Robert Millar, cyclist, was born on the 13th of September, 1958.
For many British cycling fans, Scotland’s Robert Millar is the United Kingdom's greatest ever professional road cyclist. There is no doubt that, in years to come, someone will equal or surpass Millar’s achievements, but apart from Tom Simpson, there has been no rider who has come close to comparison with Millar. There has been no rider quite like Millar either as he was as unique a personality as he was a cycling legend. Millar’s performances in the Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta de Espana were the inspiration for countless numbers of aspiring British cyclists in the 1980s and 90s. Today, providing an element of nostalgia for those who attempted to follow in his footsteps or for those who are still dreaming, there are many videos of his famous rides to be seen on YouTube.
Robert Millar became the first and so far, the only Briton ever to achieve a final podium finish in the Tour de France. That accolade came by virtue of his having won the ‘King of the Mountains’ competition in the 1984 Tour de France, in which he also finished fourth overall. For three glorious weeks in that 1984 ‘Tour’, Robert Millar danced his way up climb after climb to secure the red and white polka-dot jersey. He remains the only rider from an English speaking country to have won the Tour de France ‘King of the Mountains’ polka-dot jersey and the only Briton to have won a Tour de France classification in the hundred-years-old history of cycling's premier event. His fourth place in the 1984 ‘le Tour’ was also, until recently when it was equaled by Bradley Wiggins, the highest finishing position by a British cyclist. Billy Bilsland, Millar's first trainer and a man who, like Millar, rode for the French Peugeot team on the Continent, has been unequivocal in stating Millar’s place in the pantheon of Scotland's sporting greats. According to Bilsland, “Robert Millar is the most successful Scottish athlete ever.”
Robert Charles Millar was born in Glasgow on the 13th of September, 1958, and was brought up in Shawlands in the City’s south side. After making his mark on the UK amateur cycling scene, he moved to Paris in 1979, when he was offered a place in the top French amateur team, Athletic Club Boulogne-Billancourt (ACBB). At that time, Millar was part of the first wave of English-speaking cyclists that took the European world of cycling by storm. It was a group that included the American, Greg LeMond, Irishmen Stephen Roche and Sean Kelly, and Australia's Phil Anderson. Millar became a success in his first year on the circuit, winning the Merlin Plage, which is a trophy for the best amateur of the season. That win brought him to the attention of the Peugeot professional team, whom he soon joined. Then, in 1983, when still only twenty-four, he signalled notice of his ability by winning stage ten of the Tour de France in the Pyrenean Mountains from Pau to Bagneres de Luchon, finishing well ahead of the Peloton with his trademark Peugeot cycling cap firmly placed on his curly head. When he was interviewed by an English journalist after his first ever-professional victory, Millar described looking around with about three kilometers to go and seeing Pedro Delgado bearing down on him so, in his own words, he “put [himself] on the rivet again” to secure the victory. Commenting about the ubiquitous hat, he also said, “At five hundred metres, I took the hat out for publicity, put it on, nice like and put the arms up; always have to remember that.”
When Millar won the mountain stage in the 1983 ‘Tour’ he was of an age when most riders are considered insufficiently mature to even compete in the world's most gruelling sporting event. That statement of intent, if you like, led to Millar being considered by many to be a possible future ‘Tour’ winner. However, that was not to be and it’s fair to say that Millar, despite his phenomenal prowess, was not team leader material. His successes came from a focus on winning stages and shorter tours. His crowning glory was the 1984 Tour de France, in which he won one stage, a summit finish at the Pyrenean ski station of Guzet Neige, on his way to fourth place and the ‘King of the Mountains’ classification. And Millar’s love affair with the Pyrenees was consolidated when he returned to the stage winner’s podium for the third time in his career. That came when he ‘summited’ first at Superbagneres ski station, in the 1989 ‘Tour’. Millar also achieved the highest finish by a Briton in the Giro d'Italia, in which he finished second in 1987, also winning the King of the Mountains classification.
Millar’s lack of a ‘Tour’ win plays in the minds of his many fans, who idolise him to this day. That is because of his second place in the 1985 Vuelta de Espana. Although the fans’ angst is because he finished second rather than first, it is the manner of his defeat that rankles. On the second last day of the tour, wearing the race leader's yellow jersey and with a seemingly unassailable lead of more than six minutes, Millar punctured. That incident was the catalyst for an attack by two Spanish riders, Pedro Delgado and Jose Recio. Somehow, over a distance of just sixty kilometers, that pair managed to build up a lead of seven minutes, which made Delgado the race leader on the road. The tragedy for Millar was that he wasn’t made aware of the lead that his rival had developed. Ruiz Cabestany had even leaned across to the Scot and shaken hands with him, because he believed he was going to win his first major tour. Millar’s French manager seems to have been somewhat incompetent as he signally failed to keep Millar up to date with events on the road or to attempt to do anything about the situation until it was too late. It didn’t help that the other riders the Peloton were mostly Spanish and had no inclination to help an ‘Extranjero’ against their countryman, the ever controversial Delgado. The fuel for the conspiracy theory and the label of the ‘stolen Vuelta’ stems from the idea that Millar's Peugeot team mates were unable to help him, because they were delayed at a level crossing, waiting for a train that never came. Interestingly, Ruiz Cabestany also said that he knew all the time that Millar was going to lose the Vuelta, but he had to keep his mouth shut. Millar’s own take on the affair is pragmatic, “Delgado didn’t win,” he has stated, “I lost.”
Since his retirement from professional cycling, Robert Millar has kept a low profile, but he does surface from time to time. He pens the odd article for ‘Rouleur’ cycling magazine, which means that those issues become tantamount to collectors’ editions, and he can be found in the odd blog post under the pseudonym ‘gotheteeshirt2’ on the pro race forum of bikeradar.com