Interview: David Millar says it's technology, not doping, that now gives riders the edge

Garmin-Sharp rider talks to ex-pro Tom Southam for Humans Invent website on role of tech at his team and in wider peloton

by Simon_MacMichael   February 14, 2013  

David Millar MSR 2012 © Simon MacMichael

David Millar says that it is technology, not performance enhancing drugs, that is now giving pro cyclists an edge over their rivals. In an interview conducted by former Rapha Condor rider Tom Southam and made available by the website Humans Invent, Millar speaks about the role of technology within the sport, with his Garmin-Sharp team being one of the leading innovators.

Millar, it's true, is a rider who divides opinion, certainly among followers of cycling in the UK.  For each fan of the sport here who views him as someone who has admitted his mistakes in doping and is now helping lead the fight against drugs from inside the peloton, there seems to be another who believes he crossed a line beyond which their should be no path back to the sport, and no forgiveness.

Now a member of the World Anti Doping Agency’s athlete panel, he is frequently quoted in the media on doping, both generally and in relation to his own experience such as when he was chosen to ride for Team GB at London 2012 after the ending of the British Olympic Association’s lifetime ban, a decision that caused no end of controversy.

The focus on his past all too often overshadow the fact that Millar is also one of the country’s best ever road cyclists – the first Briton to wear the leader’s jersey in all three Grand Tours, something only Bradley Wiggins has emulated to date, and one who uniquely has won stages of the Tour de France more than a decade apart.

You can read the full interview, including further background, here.

Do you think that the influx of technology and innovation in the sport, that we’ve seen over the past four or five years, marks a different attitude towards performance; that doping is no longer the answer and there are other (legal) ways to gain an advantage?

It’s all unified. The Anglos have brought in the biggest leap forward, we have a different culture when it comes to cycling, we see it as a technological sport; Europeans have seen it as a purely physical sport.

Where there are machines, and bicycles are machines, there are opportunities to increase performance through research and development.

The sport as whole has realised this now, what was just an Anglo attitude has become a necessary attitude for everybody if they want to stand a chance of winning.

Do you feel that cycling neglected, or at least put the importance of technology and innovation, on the back shelf over the past twenty years because the sport had become so focused on doping, that all training and improvements were related to those practices?

Cycling is an old technological sport: unfortunately doping became the technology for a while there. I’ve had lunches with André Darrigade [holder of the record for Tour de France stage wins for a sprinter until surpassed by Mark Cavendish] when I lived in Biarritz and he’d tell me about things they were doing with their bikes and tyres in the 50s that blew us out the water in the 90s.

The sport just lost its way, it was cutting edge back in the day, it became complacent and confused, now once again it’s becoming cutting edge (the right cutting edge!), although anyone would think the UCI is totally against this considering the many ridiculous limitations they put on manufacturers and riders.

From your point of view how has the importance and influence of technology in racing and training changed throughout your career?

The importance has always been the same for me (personally). It was having this view that helped me gain so many early successes in time trials against guys who had the physical advantage from doping.

The majority of other pros (and even my team management) didn’t care about their position/wheels/gearing/skinsuits/helmets/shoe-covers: I did. At times I would buy my own equipment and risk the wrath of the team management and sponsors.

Last minute pre-race tweaking (© Simon MacMichael)

You are a rider who seems to have managed both [technology and the human aspect of cycling] very well. When you race do you still feel that the influence of technology ends somewhere and instinct takes over?

I’m a racer, always have been and always will be. I don’t have a very good, to use the Steve Peters ergo Sky terminology, ‘Chimp Management System’. This means that most of the things I do in a race are instinctive, very little is planned… 

I’ll be first to admit this isn’t ideal, and there’s a part of me that is quite happy not changing it. I’m the same I was when I first raced as a teenager…only a little more windswept and interesting.

Do you think that cycling will always retain its essence no matter the technology that is introduced, or do you think that it could be significantly changed over the next generation of innovations?

