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An interview with David Millar, December 5, 2003
With a world championship and a Tour de France stage win, 2003 was the year David Millar turned potential into unarguable reality. He's spending the off-season making plans for 2004, knocking off the occasional track race, and getting himself picked for the British Olympic team for Athens. Darren Tulett caught up with the straight-talking Scottish time trial specialist at the British Olympic Association's announcement of his selection to the 2004 team.
Not a bad 2003. Stage 19 of the Tour de France. The world time trial championship. Add this year's achievements to his 2000 Tour prologue win and stage wins in the 2001 Vuelta, and 26-year-old David Millar is beginning to look like one of the best British riders ever.
The British Olympic selectors certainly think so, recently naming Millar and Welsh phenomenon Nicole Cooke as the backbone of Britain's cycling team for the 2004 Olympic games in Athens, Greece. Given the huge profile of the Olympics beyond cycling, it's not surprising that Millar has his sights on just one thing in 2004: Olympic gold.
"The Olympics are the top priority for me, particularly a gold medal in the time trial," he says. "That comes above everything else. I know I can do it; I've got the experience of setting goals and achieving my aims. My team, Cofidis, is 100 percent behind me. The boss wants me to win the Tour de France prologue and take the yellow jersey to Wasquehal [northern French town where the third stage finishes], where the company has its head office. If I do that, the world is my oyster basically. There was no conflict over that. They know it means a lot to me as an athlete."
That unity over goals sounds like a very different Cofidis from the one you have publicly argued with.
"One of the reasons I did that is I love the team so much and have such great respect for the sponsor. It just wasn't working properly and the only way of kicking it into gear was to publicly spit the dummy, show how important it was and try to bring it out into the open. And it's worked. Last week I was sitting down speaking with the boss of the team and he thanked me for doing it.
"It's a completely different team now. It's incredible. It did us a world of good. We're going to be one of the best teams in the world over the next two years. We signed world champion Igor Astarloa, Stuart O'Grady, Matt White. Great riders, great guys. It's going to be fun riding with these guys."
So beyond the prologue, the Tour de France isn't a goal in 2004?
"I know I can't win the Tour next year and finishing second, third or fourth isn't going to do me any good. Professionally, I've got nothing to gain from thinking about the overall standings in the big tours right now. I'd rather spread myself across the season and get some wins than spend my whole season preparing for the Tour, which is what I'd have to do. And for what? Seventh place? Fourth, even third? I'd rather win a couple of stages, honestly. Then go to the Tour of Spain, win some stages there. The world championships, the Olympics. Win Paris-Nice. I derive much more pleasure from racing like that. Winning is what it's all about, after everything."
Will that change. Can you win the Tour one day?
"After next year, from 2005 onwards, I'll be going for the Tour. I'll base my whole season around the Tour, but not until then. It's all in the career plan. Has been since I was about 19. It's always been programmed. Do I think I've got it in me? Yeah, I will do. I'll be all right. It should go all right. I'm fairly sure. One day, one year."
Can Lance Armstrong win the Tour de France for a sixth time next year?
"It's going to be hard for him. It was hard for him this year. He's never worked so hard. He looked almost sick at the start some days. It must have taken years off his life."
Would Armstrong would be among your Olympic rivals?
"I honestly don't think Lance will be there. Especially after what I did at the world's this year. He knows I'm going to want to do the work. He knows. It's between me and [Jan] Ullrich. Maybe another couple of guys.
"If Lance doesn't win the Tour de France I don't think he'll go to Athens anyway. If he does win the Tour, he can only lose by going to the Olympics. For the American public, if he gets a silver or a bronze medal it just undermines his Tour win. He's a smart man and he wouldn't want to run the risk. He knows what he has to do. If he wins a sixth Tour, there's no way he's going to the Olympics. Not a hope in hell. If he doesn't win the Tour, he'll probably quit cycling."
You were linked with US Postal a few years ago. Could you have joined Postal? Should you have?
"We spoke a bit but never took it beyond that level because I wouldn't have enjoyed it, basing my whole year around the Tour and working for Lance. And the set-up there is very cold now. Very professional. Not very.. (laughs). Fuck that! Three years ago, I thought maybe that was the way to go but it wouldn't have been good for me. I think Lance agreed. He said to me 'you're better doing it your way'. I think he prefers racing against me than having me racing for him. It gives him more pleasure as well. We get on very well. I've the greatest respect for him and all he's done."
What do you say about your image as a 'gifted but lazy' rider?
"There's no such thing as bad publicity. It's never bothered me. Maybe when I was younger, a bit. But now I'm one of the most successful guys in cycling. I'm confident in what I'm doing, my role in the team. I'm the undisputed leader now in the number one French team. So they can say what they want. I'm doing a lot better than them. (Laughs).
On his previous Olympic experience and hopes for this time around:
"Olympic gold comes above everything else next year. In a way I'll be using the Tour as preparation for the Games in the same way the Tour of Spain gets me ready for the world's. At Sydney I learnt what not to do. I was so tired, it was the end of the season. I had a good time, though, and got a bit of the Olympic experience. I knew even then I'd be doing it differently next time. I knew I'd be flying in, racing, getting out. I won't stay in the village.
"The time trial is the top target. The road race is a lottery, but who knows? Everyone is saying it's going to be a sprint, but if I can be up there, I wouldn't spit on the chance. As for the track, it all depends on many things. But I really enjoyed working with people like Simon Jones and Peter Keen and it would be great to give it a shot. I'll decide after the time trial what I'll do."
Will you go to the world's if you win a gold medal in Athens?
"For sure. I know I can do the Olympics, then turn up at the Vuelta, suffer like a bastard for two weeks and come out flying. It just involves some serious suffering for a couple of weeks. (laughs)
"I did a dry run at the Tour of Spain this year. Turned up like a bag of shit and just rode through. I'll do the same thing. I've done it throughout my career: picking out objectives, targeting certain races. And I know I can do it. I have the experience to do it, and the right team around me.
"Basically I've got the same program as always. Paris-Nice is my first objective. I think I can win it. It would be a good way to kick off the year."
And with that, Mr. Millar and sister Frances, who takes care of some of the business side of his career, duly depart. First, of course, he gets rid of the British Olympics tee-shirt for something a bit cooler, then it's off into Soho Square as dusk descends on old London town.
Darren Tulett covers sports including cycling for the Paris office of Bloomberg News.