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Saturday, June 22, 2013

Racing Through the Dark: Book Review


Racing Through the Dark David Millar Touchstone Books 2012

It is immensely refreshing to read an anti-doping tome that is not all about the Lance.  It is also nice to see that the Millar family does not possess an inherited trait of honesty.  No.  David Millar's father was a Royal Air Force wing commander, his mother was a common housewife. David Millar was a military brat, rootless.  David Millar's parents were divorced, David went to Hong Kong to live with his father, his sister Fran lived with her mother in the United Kingdom.

David Millar was an amateur sensation, who's greatest skill was time trials.  He signed a professional multi-year contract with Cofidis in 1997.  The first thing as a neophyte pro that he experienced when leading out a training ride was the increased level of performance of the riders.  When Millar rode at front at a pace that would have totally destroyed an amateur race, he noticed that his teammates were barely winded.  Welcome to the professional ranks!

It didn't take long for David Millar to become acquainted with the doping culture in professional cycling.  After the training ride Millar's Cofidis teammate Frankie Andreu was breaking ampules of assorted "legal" recovery products and syringes; "d prefolic, epargriseovit, and ferlixit could boost your blood values one point, completely naturally."  But don't tell Betsy!

That would have been all well and good, after all what harm could an injection of iron in the rump do?  But Cofidis had a different philosophy, a concept called being prepared.  A preparation might include increasing hematocrit values as close to the UCI prohibited fifty percent value as possible.  Of course, this necessitated the use of prohibited performance enhancing drugs, like EPO.  There were other common performance enhancing products available; cortisone, testosterone, and "Italian recovery products."  Cofidis was a results driven team and they paid bonuses to riders based on UCI racing points accumulated during the year; but since Cofidis and other professional cycling teams has no culpability when a rider tests positive for a performance enhancing drugs, how these points were accumulated had no interest to Cofidis.

Millar Time.  2000 Tour de France.  Futuroscope Time Trial.  David Millar smoked Lance Armstrong in the Futuroscope Time Trial and became an instant sensation as maillot jaune; and he did it riding clean!  There were endless discussions of David Millar, he was so young, he had ample time to win a future Tour de France.  He gave interviews in fluent French, his mother complained that the odds of him winning the 2000 Tour de France at fifty to one odds was an outrage.  Millar was a remarkably chrismatic character who became immediately loved by the cycling community as the greatest time trialist on earth.

The Fall of Dunkirk. 2001 Tour de France.  David Millar suffered from several crashes during the race and abandoned; but he was still riding clean at this point. But this would soon change; after abandoning the Tour de France; Cofidis suggested that Millar go home, rest and prepare for the Veulta d' Espana (Tour of Spain).

David Millar was introduced to EPO by a teammate known as L'Equipier, who had possessed disposable syringes of EPO which he had purchased through black market contacts stored in a faux soda can with a cap that screwed on.  The best part of this recollection is where David Millar and L'Equipier were searching through the seedy ghetto area of town looking for drug contacts and how this whole episode disgusted David Millar.  This contact with L'Equipier would later provide the French police with information that David Millar was using performance enhancing drugs and lead to raid on his personal home that would lead to his arrest and eventual two year suspension from cycling.

My Personal Jesus. 2002 Vuelta d' Espana.  Jesus Losa was a sports doctor who specialized in doping and who David Millar worked with to prepare.  They were using EPO, cortisone, testosterone, and Italian recovery products. Millar and Losa also used high altitude training to increase endurance on the cols.  But there were pitfalls, Millar says he became so incensed on losing weight to increase power that he became obsessed, losing too much weight, which decreased his power.  Then, of course, karma intervened on the Angliru climb; a vicious col with leg breaking grades up to twenty five percent.  Worse, it rained, the surface of the road was covered with coal dust from the local mines creating dangerous racing conditions and multiple road crashes during the stage.  David Millar crashed three times during the stage, the third time his bicycle was run over by team car while his feet were still clipped into the pedals.  At the summit a concerned fan attempted to cross the barriers and assist a battered and bloodied David Millar; but the heroic fan was tackled by a police officer and thrown to the ground.  David Millar protested the unsafe conditions of the stage by ripping off his race number, by abandoning his bicycle, and by quitting the race.  All of his preparation was a pointless waste of time and effort, circumvented by karma. Bummer.

This wouldn't be the last time that karma would intervene to foil David Millar.  2003 Tour de France prologue and the famous dropped chain. David Millar says Alain Bondue modified the time trial bikes by removing the small chain wheel, the front derailleur, and the front derailleur shift lever.  To make things worse, Bondue decided to change the large chain wheel to a chain wheel manufactured by a sponsor at the last moment.  The problem was that the chain wheel and the chain were incompatible. Millar says he watched in horror while his teammates lost their chains through the various cobblestone sections along the course.  In the final corner Millar dropped his chain and went from first through the time checks to 110th overall for the stage.  Alain Bondue and Cofidis originated one of the strangest time trial bike modifications in history, a modification that will never be repeated, and a modification that cost Alain Bondue's job at David Millars' insistence.

