Racing through the Darkby David Millar
WORLD-CLASS CYCLIST, Tour de France stage winner, and time trial specialist David Millar offers a vivid portrait of his life in professional cycling—including his soul-searing detour into performance-enhancing drugs, his dramatic arrest and two-year ban, and his ultimate decision to return to the sport he loves to race clean—in this arrestingly candid memoir, which he wrote himself.
As a young Scottish expat living in Hong Kong with his father after his parents’ divorce, Millar showed early promise with mountain biking and BMX. Two wise local cyclists took him under their wings, encouraging him to concentrate on road racing. Millar proved a ready convert. Racing Through the Dark offers the winning account of his climb through the ranks—first as an amateur and then as a pro, riding for the French team Cofidis. Among his early triumphs were several stage wins in the Tour de France.
From the moment Millar turned pro, he began to see hints of the unethical measures that many— maybe most—of the other pros were taking in order to race at the very tops of their games . . . and beyond. At first, he felt that he was immune to temptation, that he could win clean. But the ugly pervasiveness of performance-enhancing drugs and the seemingly universal attitude that condoned it began to corrode his willpower. Racing Through the Dark details his eventual capitulation, his subsequent arrest and two-year ban from cycling, and his remarkable comeback as a clean cyclist who is now doing his utmost to keep performance-enhancing drugs out of the sport he so loves.
Filled with thrilling descriptions of the world’s most spectacular courses, Racing Through the Dark captures the pure joy of cycling and includes some of the most vivid accounts of racing ever written by a true insider.
“Millar unflinchingly lays bare his story, from his personal struggles to deal with his success to his path to drugs to his dark, post-arrest days to his Phoenix-like return to cycling. At the end of Millar’s memoir comes redemption through his humbling return as a clean rider to the sport he loves and through becoming a vocal proponent of strong anti-doping measures.”
“Engagingly straightforward recollections of a champion athlete who succumbed to the dark side of illegal performance enhancement…(Millar’s) forthright tone makes his downfall seem relatable...Will appeal to cycling enthusiasts and readers who seek an honest explanation of the scandals sullying the sport."
“His tale—bizarrely—has become just about the most inspiring in all of cycling, perhaps any sport. If you want to find out how cyclists dope, it's here; if you want to discover why they do it, there has never been a more vivid account. But the defining achievement of RACING THROUGH THE DARK is that it makes you believe in cycling again.”
“One of the great first-person accounts of sporting experience...Laceratingly honest, detailing every twist in the argument by which he convinced himself to take a step he had previously considered unthinkable. Anyone seeking to understand the motivation of a drug cheat, or wondering why such a man should be allowed back into his sport will find their curiosity satisfied here.”
“Unbeatable as a snapshot of the professional peloton, its agonies and ecstasies...Emotional yet in no way overwrought, Millar's memoirs read like a parable more than a manifesto. Essential reading for all young riders as well as fans.”
"The greatest strength of this plainly but compellingly told story is that it doesn't shock. Millar is searingly honest about his own failings and neuroses but his book is intelligent, subtle, nuanced, not flowery or overly descriptive —and it is all the more powerful for it. This will go down as one of the great sporting autobiographies.”
“A sporting masterpiece, a timeless snapshot of a sportsman plumbing the depths and miraculously bouncing back both as a rider and a man.”
“The story of [Millar's] fall from grace is gripping.”
“An incredibly personal, moving and compelling story.”
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Read an Excerpt
My Early Years
Even though I was born in Malta—for those who need to know, on January 4, 1977—I have always thought of myself as a Scot.
My parents, Gordon and Avril, left the island when I was eleven months old and returned to Scotland. This was a homecoming, a return from abroad to our brethren. Yet because my father was in the Royal Air Force and subject to their postings, it wasn’t really his choice where we ended up.
We lived in Forres. My earliest memories are of a housing estate, a school bus—with a metal bar across the top of the seat in front of me that I’d try to bite but couldn’t, because of the bus bumping around—and of my grandma giving me chocolate eclairs.
The RAF housing estate was my playground. I could usually be found playing with my Star Wars figurines and space ships—a quiet little boy by all accounts, living in his own little world.
1977, Malta. Proof that I was born in the seventies under the Maltese sun. Gordon looks like a Starsky & Hutch extra, while Avril looks like she’s come straight off the Buck Rogers set.
I’ve been told a story, by both Mum and Dad, about a birthday party they held for me at home. I disappeared early on and was found playing alone in my room, asking when everybody was going home. I remember being like that when I was young.
I liked drawing. In fact, I drew a lot. There was another toddler whom I was best friends with, but I can’t remember his name now. My sister Frances—sometimes “Fran,” sometimes “France”; “Fran” to others, “France” to me—arrived a little less than a year after our return to Scotland, and she quickly became my new play partner.
