Friday 13 September 2013

Daily Cycling Facts 13.09.2013

Robert Millar
Born in Glasgow on this day in 1958, Robert Millar began cycling during childhood and rose to the very top; becoming Britain's all-time most successful Grand Tour rider until Chris Froome (who was born in Kenya but has a British passport) came second at the 2011 Vuelta a Espana and Bradley Wiggins won the 2012 Tour de France. He is also one of the most intriguing and, when he chooses to be so, entertaining characters in the history of cycling.

Short, lightly-built and highly intelligent, Millar  is often portrayed as having consciously reacted against what biographer Richard Moore calls Glasgow's "big man" tradition, a culture especially linked with the road Gorbals slums in which individuals skilled at fighting are held up as examples of what a man should strive to be. However, Millar himself rejects this; his family were working class but had done well for themselves through the application of hard work and pursuit of education. He also vociferously rejects the myth that he first came across the Tour de France on a television in a shop window - it was the late 1960s and, as Millar points out, the vast majority of people had a television by that time.

Nevertheless, with few other employment opportunities available to young people locally, Millar went to work in a factory when he left school; his intelligence was spotted immediately and he was awarded an engineering apprenticeship and placed on the firm's management training program. Yet Miller dreamed of wider horizons (and was undoubtedly bright enough to realise that much of Britain's manufacturing industry would have vanished long before he reached retirement age): a keen cyclist since childhood, he knew that his body shape and power output gave him a natural advantage when climbing. Single-minded almost to a fault, he trained harder than many professionals, riding for mile after mile into headwinds that would keep the majority of riders indoors, and in 1979 he escaped - he had received an invite to join the legendary amateur team Athletic Club Boulogne-Billancourt, which had already earned a reputation for finding riders from nations other than France and Belgium, developing them into world-class athletes and turning them loose on the cycling world. Millar's determination, focus and - soon after he joined the club - results rapidly convinced team manager Claude Escalon that he had found a future great; but Millar's peculiar habits - thought by those who understood him to have stemmed from shyness and an intense need for privacy and by those who didn't as stemming from an unpleasant personality (in fact, both are true; Millar was shy and did need privacy, but he could also be extremely rude and dislikable - he was once so rude to a female airport official that Allan Peiper, a Peugeot team mate, told him he would "knuckle him" if he ever heard him speak that way to anyone again) - won him very, very few friends.

Millar was with the ACBB for only a year, his third place in the 1980 Amateur World Championship winning him a contract with Peugeot-Esso-Michelin for 1980. He had won the British National Championship in 1980 too, but when he returned to take part the following year seemed to care little whether he won or not, taking fifth place - this, along with the ease with which he settled into French life and found a French wife, was an early indication that he was cutting himself off entirely from his background. His results in French races that year and the next were superb, with second place in the Tour du Vaucluse and the Tour de l'Avenir and podium places in several others; he was, therefore, selected for Peugeot's Tour de France squad in 1983 - and he won Stage 10, ending with the difficult Bagnères-de-Luchon climb, before finishing in 14th place overall despite losing 17' in a crash during the third stage. Perhaps more importantly, he was third in the King of the Mountains.

In 1984, Millar was second on Stage 2b, ending at the summit of Mont Ventoux stage, at Paris-Nice, putting him briefly into the overall lead (he finished in sixth at the end of the race). In the Tour de Romandie he was fifth overall and won Stage 2 and the overall King of the Mountains, but all of these were as nothing compared to his Tour de France performance: he won Stage 11, in which the race made its first ever visit to the Guset-Neige ski resort in the Pyrenees (it has been back only twice - in 1988 and again in 1995), then became the first (and to date, only) British rider to win the King of the Mountains. He was also fourth overall, beating Tom Simpson's 1962 sixth place for what was then the best ever result by a British rider.

Millar was hotly tipped to win the Vuelta a Espana in 1985 by fans, pundits and other riders alike. Sean Kelly won Stage 10 while Millar took over the General Classification lead, retaining it into the final stage which he began with a 10" advantage over second place Francisco Rodriguez and 1'05" over third place Pello Ruiz Cabestany. Then he punctured at the start of the Cotos climb. As is the case in the Tour de France, the final stage in the Vuelta is usually considered to be ceremonial and the riders do not compete for the overall victory; however, with two riders that close, Millar could easily have lost even if they refused to take advantage of his situation. With a near-superhuman effort, he caught them up on the stage's third climb at Los Leones where Rodrigue, Cabestan and others in their group congratulated him on his historic victory. For some reason, none of them told him that Pedro Delgado - also an excellent climber and, as a local boy, familiar with the descents where other climbers might lose time - had attacked while Millar's puncture was being sorted out and was enjoying the support of another rider named José Recio. By the time Millar found out, Deglado had more than seven minutes on him.