If we have twenty Team Sky’s then yes, it will have lost its essence. But there is only one Team Sky and we need them in the sport to push everybody forward.

Similarly there is only one Team Garmin-Sharp, and if there were twenty of us then the peloton would be trying to find a way to race on the moon, just for a bit of fun. Cycling is a bonkers sport, it got a bit too mad the last twenty years, but we’re back to it being the right sort of mad.

Team Garmin Sharp are widely viewed as innovators, bringing new technologies and ideas in to the sport. How hard has it been to make progress happen in a very traditional world?

It’s not been easy that’s for sure! We were renegades when we arrived in 2008, we also didn’t mind being different and being laughed at.

We said we were going to be 100% clean, we were vocal against doping; no team had ever done this. It was our mission statement to change cycling and give people hope again.

We knew other riders were still doping, and we knew if we wanted to beat them we couldn’t rely on our bodies alone. We experimented with training and equipment and pre and post-race protocols.

We wore ice-vests before the Giro d’Italia TTT that we won (in 2008). We may have been laughed at when we rolled up to the start line in our vests, but nobody laughed when we won.

We earned respect, and we have led the way, to this day we have no fear to try new things, it’s part of the culture of our team. We are respected for it now, and more importantly, we’re copied.

Relaxing before the start of the 2012 Strade Bianche (© Philip Gale)

It seemed to me that a lot of the doping culture was based on generations of cyclists blindly following what others were doing without questioning the road the sport was going down, because the reality was everyone was just desperately trying to keep up with the next man.

With teams like Garmin Sharp, and Team Sky proving that by actually taking your head out of the sand and trying something else you can make a difference. Do you think that the attitude will change and all teams will start looking to innovate, or do you think that it will be a case of a small number of teams innovating and others following?

A small number of teams are innovating, many are following, and a few are unchanging. The bottom line is that if you don’t have the right people and sponsors onboard then your development is limited.

We’ve always been very careful to have sponsors who understand our philosophy, it doesn’t matter how much will there is, if the sponsor does not help in finding the way then nothing happens.

We’re very lucky with Garmin, Sharp, Castelli and Cervelo; they’re all sponsors who give us the will and the way to move forward. This isn’t by chance either; Jonathan Vaughters has never deviated from his original vision. And we have probably the smartest guy in cycling in charge of our science, Robby Ketchell. It’s a bit of dream team when it comes to pushing the envelope.

What do you think about the direction the sport is going in now, compared to say ten years ago?

I think it’s fucking awesome.

 

Writer Tom Southam and photographer Camille McMillan collaborated during 2012 to create inside-Out, described as "a photo-rich journal that documents a momentous year in cycling for Sharp," which sponsored both Rapha Condor Sharp and Garmin Sharp during the year. It costs £10 and can be bought here.

15 user comments

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And yet in the UK the sport is dominated by time trialling, which comprises the most technology-obsessed bunch of people you'll ever meet. It is (was) the division between roadies and testers that prevented commonsense advances being used in road races. Time triallists have always ridden the wheels and tyres that are the lightest and most aero. They wore silk tops and then skinsuits. They used clipless pedals and hidden brake cables years before anyone else. And yet if someone wore a skinsuit in a road race, even a crit lasting an hour that could never justify pockets, the rest of the field would sneer at you. Even Stephen Roche got jeered for riding a TdeF part-stage in a skinsuit! Luckily Britains rise from the cycling backwater was led by 2 testers - Boardman and Peter Keen.

posted by racyrich [112 posts]
15th February 2013 - 2:00

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Just a thought I had about the headline.

The most 'successful' doper of modern times was obviously LA, who also had the largest financial backing, so with Millar saying tech is the new doping, surely that new tech comes at a price - so only the most richest teams can afford the latest and greatest?

could we be at risk of creating a two-tier world tour? similar to football in that only the very richest teams can compete at the grand tour level and everyone else is there to make up the numbers and compete at the lower ranking races?

should a budget cap be an option perhaps?