Fran was a quick developer and walked and talked at a freakishly young age. When people learned that I, not Fran, was the older sibling, this confused them. I’ve never had a problem with it—Fran’s propensity for talking, that is. I simply point out that I’m older than her anyway and claim seniority that way.
Dad was stationed at Kinloss, the RAF base not far from Forres. On occasions when he wasn’t flying, he’d take me to the base and I’d play on the grass-covered aircraft hangars and run around after him among the aircraft. Even now, it’s a vivid memory. Sometimes I’ll pass a garage that will have that same smell of warm metal and diesel and I’ll be back there, running among those big war machines, with my dad, in the grass-covered hangars. I wish more garages had that smell.
I was too young to understand his job, but I remember his leaving for the Falkland Islands. He just disappeared one day, and we didn’t see him again for what seemed like forever. It’s the only time I can remember my mum telling my sister and me to pray at night. There was never any news, and it must have been very hard for her.
My godfather, Major Mike Norman, was involved in the Falklands War, too. He and his wife, Thelma, were friends with my parents in Malta. Mike had given my mum a Royal Marine insignia to be flown above the house when she went into labor. She still has the flag.
Mike was something of a war hero, and, years later, while I was living in Hong Kong, I learned what a significant part he had played in the conflict when I saw a BBC film called An Ungentlemanly Act. Mike had been the commanding officer of the Royal Marines unit on the Falklands when the Argentinians invaded.
When it became clear that the Argentines were mounting a full invasion, he was charged with defending the island by Rex Hunt, the island’s governor. Although outnumbered, Mike led his men with courage and skill, but after hours of defending Governor’s House he was ordered to surrender.
Two months later, when the Argentine army capitulated, he raised the British flag once again. Nonetheless, the war left its mark on him. Many years later, after Mike had retired, my mother spoke to Thelma on the phone and asked how he was.
“Oh, he’s fine,” she said. “He’s out gardening. But you know, Avril, his knees never really recovered from that bloody yomp.”
In many ways, growing up as a forces child made us different from other kids. Our dads, whether in the RAF, army, or navy, couldn’t just switch off their value systems on coming home and taking off their uniforms. They worked in an environment with hundreds of years of history and standards. It made for a disciplined and regimented childhood.
My sister and I could be taken to any restaurant in the world, and there would be no risk of our behaving badly. Without being too hard on us, my father was a disciplinarian. But he was also incredibly funny and loving when he was relaxed and happy, which was all the funnier because it was impossible to imagine him ever being the same when he was in his uniform.
I remember one flier friend never stopped calling him “sir,” even when they were both in civilian clothes.
“Why don’t you just call him Gordon?” I asked him once.
“I can’t, David,” he replied, deadpan. “He’s my commanding officer.”
Years later, after my dad had left the forces and joined Cathay Pacific, I appreciated what a change it must have been for him going from being a young wing commander in the Royal Air Force to a middle-aged copilot in a commercial airline. It couldn’t have been easy for him.
My dad was reckless at times. I remember seeing him, around the time that he was a squadron leader, standing in the dining room looking out of the window, staring at his white Lotus Elite. There was something broken about his expression—he told me that he’d crashed his car and that he felt sad.
I first learned to ride a bike in Scotland. But it was hardly the most auspicious start to my cycling career, as I rode into the back of a parked car on one of those first rides.
In fact, I was a little accident-prone. Playing tag at school, I managed to break my collarbone for the first time. It took my mum, bless her, three days to believe that I’d broken it. I’m not sure if that says more about me, or my mum.
My mum is one of the most intelligent people I know, able to maintain a challenging conversation on almost any subject. She studied engineering at Glasgow University, based on her admiration for her adopted father, yet, forty years on, she is now on her fourth different career. She came from a loving yet unorthodox family, adopted as a baby by a couple already in their mid-forties. Today the only family she has is my sister and me, and her fabulous piano-playing neighbor Terry. Her background probably explains her absolute love for France and me, yet this collarbone incident also showed she was no pushover.
Just before we left Scotland, I did it again. One of my best friends had a hill in his back garden that in winter hardened to a stony mix of frost, ice, and snow. Naturally, we considered it our duty to ride down this. I must have taken it more seriously than him, because I was the one who ended up crumpled at the bottom of the hill, nursing a second broken collarbone.
There’s a final memory of our time in Scotland—of leaving in 1984, and Fran and I, cocooned in the bucket seats of my dad’s Lotus, singing along to Yazoo. Dad had a new posting. We were moving on again, heading south to our new house in Stone, Buckinghamshire.
It’s hard to imagine Frances and me arriving in England as wee Scots, the two of us arguing away with our strong singsong accents. The years since, traveling and living in many different places, have left me with the most neutral of accents.
If anything, what I have now is an expat Brit accent that morphs itself spontaneously to mimic those around me. It’s not something I’m proud of; I would much prefer to have held on to the Scottish accent that I had as a child, because I remain very proud of being a Scot.