Millar was stuck on his own with no team mates nearby. That he was able to finish only 36" behind the Spaniard is remarkable and proof of is extraordinary talent, but the race had been won by another rider using distinctly unsportsmanlike tactics - "It's rotten, the whole peloton was against us. It seems a Spaniard had to win at all costs," said Peugeot manager Roland Berland (whom Millar would later criticise for failing to arrange support). Fans from Britain and many other nations, including some from Spain, termed it "The Stolen Vuelta" and still know it as such to this day; Millar swore that he would never again race in Spain. Later in the year he went back to the Tour de France and came 11th overall and third in the King of the Mountains; soon afterwards he went back on his vow to never return to Spain after seeing an opportunity to get some sort of revenge - he won the Vuelta a Catalunya, taking over the race leadership and not allowing Recio, who had held it earlier in the race, to get anywhere near it.

Having raced in Catalunya, Millar had no reason not to compete in the Vuelta a Espana in 1986 and did so after switching teams to Panasonic. Earlier in the season, he had been second overall at the Tour de Suisse; he won Stage 6 at the Vuelta but was second once again - this time, at least, victor Alvaro Pino did so without recourse to skulduggery. He began the Tour that year on fine form and became a very real threat to Greg Lemond, who despite the apparent attempts at sabotage by Bernard Hinault, would become the first American and non-European to win the race that very year. Many good climbers have also been good time trial riders; Millar, despite cutting his teeth on the British racing scene where time trials have always been more popular than elsewhere (largely as a result of a ban on mass-start road racing that lasted from the late-19th Century until after the Second World War), was not one of them - yet he finished the Stage 9 TT in ninth place, placing him in a good position from which to launch his assault on the Pyrenees. As was expected, he gradually moved up the General Classification list all the while the race gradually moved up the mountains, finishing Stage 13 with its finish line located at 1,800m in Superbagnères in second place behind Lemond and moving into fourth place overall. Lemond was a fast climber, but ultimately he was an all-rounder - with one more stage in the Pyrenees, four in the Alps and one in the Massif Central, it looked very much as though the Scottish climbing specialist might build an advantage the American would not be able to overcome. But then, as the race began drawing to a close, Millar fell ill. He was 112th in the Stage 20 time trial, taking more than ten minutes to get around the 58km parcours than winner Hinault; the following day he gave up on the Puy de Dôme.

1987, the year of the Marmalade Massacre
Millar didn't enter the Giro d'Italia until 1987, the edition that has gone down in history as the year of the Marmalade Massacre. One of the most controversial episodes in Grand Tour history, the Massacre began when a vicious row broke out between Stephen Roche and his Carrera team leader Roberto Visentini. Roche beat Visentini in the Stage 1b time trial, then became race leader when Carrera won the Stage 3 time trial; he then defending the leader's journey until Stage 13 when it passed back to Visentini. However, realising that he stood a better chance of winning overall than Visentinidid, Roche ignored the team manager's order not to attack on Stage 15 and took back the lead. He was joined at the time by a group of Carrera riders, but the next day - after receiving threats from and being spat on by the furious tifosi - all the Italian riders in the team abandoned him, riding for Visentini instead; only Millar (who was still with Panasonic, but evidently felt some sort of Celtic solidarity) and the Belgian Eddy Schepers stayed with him. Visentini was so angry at what he saw as their treachery that he tried to push Schepers off his bike (an incident curiously not seen by any race officials, so he escaped punishment despite later admitting to and even bragging about the incident). They rode either side of Roche throughout the stage, protecting him while other non-Italian riders, angered by Visentini's arrogance and violence, prevented him from attacking. On the final climb, the Marmalada, Roche won; Panasonic's Erik Breukink was second and Millar was third. Millar later won Stage 21 and came second overall, winning the King of the Mountains; Roche won overall, then won the Tour de France and the World Championship and became the second man in history to win the greatest triumph in cycling, the entirely unofficial Triple Crown for which there is no trophy, title nor prize money.

Millar's last Tour, 1993
Millar and Roche moved to the Fagor team in 1988 and the Scotsman took third place at the Critérium International and at Liège-Bastogne-Liège - the best Classics result of his career. He came sixth overall at the Vuelta, won by another Irishman Sean Kelly, then began another Tour de France. During 14, he and Philippe Bouvatier lost time after either misinterpreting directions signaled to them by a gendarme or, as many fans still believe, being deliberately misdirected so that the French favourites could make up time; later in the race Millar uncharacteristically cracked badly on a climb - that he then abandoned during Stage 17 indicates that he was again unwell. A year later he was fourth in the King of the Mountains and tenth overall at the Tour but won the Tour of Britain; in 1990 he was second at the Tours of Britain (which he might have won had be not have crashed in the final stage), Romandie and Switzerland and won the Critérium du Dauphiné but once again did not finish the Tour de France, leaving in anger due to his belief that his Z-Tomasso team mates were giving all their support to Greg Lemond (who supplied the team's bikes, as well as being lead rider) and ignoring him. He was second again in Romandie in 1991, but finished the Tour de France in 72nd place; in 1992 and 1993 he was 18th and 24th respectively, proof that 1991 was a sign that his best years were gone rather than just a bad season, and they would be his final Tours. Having made a return to British racing to win the National Championship in 1995, he retired when his Le Groupement team fell apart shortly before the Tour, its main sponsor having withdrawn from cycling after being accused of being a pyramid scheme. To this day, Millar says that he suffered from bad management and was over-raced in preparation for the Grand Tours and describes schedules that are magnitudes busier than anything a potential Tour winner would face today. Had things have been otherwise, it seems entirely reasonable to believe that he would have been our first Grand Tour winner, almost thirty years before Bradley Wiggins.

