Time flies. It is all of seventeen years since I went for a memorable mountain bike ride in a wild, chilly wood in easternFrance. My guide was Robert Millar, who had promised to take me to a few muddy places, get me covered in mud and, he was clearly hoping to watch me fall off, all in the interest of a good story. It was in the hoary old days when mountain biking was something new, and a road racing star who rode a mountain bike was a radical.
It was a memorable day, one for a sports journalist to look back on with a little warm glow. Millar never stopped talking, the bike ride was pleasant, the pain not unbearable on the long drags through the forest. There were only one or two tumbles, and the Frenchmen out killing furry things didn’t put a bullet in either of us.
The greatest joy for any sports journalist is brought by the few top players who take you right inside their world. Their knowledge is the greatest reward in this job; the reason we put up with small pay and long hours. Millar, with his cynical humour and downbeat enthusiasm, was to be my best guide. The working relationship began that day would remain good and would last 10 years.
There is a small circle of Millar’s old acquaintances in the cycling world who have this in common: we all liked him, found him good to hang around with, and none of us know where he is. Whenever any of us meet the second question is whether there is any news of Robert. Sometimes there is an email, usually not, and on gold dust occasions he has made telephone contact. He is never seen in person, and no one knows where he is although Heaven knows we speculate. He is Shergar wrapped up in Lord Lucan on two wheels.
Millar, presumably, won’t be there when the British Tour de France stars go on parade this July when the great race starts inLondon, police drug busts permitting. His achievements will probably be mentioned in passing, but the man himself will be invisible. He may like it that way, enjoying retirement without hassle, but it is a shame in another sense.
The Scot is the best British stage racer there has ever been but who among the wider British sporting public is aware of that now? Ironically, given the Tour’s profile, the hype now if a Briton were to contest the Giro or Vuelta, and win one of the biggest awards at the Tour, is hard to contemplate. But Millar did all that and more, competing all season from Paris-Nice to the Tour of Lombardy, every year from 1983 to 1991, when his star began to fade.
If any tale in British cycling is worth the telling, it is Millar’s: a Glasgowboy becomes King of the Mountains. Fortunately it is being told. The Scottish sports journalist Richard Moore’s biography of the Eagle of the Gorbals is to go on sale in June and will examine Millar’s career in the detail it merits. Millar never sought the limelight, and he positively shuns it now but his achievements should, finally, be recognised.
This column was written in February 2007, I think for Rouleur magazine. Richard Moore’s In Search of Robert Millar appeared in June that year, was awarded Sports Biography of the Year and remains in print to this day.