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Continental Drift with Andrew Hood: When will Millar be back?

It could be Millar Time once again in the 2006 Tour de France after the Court of Arbitration for Sport gave David Millar something of a reprieve last week. Millar – who lost his 2003 world time trial crown after admitting to taking EPO – unsuccessfully asked the sporting world’s highest court to reduce his doping ban to one year, but won in his appeal that his ineligibility should begin from the date of his arrest by French police in June of 2004 rather than from his disciplinary hearing before the British Cycling Federation in August. By changing the date of the two-year ban, CAS opened

CAS ruling opens door for Millar’s Tour return in 2006 – maybe

By Andrew Hood

Millar - seen here leaving court last fall - hopes to be wearing a team kit next year

Millar – seen here leaving court last fall – hopes to be wearing a team kit next year

Photo: AFP (file photo)

It could be Millar Time once again in the 2006 Tour de France after the Court of Arbitration for Sport gave David Millar something of a reprieve last week.

Millar – who lost his 2003 world time trial crown after admitting to taking EPO – unsuccessfully asked the sporting world’s highest court to reduce his doping ban to one year, but won in his appeal that his ineligibility should begin from the date of his arrest by French police in June of 2004 rather than from his disciplinary hearing before the British Cycling Federation in August.

By changing the date of the two-year ban, CAS opened the window for the 28-year-old Scot to return to competition in late June next year, just in time for the 2006 Tour.

Millar’s imminent return to the Tour assumes a lot. First, that Millar is fit and motivated, and secondly, that a Tour de France-bound team would be interested in signing him. With the City of London lobbying hard to secure the 2006 Tour start, someone’s sure to take a look at a rider with as much star power as Millar, no matter how tarnished.

There’s another twist in the story, however.

According to a proposed set of rules being floated for the new ProTour, any rider who serves a doping ban would not be allowed to immediately return to a ProTour-licensed team. Instead, a sanctioned rider would be forced to race on a continental team for an additional period at least as long as their original ban.

All ProTour teams signed off on the rule as part of its Ethical Charter during a meeting of the AIGCP in mid-December in Montreux, Switzerland. The UCI has still not taken action on the proposal, but the support among the teams was unanimous.

“The general idea is the doubling of the sanction. If a rider is sanctioned for one year, they must ride for one year in a continental team,” explains Liberty Seguros sport manager Manolo Saiz, who heads the international team’s association. “If a rider has a sanction of two years, he has to wait a total of four years to return to the ProTour.”

With the 20 ProTour teams assured spots in the grand tours, that would all but guarantee that riders on continental teams won’t be racing in the Tour.

“If a rider commits a grave error with hard doping – not something to stop the flu – but something very serious, what we’re saying is that once that rider finishes their ineligibility they cannot immediately return to the ProTour,” Saiz continued. “They can return to a continental team, and if in this time they regain the confidence of the cycling world, they will return once again to the ProTour.”

Regaining that confidence, of course, means racing without failing another doping test. And a second offense would mean a life-time ban.

As for Millar, the flamboyant ex-Cofidis rider has remained officially mum since the CAS hearing last week.

He’s obviously intent on coming back and his openness about doping (admittedly, that came after the French police hauled him away in handcuffs) helped him earn some points with the sport’s higher powers.

Initially, the British Cycling Federation could have slapped him with a four-year ban. Instead, they went “soft” on him and handed down a two-year ban thanks to his cooperation and the fact that this was his first infraction.

Millar – known for his bad-boy rock star image and brilliant yet unfulfilled potential – admitted to taking EPO three times. The first came before the 2001 Vuelta, when he won (and has since been stripped of) two stage victories. He said he topped up on EPO again twice in 2003, once before finishing third in the Dauphiné Libéré and again before winning the 2003 world time trial championships.

So the question remains: would a rider like Millar, who was banned before the ProTour, be allowed to return immediately to the ProTour or would he have to wait two more years before joining an elite team if the proposed rules are formally adopted?

Many are sure to complain those rules would amount to unfair punishment, but Saiz insists the strict penalties are just the message to send to potential dopers.

“Cycling has paid a very high price for fighting doping,” Saiz concluded. “We want to make sure people realize there is no doubt about our stand against doping. We want to bring back the respect that hard-working, clean professional cyclists deserve.”

Saiz says it’s high time for cycling to draw a hard line on doping: if you get caught, you’re going to pay a very high price.