While Millar was and still is a man who needs privacy and a quiet life away from reporters and photographers, he was enormously popular in Britain and came closer to becoming a household name than any rider since Tom Simpson - this was partly due to his successes (some of which have not yet been equaled - he remains the only British rider to have won the King of the Mountains in the Tour or the Giro as well as the only British rider to have finished top three in all three Grand Tours) but also because he was something of a loner, which appealed greatly to British cycling fans who, in many cases, grew up surrounded by football fans and without opportunity to discuss their beloved sport with friends (as was certainly the case for this writer). Yet when he was at the height of his fame in 1985, he starred in a TV advert for Kellogg's Start breakfast cereal; in retirement he would make an effort to repay fan's support, writing admirably impartial and often amusing product reviews for magazines and managing the Scottish team at the Tour of Britain, then known as the PruTour after main sponsor Prudential. In time it all became too much, so he disappeared. Rumours abounded as to where he might be or what might have happened to him with theories covering every possibility including imprisonment for an unknown crime, involuntary incarceration due to mental illness and a mystery death. Journalists sought him out, in one case concocting a story based on nothing at all other than a photograph in which the wind had blown the front of his t-shirt out from his chest that claimed he had undergone gender correction surgery. Fortunately, for all his shyness and dislike of publicity, Millar was a robust character who cared little for what others thought of him - he made it perfectly clear that he was completely unconcerned about that story and anything else anybody wrote about him.

Over the last couple of years, Millar has come out of hiding. Though public appearances remain exceedingly rare, he has forged new links with the world of cycling, including race analysis for Cycling News' 2011 Tour de France coverage in which he proved that at his understanding of the sport is as sharp as ever. Further access to his thoughts in the future would be very welcome; if he chooses otherwise, we as fans should respect his decision.

Sonia Huguet, born in Saint-Avold on this day in 1975, became French National Champion in Points racing in 1996 and Road Racing in 2003. In 2004, she won La Flèche Wallonne Féminine.

Shinichi Fukushima, born in Nagano Prefecture on this day in 1971, became National Road Race Champion in 2003. In addition to winning numerous Far Eastern races, he is one of the few Japanese riders to have made an impact in Europe, beginning with second place at the Prix d'Armorique in 2001. . In 2002 he was third at the Circuit de Saône-et-Loire, in 2006 he won Stage 1 at the Vuelta Ciclista a León and in 2010 he became National Champion for a second time. Fukushima signed to the Belgian Marlux-Ville de Charleroi team but remained with them for only six months, riding for Japanese teams until 2010 when he joined the South Korean Geumsan Ginseng Asia; then in 2011 he went to the Malaysian Terengganu and remains with them at the end of the 2012 season.

Sven-Åke Nilsson, born in Malmö, Sweden on this day in 1951, win the Tour de l'Avenir in 1976 and went on to achieve excellent results in a series of prestigious races, though he never quite managed to break through into the elite list of riders who have won those races. In 1978 he was 11th overall at the Tour de France; in 1979 he won Stage 4 and was second overall at Paris-Nice, then third at the Critérium International and the Amstel Gold Race. In 1980 he was second at La Flèche Wallonne and seventh overall at the Tour de France (and fourth in the King of the Mountains); then at the 1981 Tour he was eight overall and fifth in the King of the Mountains and at the 1982 Vuelta a Espana he won Stage 10 and was third overall.

Rie Katayama, born on this day in 1979
Brian Fowler, born in Christchurch on this day in 1962, became National Road Race Champion of New Zealand in 1988 and successfully defended his title one year later.

Other cyclists born on this day: Dieter Grabe (East Germany, 1945); Rie Katayama (Japan, 1979); Crystal Lane (Great Britain, 1985); Yury Yuda (Kazakhstan, 1983); Stanley Chambers (Great Britain , 1910); Kriengsak Varavudhi (Thailand, 1948); Oscar García (Argentina, 1941); Thierry Laurent (France, 1966); Koldo Fernández (Euskadi, 1981); Hernán Patiño (Colombia, 1966); Ivan Tsvetkov (Bulgaria, 1951).

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