look after your kids. You can now have a relaxed café conversation with both men, but don’t dare let them order too many double espressos, as their black pupils will dilate.

There is the sense that Millar, in his cycling dotage, is still subjecting himself to peloton punishment just so that the sport he loves can live on. The more he suffers and self-flagellates for his sins, the more we can accept that some demon is being been exorcised, forgive and respect him once again. We can feel pride when David Harmon continually refers to him as ‘Britain’s David Millar’. Scotland can entertain mentioning him in the same breath as his namesake, legend Robert Millar. For cycling has been resurrected. On the other hand, for cynics and critics of the sport, there is still the amphetamine-jittery Talking Heads refrain: ‘Same as it ever was, same as it ever was…’

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