Millar emerges from 'the dark side' a better man
On a grey winter afternoon in February, former Hong Kong resident David Millar, once hyped as the possible first British winner of the Tour de France, told delegates at a UK Sport anti-doping conference why he resorted to taking performance-enhancing drugs.
After Millar delivered his statement, there was a ripple of applause. He smiled a little nervously and returned to his seat. Later a conference delegate came up to Millar and said: 'I've learned more listening to you talk for half an hour than I have in seven years of working in anti-doping.'
If some of the delegates had an evangelical light in their eyes, perhaps it was because Millar had told them a few uncomfortable but necessary home truths.
'The war on doping can't be won,' he said. 'It's futile because it will go on forever.'
Millar, once the golden boy of the British cycling team, is used to talking about doping. Since making his comeback in July last year from a two-year ban, he seems to have talked about little else. He has done it with good grace, unlike others such as Ivan Basso, of Italy, whose recent and highly compromised 'confession' came out through gritted teeth.
When in June 2004, the French drugs squad took Millar into custody and found used EPO syringes in his home, he quickly confessed. In the fallout, he was forced to sell his house in Biarritz, move back to England and finally ended up sleeping on his sister's floor.
It was his darkest period. He was, Millar recalls, 'drunk most of the time'.
Yet Millar's rehabilitation as a born-again athlete seems complete. He is the first self-confessed doper to have spoken at UK Sport and his presence at the conference was hailed as a valuable insight. The European sports media, faced with the continuing confusion over the Operation Puerto doping investigation in Madrid, have so far been kind to him.
His contrition appears to have been widely accepted.
He won the prologue stage in March's Paris-Nice and enjoyed having the race leader's yellow jersey on his back. Now he hopes, with compatriot Bradley Wiggins, to be in contention for victory in the Tour de France's prestigious prologue on July 7.
Little by little, Millar has won people over. The more you talk to him, the more you want to believe him. He is open, affable and listens carefully to questions.
His responses are intelligent and thoughtful. He sounds like a man who knows how painful it can be to live a lie. But he's still a professional in an industry crippled by corruption and the doubts hover in the air - can he ever be fully believed again?
Millar's decision to speak at the anti-doping conference in London was his own. 'During my ban, I was persona non grata,' he said. 'But I think we need athletes who have seen the dark side and that they shouldn't be forgotten about or thrown away. We should try to learn from their experiences.'
Remarkably, he admitted it was harder to resist the temptation to dope, than to finally decide to take banned products. 'When I was writing my statement for the conference, I started thinking what the real question was. It wasn't why did I dope, but why did it take me so long to dope.'
Millar said that in the late 1990s, when he first turned professional, doping was all around him, 'a constant white noise'.
'If you know that other people around you are doping and you know they're getting away with it, then you start to lose faith,' he said. 'We have to learn a lot more on a human level, a psychological level, about why athletes dope.'
Millar's confession to doping in 2004 and his subsequent stance has been welcomed by some, although not all, of his peers. 'I've always had admiration for the way that David faced up to everything, held his hands up, took his punishment and never complained about it,' said Wiggins, among his rivals for victory in the London prologue.
'He's been a role model in many respects,' Wiggins said. 'He's not taken anyone for a fool and he's proved that you can succeed without doping. What he went through was horrendous, but the way he has handled it has been fantastic. He's won a lot of respect for that.'
Millar believes that attitudes are changing. 'Things are not nearly as bad as they were,' he said.
But he knows there are still skeletons in closets and the public will take a while to rediscover their faith in the sport. He even says he feels the same way.
'I don't think I could watch the Tour now and have 100 per cent - or close to 100 per cent - faith in the winner being clean,' Millar said. 'Unfortunately, for the next 10 years we're always going to doubt the winner of the Tour, even if they are clean. It will take 10 years, maybe more, before we can have that belief back again.'
The clean-up in cycling, he says, 'should have happened years ago'.
'I know a lot of guys in the peloton, friends of mine, who are clean and who have been clean for two or three years, but they do have skeletons in the closet.'
Despite that and despite the bad publicity over allegations that often stretch back for more than a decade, he believes a doping amnesty, or a programme of 'truth and reconciliation', would be futile.
'I can't see it happening,' he said. 'So many of these guys couldn't face up to it. You spend so many years trying to forget it you'd rather not remember and have to go through it again.'
So Millar will line up for the prologue in Whitehall on July 7, older, wiser, apparently re-born and hoping he can make the most of a unique opportunity to redeem himself. In the immediate aftermath of the Millar affair, the British media wrote him off as just another doped-up cyclist. Now he has the chance to prove that he has finally become more of a man.
1 David Millar's two-year ban for EPO (erythropoietin) ends in June 2006, just seven days before the start of the Tour De France, where he finishes 59th overall
2 Gets his first win since his comeback in stage 14 of the Vuelta a Espana in October and then goes on to win the 4,000m individual pursuit at the British championships
3 He is taken to court by French authorities and faces charges of violating French drug laws, but they are dropped when it cannot be proved he took drugs on French soil
4 After Floyd Landis tests positive for testosterone, Millar says: 'Our sport is at the bottom of the barrel. It's waking up the sponsors and the team management to the problems they're facing. They've had their heads in the sand for too long.'
5 Wins prologue at the Paris-Nice Stage Race on the 2007 UCI ProTour in March and is now a strong favourite to win the Tour de France's 7.9km prologue in London's Hyde Park.