Tour de France

Hong Kong-raised cycling great David Millar recounts dodging cars in the ‘madness’ of Mong Kok and passing time at Flying Ball Bicycle

Millar catches up with one-time mentor ‘Mr Lee’ and credits his time here for laying the foundation for his career at the top of the sport

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 October, 2017, 1:13pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 October, 2017, 10:28pm

The thought of riding through the streets of one of the most densely populated places in the world would make most people shudder, but not David Millar.

Quite the opposite. It was weaving through the “madness” of Mong Kok as a teenager that set Millar on the road to becoming the first British cyclist to wear the leader’s jersey in all three grand tours.

“I have always been at ease in the peloton and I do think that comes from learning to ride here and riding through the streets of Kowloon and Mong Kok,” the 40-year-old says.

“It was madness, I loved it. It was so much fun dodging cars and squeezing through gaps, without knowing it at the time I was learning how to ride in the peloton.”

The hustle and bustle of Hong Kong life and the winding roads of Sai Kung Country Park left an indelible mark on Millar during his five years living here in the 1990s, as did Mong Kok institution Flying Ball Bicycle.

Run by the “immortal” Lee Sheung-lum, known simply as Mr Lee, the shop, which is now in Lai Chi Kok, was a home away from home for Millar as he laid the foundation for a career at the very top.

“He never changes, I think he’s immortal,” Millar says with admiration of his one-time mentor. “The original Flying Ball was such a mad, bonkers place. There was something magical about it.

“His generosity and kindness towards me was amazing. How he put up with me for so long I’ll never know, loitering around that shop.”

The pair used to scale peaks across the New Territories together and Millar says he can still see direct links between the experience he gained here and the heights he reached later in life.

So vivid are his memories of his time in Hong Kong, Millar lights up as he recounts seeking refuge in the library at KGV school and following the progress of Spanish legend Miguel Indurain in the South China Morning Post.

“Anyone who lives in Hong Kong knows the energy it has and the attitude it gives you,” he says. “When I left Hong Kong and went to Europe and tried to become a professional cyclist, everyone told me it was impossible.

“But I came from Hong Kong, where nothing is impossible and it’s a lovely attitude to have. It’s something I’ve still got, hence why I’m doing this bloody brand, because I’ve still got that Hong Kong ‘why not, I can do it’ attitude.”

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The brand – CHPT3 – is the reason Millar was back in Hong Kong this week, reminiscing about his wild ride, first as a professional cyclist, and now trying to create a cycling clothing brand from scratch.

“You kind of make a decision. It’s easy to think you will always be a top athlete and you will always have that status,” he says. “It’s not true. The moment you stop competing it’s a descending spiral, you’re a depreciating asset so you have to make a decision.

“Do you become a depreciating asset and take the gravy train of corporate deals and s***ty sponsorships, or do you try to start again?

“I’ve gone down the route to try to start again. It’s hard work, which is good because it keeps me busy, but I did underestimate it massively. It’s much harder than bike racing.”

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To be precise, Millar was sipping away on a beer in Causeway Bay, miles from his home in Girona, Spain, because of a collaboration between CHPT3 and UK bike manufacturer Brompton.

He’s put his own spin on one of the company’s unique folding bikes, something he thinks could be the perfect fit in a city where the government views cycling more as a pastime than a genuine mode of transport.

“The bike-sharing thing is phenomenal, but I think it will be confined [to the New Territories]. A place like Hong Kong, Brompton was made for it,” he says about a bike that can easily be folded up and taken on the MTR.

CHPT3 represents the latest chapter in Millar’s life, with the first two featuring a cycling career split in half by a doping ban.

The 40-year-old has been a high-profile reformist, but he says even that stage of his life is now largely behind him.

“It’s a huge regret, but it’s those regrets that have enabled me to do all these different things and fix it and hopefully be a power for good,” he says.

“But I think I fairly exhausted it, the circuit doesn’t want me anymore, or doesn’t need me. I think I just bored everyone to tears in the end.”