14 July 2002

Time for the enigmatic Scottish-born cyclist to harness his talent and win the world’s greatest endurance test.

The scene is impossibly beautiful, the action described almost too harsh to bear. David Millar sits beneath a parasol in the sponsors’ village across the lake from the cream-coloured casino at Bagnoles-De-L’Orne half-an-hour before yesterday’s start and describes Friday’s fall which almost revisited last year’s nightmare Tour de France.

“It was a really shitty day,” said the 25-year-old, the adjectives as graphic as ever. “I had a fall after 12 kilometres and one 20km from the finish, but it was the first one that hurt. The whole peloton came in like a wave, closed me up and I went right over the top of the bike, landing on my right-hand side with everyone whacking into me. I was winded, my ribs hurt and a huge swelling came up half-way down my right leg.”

Since he was talking in full zipped-up white shirted, padded blue shorted racing kit you will gather that he had put himself back together and, despite that second fall, finished back in the pack. A repeat of that position in yesterday’s seventh stage of the Tour from Bagnolles to the hill-top city of Avranches just across the estuary from Mont St Michel kept him in 20th place overall, a mere 1min 40sec behind the Spanish leader, Gonzales Galdeano, and only 1-06 behind the dual winner Lance Armstrong, who himself was caught up in but not turned over by another crash two kilometres from the finish.

In my earlier life as a jump-jockey I had to get used to the thing beneath you capsizing and the earth coming up to bite. But we were on grass, the horses are pushed to beat 30mph and, above all, we were not being asked to pedal another 100 miles next morning. Millar looked down at the surprisingly small wound and little visible bruising on his long, shaven, muscular shiny leg and did not flinch from what lay ahead. “I have learnt a lot from last year,” he said. “I am more dedicated and more professional. I am getter older and better at getting my head round it.”

Last year, remember, his head went from the clouds to the gutter on the first day. A crash when strongly fancied for the prologue saw him limping in to this first Saturday, as the `Lanterne Rouge’, the last man in the tour. Three tortured stages later he had to abandon but the setback seemed to inspire him and he then had his best autumn, winning the Tour of Denmark, taking the prologue, the time trial and a stage of the Tour of Spain and only being narrowly beaten by Jan Ullrich in the World Championship. The career looked back on track. That was until glandular fever struck in January.

After two months recuperation, he went to Biarritz and worked at his conditioning like never before. The Tour still comes too early for him but the man sitting in front of us scrawling his vividly calligraphic autograph for passing worshippers is now threatening to deliver. “A long time ago,” he said, “I made a pact with myself that a point would come when I really had to dedicate myself to cycling. I think that has happened now. There can be nothing else if I can take it as far as I want – to win a stage and make the top five in the Tour of Spain this September and later to be favourite and on the podium for the Tour de France.”

The terrible vibes of the Festina doping scandal in 1998 and the lack of national TV coverage has taken the Tour de France out of the ordinary British sporting consciousness but in Bagnolles yesterday morning you could appreciate just how strong the race’s addiction remains and just how extraordinary the Scottish-born, although Hong-Kong reared Millar could still become if his temperament finally buckles down his talent.

Yesterday’s horse-shoe shaped 176-kilometre haul through the green and gorgeous Normandy countryside was the seventh of 21 stages before Millar and the others reach the Arc de Triomphe in a fortnight’s time, but it was all that was needed to remind us that the Tour de France is an event like no other.

For it is a unique endurance test branded not just into a nation’s soul but into the landscape too. If you have the good fortune of a press car you drive ahead on the longest one way road in the world and which yesterday rolled out beside us in a captivating mix of green and gold; the hay has been gathered but the maize is still young. We journey north into Calvados and swing west into Normandy’s other region of La Manche, cattle in the fields, crowds everywhere on the route, miles of roadside picnics just for a glimpse of the riders.

We were seeing a country en fete. Today, as July 14 is Bastille Day, the crowds will be even bigger, the joy even more widespread. So much so that it can be harder to concentrate on the race than be diverted by the assorted absurdities of the speeding publicity floats up front, on the rider exhorting slogans on the roadside, or the trident flourishing devil who does his daily 10 km from the finish. But it was around devil time, although not because of him, that this Tour reminded us how it could bite – another horrible pile up which put Credit Agricole leader Christian Moreau and several others on the tarmac, which put Bonjour team leader Didier Rous in the ambulance.

At the finish we waited as the peloton wound in the leaders, wondered at the premature celebration of the Spaniard Horillo just before the Australian Brad McGee flashed by to win, and sighed with relief when the long frame of Millar came spinning through in among the leaders. “I have no illusions of grandeur,” he said a few minutes later. “I just want to finish this Tour, to work my passage, to be ready for what could be ahead.”

This week it starts to get serious and Armstrong is expected to stamp his authority on the Tour. First in tomorrow’s time trial and then in that opening day in the mountains from Pau on Thursday. It will be dreadfully hard, desperately gripping. It will not just be Millar who will once again be held in its thrall.

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