Racer 074 for the 2014 Transcontinental Race; 2,000 miles from London to Istanbul.

http://themartincox.co.uk/2014/03/racer-074-transcontinental-race-2014/

posted by themartincox [315 posts]
15th February 2013 - 10:01

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themartincox wrote:
could we be at risk of creating a two-tier world tour? similar to football in that only the very richest teams can compete at the grand tour level and everyone else is there to make up the numbers and compete at the lower ranking races?

should a budget cap be an option perhaps?

IMHO there is a risk that we end up with an apparently two-tier situation, but hasn't that always been the case? Those who have more money buy the best athletes / brains / technology available at the time. Yet all the bikes and components, even at domestic and amateur level, are incredibly good these days so where I see the biggest gains are in training, nutrition and rider/team mentality.

However, I look at teams with a traditional 'old world' outlook (Euskaltel and some French teams, for example) and wonder whether they have the resources - financial and otherwise - to move forwards. As a bit of a traditionalist at heart, I don't want technology to take too prominent a role in winning races, otherwise the sport loses some of its appeal.

I wonder if DM is trying to put a different perspective on the relevance or perceived advantage of doping or maybe avoid or the inevitable question of whether there is still doping in the peloton. Undoubtedly there is. Riders are still being caught and everyone knows that there are plenty of dubious tactics and substances that riders can't be tested for. Look at Rasmussen's latest statement that the bio-passport only "puts a damper" on doping (here) and didn't deter him at all.

How would you implement a budget cap? I'm not sure it is feasible.

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posted by Simon E [1881 posts]
15th February 2013 - 10:57

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oh sod off David Millar, you're a lying cheat yourself, so don't start preaching on what advantages the riders are now benefiting from, so hypocritical.

posted by Karbon Kev [663 posts]
15th February 2013 - 11:35

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Karbon Kev wrote:
oh sod off David Millar, you're a lying cheat yourself, so don't start preaching on what advantages the riders are now benefiting from, so hypocritical.

A well thought out and insightful comment there. I think people need to look forward and move on. The sport was rife with doping until relatively recently and it's unrealistic to expect only confirmed non-dopers to comment on the matter. That will remain the case until a generation has passed. Being as the interview was for a site that focuses on technical innovation I though the content was entirely appropriate.

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posted by andyspaceman [211 posts]
15th February 2013 - 12:11

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andyspaceman wrote:
Karbon Kev wrote:
oh sod off David Millar, you're a lying cheat yourself, so don't start preaching on what advantages the riders are now benefiting from, so hypocritical.

A well thought out and insightful comment there. I think people need to look forward and move on. The sport was rife with doping until relatively recently and it's unrealistic to expect only confirmed non-dopers to comment on the matter. That will remain the case until a generation has passed. Being as the interview was for a site that focuses on technical innovation I though the content was entirely appropriate.

'Was rife with doping'! how about IS rife with doping. When did the doping stop? UCI still run anti doping!

All the DS in the sport are connected to doping.

All this talk of a change, where did the change happen and how?

The Bloodpassport has been blown out of the water by Dr Ashenden

Armstrong is used as the past, but plenty associated with him and still riding are major figures in the sport.

Ever since the British have done well in cycling we are being sold cycling is cleaner. Not true.

posted by Decster [246 posts]
15th February 2013 - 12:22

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It's not fully clean and likely never will be. But look at average race speeds and rider figures for wattage/kilo now vs. a decade ago. Those speak for themselves.

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posted by andyspaceman [211 posts]
15th February 2013 - 12:25

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andyspaceman wrote:
It's not fully clean and likely never will be. But look at average race speeds and rider figures for wattage/kilo now vs. a decade ago. Those speak for themselves.

average race speeds dont prove anything.

