Book Review: Racing through the Dark: the fall and rise of David Millar

Racing through the dark: the fall and rise of David Millar, 2011, London, Orion Books

I’ve just finished reading David Millar’s Racing through the Dark: the fall and rise of David Millar and I would like to recommend it. At least, I’d like to recommend it to the general reader: It’s less a read for the touring cyclist. However, that’s hardly a fair test and not a criticism of the book.

It’s not quite clear that the book is written by Millar himself. Inside the back cover is a credit to someone called Jeremy Whittle who apparently writes for The Times and the Sunday Herald. No where else however, does it indicate that he is the writer. Indeed on the back of the title page David Millar is identified as the author of the work.

The book is a good read for several reasons. It’s a good read because it gives a really good insight into the life of a professional cyclist at the top of the sport – or at least near the top of the sport. The book is very good on the internal politics of the sport and of course it centres on the tragedy of drugtaking in cycling. Millar gives a really persuasive account, and a very convincing account, of his slide into drugtaking. He presents it as an almost commonplace and to be expected slide. Well, he certainly accepts personal responsibility for his drug taking and he makes it very clear that as the sport was organised drugtaking was almost the norm for a young aspiring rider. Certainly, those who did not take drugs were exceptions rather than the norm. Of course, none of this is particularly new or newsworthy: the stark detail with which Millar describes his progress into drugtaking and the details and ease with which the drugs were available brings home just how drug ridden the sport of cycling was at the time, however. Hopefully, this is less true today.

I had hoped that the book would contain some insight into the business of cycling and the technique of cycling that might have some application for the touring cyclist. However, Millar has almost nothing to say about the joy of cycling or the spirit of cycling until the very end of the book. To be honest he comes over as a driven athlete much more than someone who loves the business of being on a bicycle. Indeed, he says as much. So this is not a book for those who want to learn something of the joy of cycling. It’s much more a book about competition and the driving forces that compel professional athletes.

That said, there is one paragraph in the book, very late on, that gets through something of the spirit of cycling. The episode concerning a stage in the Tour de France when Millar was on the point of pulling out of the race in 2010. Millar describes how he climbed the col de Madeleine falling farther and farther behind the peleton until finally he reached the top of the called Madeleine and prepared to descend to the finish.

“The descent of the mandolin is steep and technical, which makes it ideal for the lone rider. During the whole day, my constant companion had been a gendarme motorbike outrider, opening the road ahead of me.

It must have been dull for him. We’d had only one moment of human contact, when he dropped back and offered me some water, but that was it. Other than that, he had simply written up my pace, doing his job, making sure the road ahead was safe for me.

But now, something unspoken between us surfaced. He understood me, understood my desperation. He read my intentions and for the wild, crazed descent off of the Madeleine, we had the most exciting ride. From the 1st corner he knew what I needed, lifting his pace to match mine and carving a line through the bends, ahead of me. I put myself in his hands and followed his line. It was exhilarating.

But it was hairy too. The road was closed but crowds of fans, some on bikes and some walking, were already starting to head down the mountain. He dodged through them, siren wailing. Sparks flew off-the-pegs of his motorbike as he battled through the bends, with me wrapped over the handlebars in his wake. I’ve really felt so alive.

Now, it felt as if everybody was with me. Lionel and Chris were behind me, careering through the bends in the team car, doing their best to keep up. The ambulance behind them was deliberately going slowly, delaying the race commissaire who had been behind me all day. Even the French TV motorbike that had been assigned to me, moved in front of me, letting me ride briefly in his slipstream.

I felt proud that I haven’t given up, but then shut out the Demons. On the flat road to the finish, I put my head down and rode like I was racing for the win.”

A gripping account of how obsession can lead a rider on a road to self-destruction.

Racing through the dark: the fall and rise of David Millar, 2011, London, Orion Books.   Recommended with 4 stars. 

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