At one point during Sunday’s Tour of Flanders, Garmin-Slipstream’s David Millar sat in a three-man chase group behind the winning two-man move and looked poised to finish, at worst, fifth. Exactly one hour later he was leading out his teammate Tyler Farrar in the bunch sprint, and it was instead Farrar finishing fifth.
It was a day that saw Millar forced to walk up the Koppenberg, regain contact with the front chase group and then attack out of that chase group with 35km remaining, drawing out Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) and Bjorn Leukemans (Vacansoleil). However, halfway up the Muur Millar bonked out of the move and dropped back to the second, larger chase group.
“Unfortunately I bonked, the lights just went out,” Millar said. “I’d missed a few bottles, and a few bottles fell off my bike. It was total depletion, just lights out, and unfortunately it came just before the Muur, which is not an ideal place.”
When Millar’s group and Farrar’s group came together with just 2.5km remaining, Millar had enough left in the tank to take Farrar to the line; the Scot finished 32nd.
“Me and Tyler know each other really well, and when he joined on with 2km to go, he didn’t have to say much,” Millar said. “He just said, ‘Dave, I’ve only got 100 meters in me.’ I found my 19th wind, or whatever it was. I had to ride it perfectly, to make it as easy as possible for him. I managed to get him to about 200 to go, but from the way he sprinted, I think he had 300 meters in his legs. It was a wonderful ride for him. I derive a great deal of pleasure seeing him succeed, we’re good friends, and I always said if my race didn’t pan out, that I’d work for him.”
All in all, it was an eye-opening first Tour of Flanders performance for the 33-year-old Millar, who won the overall at the demanding Flanders warm-up, Three Days of De Panne, last week. Millar said he wasn’t completely surprised by his Flanders ride, given his performance at De Panne on top of his stage win at Critérium International in late March.
“To have had a good ride in De Panne, I knew it meant I could do something, especially because De Panne was just so epically hard,” Millar said. “I knew that racing hard Thursday didn’t bode well for recovering and being well (Sunday), but it was great for seeing the roads and altering the style of racing. I started Flanders with much more confidence than if I was just arriving here straight from Critérium International. I was mildly surprised to be on the road with Gilbert racing for third place, and if I hadn’t had blown up that’s what it would have been.”
So it is possible that Millar has been a man for the cobbles all along?
“We’ve been joking about that,” Millar said Sunday evening, following dinner with his Garmin-Transitions team. “We were saying that maybe for the last decade I’ve been aiming at the wrong things. I tried dipping my toes in classics when I was younger, races like the E3 Prijs Harelebke and Waregem, but it was a different sport back then, and I decided the cobbles weren’t for me. But the sport has changed, and I’ve gotten stronger. Maybe the classics are what I’m made for.”
It’s not such a stretch that Millar would be fit for the cobbles. At 6-foot-3 and 170 pounds, he’s built more like Boonen (6-foot-4, 180 pounds) than Spanish Tour de France winners such Alberto Contador or Carlos Sastre. And just like Sunday’s winner, Millar is a former world time-trial champion, a rider who capable of applying sustained threshold power to the pedals.
It was that same ability to time trial — and climb — at an early age that led Millar’s coaches and advisors to steer him towards developing into a stage racer. “It was decided that I was pre-destined to be another sort of rider,” he said.
Since then Millar’s won countless time trials, worn the Tour’s maillot jaune, been national road champion and finished second at the Amgen Tour of California. However, winning De Panne, particularly given the relentless conditions of stage 2, was a meaningful victory for Millar, who is enjoying his best run of form since returning to racing in 2006 after serving a two-year suspension.
“It meant a huge amount to me to win De Panne,” he said. “Twelve years ago I won the time trial, so it’s nice to have come full circle. I’m older, a more mature athlete and person, and to do something there, it was a bit of unfinished business. Also, within the pro peloton that race is absolutely feared and loathed because it’s so dangerous, so brutal with the weather and conditions. So winning has certainly helped my status amongst my peers and colleagues, and I’m quite proud of that.”
Garmin walked away from De Panne with Millar’s time trial and overall wins, as well as Farrar’s sprint stage victory, yet prior to Flanders team director Matt White had initially pointed to Martijn Masskant, fourth at Flanders last year, and Johan Vansummeren, fifth at Paris-Roubaix last year, as the team’s designated leaders.
“De Panne is one of those races where, if you get through it unscathed, it’s the best way to prepare for the Tour of Flanders,” White told VeloNews. “For the first time on this team we have multiple guys who can help Martijn in the final. We hope to have three or four guys around him after the Koppenberg. We’ll be using Millar, but maybe not sending him up the road on the crucial stages. And for Farrar, I think it’s important to remember that last year, besides Haussler attacking at the end, it would have been 50 guys sprinting for second at Flanders. I think we will have all our bases covered.”
All four men were essentially protected riders at De Ronde, Millar said. “If it hadn’t been me and Tyler, it could have been Johan and Martijn on a great day. The four of us were protected, and we knew we could count on at least two of the four to do something.”
Millar admits he still needs to learn a thing or two about racing the cobbled classics.
“I was a bit surprised that I made that move (with Gilbert and Leukemans), and to be in that situation after a less-than-ideal previous 60km,” he said. “Earlier I kept finding myself in a bad position, had a puncture, chasing back on, walking up Koppenberg… so there’s room for improvement on some of the technical aspects.”
Though he won’t ride Scheldeprijs, a race Farrar is gunning to win, the Scottish rider will ride Roubaix, which closes out the first part of his season, before ramping up for the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France.