At times, I have to admit that, listening to my English accent while calling myself Scottish, I’ve felt like a fraud. But then I suppose our nomadic lifestyle made it important that we were good at “fitting in.”
When I started school in Buckinghamshire, I would always play lunchtime football in Scottish national team kit. Looking back, I think losing my accent was a pivotal moment. Even so, I feel most at home when surrounded by Scots, and it was among Scots that I spent most of my time during my doping ban.
I didn’t enjoy school that much, but out of the classroom, I had a blast, particularly after I discovered BMX and became the proud owner of a Raleigh Super Tuff Burner. Dad would take me along to the BMX race leagues in High Wycombe every other weekend. I was eight years old, and it was the perfect introduction to racing.
The BMX boom was at its height, and movies such as ET and BMX Bandits were big box office. I still haven’t seen ET, even though, a few years later while on a family holiday in California, I was chosen out of a throng of children to ride the ET BMX against a blue screen at Universal Studios. I couldn’t bring myself to tell them I hadn’t actually seen the film.
I loved the rush of BMX racing. The start gate would come crashing down, and the ten riders in the field would hurtle with childish abandon toward the first ramps and left-hand banked turn, or “burn.” There was very little skill involved. It was more dependent on a lot of youthful courage and blind luck.
I was still on my trusty Raleigh, competing against kids on special racing BMXs. This had never bothered me, until one day, when, after finishing in the top three and while pushing my Raleigh back up the hill for the next race, I heard the commentator remark on my less-than-special bike. I was upset to say the least.
Despite that, in my first season I finished fourth in the county for my age group. This entitled me to a number 4 handlebar plate for the next season, but I clearly remember thinking that fourth in the county wasn’t really that good.
I don’t know why I would have such high expectations or put such pressure on myself at such a young age. I was competing against boys who were clearly taking it much more seriously than I was. For my dad and me, it was simply a Sunday out together. He didn’t allow himself to get mixed up in overcompetitive dad syndrome. Any pressure or desire I had to perform came from me and me alone.
1986, Stone primary school. Frances and I rocking the uniform. I get the impression there was a lot of giggling pre- and post-photograph.
But that number 4 plate was never used because my beloved Super Tuff Burner was stolen that winter, effectively ending my BMX career. I spent years looking in ditches and scouring bike racks searching for that bike, and it took me a very long time to accept that it was never coming back.
As well as BMX, I’d taken to roller-skating much of the time, usually at roller discos. I can’t remember how often the roller discos were, but they were never regular enough for me. I was a roller-disco king—Thame Leisure Centre was my kingdom.
France, in true younger sibling fashion, had taken to copying everything I did, be it BMX or roller-skating. It was never long before France was, like me, fully equipped, tagging along. Most irritatingly, everybody still thought she was my older sister, which was not cool for an already quiet, shy, introspective boy. I’m ashamed to say that I did my best to make sure that skating was the last hobby of mine that Frances copied. At the time, I didn’t see the love, only the burden of a little sister.
France was so confident, so able to talk to people. She would talk to anybody at any time on any subject. We—my parents and I—would hang back and send her forward to ask all sorts of things of all sorts of people. We didn’t need local knowledge or a tour guide when we were on holiday, because we had our own little search engine on legs. Frances was our Google.
My mum and dad made a significant effort to improve us both. We were both given extra tuition outside of school, and I was learning to play the trombone and the piano. I was trombonist in the school jazz band, and now it amazes me that I pretended to enjoy it and persevered for so long.
But there were problems at home. It became impossible to ignore the troubles between my parents. At first, it had been subtle, but now there were things that I couldn’t ignore. It became harder to pretend that the fights weren’t happening. I suppose it had been going on for a long while, but children choose not to see such things.
Eventually, things reached a crisis point. I was woken up in the middle of the night, my tearful mum and dad sitting on my bed, telling me that they were splitting up, that it wasn’t my fault and that I should look after my sister.
I don’t think I cried. I certainly don’t remember being tearful, but I remember being incredibly fucking angry. My childhood had come to an abrupt end. I was eleven.
The next morning, I walked to school as usual, through grass covered in morning dew, my feet leaving a trail behind me.
Meet the Author
World-class cyclist David Millar turned pro in 1999. A champion time trialist for team Garmin-Cervélo, he has raced in nearly every major international cycling event, including the Tour de France, Vuelta a España, and the Olympics. He lives in Girona, Spain with his wife and son.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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A great read. Certainly illusions are shattered at all levels, but it is refreshing to know that integrity wins in the end. Pro cycling is both a sport for heros and villaines, with corporate marketing controlling the flow.
I bought this book over the summer of 2012 whilst in the UK ( and prior to the Armstrong allegations ) . It is co-written & they have done a good job of helping the reader to understand the pressures of all top level sports. This book is still of interest and I would suggest that it is read before anythought is given of reading Tyler's book.