As for wattage/kilo figures. Where is the line that says clean or doper?

LeMond's figures for his wattage/Kilo is regurlarly sited as the clean limit. But LeMond was unique and few ever got close to him. So now that lots get to that level shows how much doping is going on.

But cleanER is not clean.

Millar is forever spinning a cleaner peloton story. Suits Garmin, but why believe a bunch of (ex)dopers?

I dont. Vaughters is a smart guy and spends a lot of money on internal testing. Is it to ensure the team are clean or is it to ensure they are not going to test positive?

I believe the latter.

Use your eyes. Look at Gilberts 2011 season, Boonen's 2012 spring season, both used Dr Ibarguren, Sky's 2012 and their blue train at the TdF with Dr Leinders. All copies of the 90s.

No not a cleanER sport.

posted by Decster [246 posts]
15th February 2013 - 12:45

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^Some people don't want to believe cycling can be clean^

Few sports are clean[sic]

posted by Sandy_l [25 posts]
15th February 2013 - 14:13

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If you read and believe Millar's book he was a relative novice doper when he was caught. Unlike most of the others caught he immediately held his hands up and co-operated fully, and this with no expectation of additional leniency as a result.

On the subject of tech giving riders an edge surely this has always been the case? As long as the advances are policed and kept within an appropriate ruleset there is a level playing field. I don't believe the marginal differences we're talking about here require F1 stellar budgets, they're mostly about good R&D.

And yes, some of the UCI's rulings about things like discs can seem a bit archaic, but at the other extreme I wouldn't enjoy watching fully faired recumbent racing, which is the logical extension of allowing a technological free-for-all. Be careful what you wish for.

posted by mbrads72 [107 posts]
15th February 2013 - 14:37

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I have a lot of respect for Millar, he's made his mistakes, honed up unlike most that have been caught doping and has spent time and effort since fighting for a cleaner sport. How can you not laud that approach? Not all dopers/sinners are the same and there is room for forgiveness in my (sport) world, within reason...

posted by Metjas [268 posts]
15th February 2013 - 17:34

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Decster wrote:

Use your eyes. Look at Gilberts 2011 season, Boonen's 2012 spring season, both used Dr Ibarguren, Sky's 2012 and their blue train at the TdF with Dr Leinders. All copies of the 90s.

No not a cleanER sport.

presumably Gilbert missed his appointments with Ibargurren until the end of the 2012 season?

posted by Metjas [268 posts]
15th February 2013 - 17:38

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I believe Sky does not have the biggest budget in procycling to start with and has decided to spend more of it on R&D and supporting their riders to compete in the best possible condition, and not spend most of it on wages.

Time trials aside, I'm convinced that most of the gains can and have been made in training, nutrition and the realization that races are not a substitute for the lack of proper training. There are clearly riders out there that show flashes of brilliance and you'd wonder what they could achieve with a structured approach to their training and race programme.

posted by Metjas [268 posts]
15th February 2013 - 17:46

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Metjas wrote:
Decster wrote:

Use your eyes. Look at Gilberts 2011 season, Boonen's 2012 spring season, both used Dr Ibarguren, Sky's 2012 and their blue train at the TdF with Dr Leinders. All copies of the 90s.

No not a cleanER sport.

presumably Gilbert missed his appointments with Ibargurren until the end of the 2012 season?

Ibarguren worked for Lotto in 2011 then went to OPQS in 2012. Gilbert went to BMC in 2012.

For those who can look past Millar/Vaughter's false claims read a Basson's interview

http://www.cyclingnews.com/features/christophe-bassons-where-the-war-on-...

posted by Decster [246 posts]
16th February 2013 - 11:27

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Sandy_l wrote:
^Some people don't want to believe cycling can be clean^

Few sports are clean[sic]

Do i claim they are? I believe most big money sports to be as dirty as cycling.

posted by Decster [246 posts]
16th February 2013 - 11:28

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