2003 World Championships.  David Millar: UCI World Time Trial Champion.  Millar stated in interviews that he could have won the World's time trial without using any performance enhancing drugs, probably true given his talent.  But he did use EPO; disposable syringes which in a moment of carelessness instead of disposing of, he placed into the lining of his suitcase.  This carelessness would later sow the seeds of doom for David Millar when his home was searched by the French police.  Millar stated that he placed the syringes among his personal library and simply forgot about them.

Millar's home was raided, he was arrested by the French police. His telephones had been tapped by the French police and his conversations were recorded before the raid.  Cofidis fired Millar.  His life began to spiral out of control into an alcohol induced haze.  The French tax authority was ready to seize all of his personal property as payment for a tax haven scheme.  Millar thought his cycling career was over.  Millar thought that his life was over.

Redemption.  There are human beings in cycling too.  David Millar after serving his suspension went to Jean Marie LeBlanc and asks if he could return to the Tour de France?

Le Blanc: "you have served your time, that is punishment enough." But: "mais alores, David.  You can not ride the Tour if you do not have a team."
Jean Marie LeBlanc pointed to a photograph of the Catholic Pope visiting a man in prision who shot the Pope, as an example of how ASO should treat miscreants. Too bad Christian Prudhomme, in spite of his pious name, could not have followed LeBlanc's example.

David Millar found a team; Sunier Duval, low budget, low pay, full of misfits, low quality riders and ex-dopers making a comeback.  Sunier Duval considered David Millar a big name bargain.  But Millar began to suspect that riders on Sunier Duval were experimenting with performance enhancing drugs, which were in direct violation of his new philosophy of "riding clean."  Millar sent several letters directly to the UCI expressing his concerns as to the suspicious behavior of certain riders on Sunier Duval.  The UCI responded that they were aware of the situation.

Time for David Millar to move on.  Jonathan Vaughters and Slipstream decided to start a new cycling team that would have a "no tolerance" policy toward doping.  Millar was eager to join a team that promoted clean cycling and a team that would go beyond the UCI out-of-competition doping controls by employing internal random blood and urine tests of team members; a prototype biological passport system that would employ longitudinal measures as safeguards against doping.

The Persuader.  David Millar expressed his outrage that Discovery Channel would have the audacity to hire Ivan Basso; even though there was an unwritten rule in cycling that riders who were under investigation for doping offenses would not be employed.  Ivan Basso was then under investigation for links to Operation Puerto.  Millar scolds Lance Armstrong at a cycling function:
 Millar: "Look, Lance.  I know how much you love the Tour, but you're alienating yourself from it more and more.  What are you going to do twenty years from now if you're not welcome back?  How can they invite you back as a past champion if you treat the sport like shit and are clouded in controversy?"
Lance Armstrong scoffs and says that the sport needs to do a better job and police it's self.  Lance Armstrong says that he is now focused on exciting projects away from cycling.  Millar rejoins:
Lance, that's bullshit. You will always come back to cycling."
Yep.  Much to his regret.

David Brailsford and Team SKY.  David Brailsford, the King Midas of cycling, everything the man touches turns to gold.  Team Great Britian became the dominant team during the 2008 Beijing Olympics; Bradley Wiggins, Chris Hoy, and Vicki Pendletonp; mountains of gold poured onto the velodrome floor.

David Millar was torn, he loved the purity of Slipstream, but he wanted to join British sponsored David Brailsford lead team SKY where Bradley Wiggins and most of the Slipstream riders were destined.  But, alas, as David Millar describes it, the decision was made for him:
In the end the decision was made for me.  Dave Brailsford told me that SKY couldn't take me because of my doping past and that he would be enforcing a zero tolerance policy toward any members of the SKY professional cycling team having any prior doping history.
Quaint logic that even David Millar could not understand.  Millar reasoned that as an experienced doper who had run the gauntlet that he would be an invaluable influence for novice cyclists who might be tempted to circumvent the rules.  Of course, there may have been even more sinister reasons to exclude David Millar from SKY.  Perhaps Dave Brailsford did not appreciate a man who had a tendency to blow the whistle to the UCI when he suspected doping and cheating.  After all, team Great Britian, with the piles of gold it accumulated in Olympic track races and the improbable domination by team SKY in the 2012 Tour de France, was, as Lance Armstrong would express it: not normal.

Finis:  David Millar has a message for all of you neophyte riders.  People are human beings who are capable of making mistakes and they should be forgiven if they succumb to temptation.  But it is never too late to learn from your mistakes and reform.  And the most important message of all?  You can win without using drugs.  David Millar proved it when he beat the most doped man in the world at Futuroscope, during the 2000 Tour de France: Lance Armstrong: riding clean.  David Millar came full circle, he is a survivor and a man who should be emulated by every young rider.  His memoir should be required reading for every aspiring cyclist and serve as a blueprint for what not to do.

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