David Millar wouldn’t be defending his title at Three Days of De Panne this week even if Garmin-Cervélo had sent a team to the Flemish suffer-fest.
Millar is easing into the 2011 season after the opening months of the year were hampered by a bout with the flu. The veteran expects to be back at the top of his game in time for the season’s most important dates.
“I am not racing De Panne, unfortunately, but it’s probably for the best. I am disappointed, but I’ve had an illness and I’ve had to move everything back a month,” Millar told VeloNews. “I got really sick over the winter with some sort of flu that was going around the UK. It knocked me out for three weeks. I was just getting back; then I got sick again in the Algarve. I didn’t count on getting sick, it really messed up my plans for the spring.”
In 2010, the 34-year-old Millar enjoyed his best season since his comeback in 2004 with five victories, including the silver medal in the world time trial championship as well as a gold medal in the Commonwealth Games time trial race, when he competed for the Scottish national team in Delhi.
His win last year at De Panne was a breakthrough of sorts in that it was his first stage-race victory since the Tour de Picardy in 2003. Millar called it one of the hardest races on the calendar, with its punishing cobbles and dangerous crosswinds.
“De Panne is a legendary race and it makes or breaks you. It was a good start to the season last year,” Millar said in a telephone interview from Girona, Spain. “The confidence I gained there by winning last year really carried through the whole season. You always enjoy it when you win.”
So far this year, Millar’s only raced at Algarve and Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in February and returned to competition last weekend at Critérium International, when he was far off the winning form he had last year when he won the time trial stage.
Millar is taking the long view on the season and will race the Ardennes classics this year instead of the northern classics before ramping up for the Giro d’Italia. He will have another calendar loaded with grand tours – he’s started eight of the nine three-week tours over the past three years – and will toe up to the line at both the Giro and Tour de France, with the Vuelta a España still an option later in the season.
“I’m trying to keep a cool head and not come back too soon and do some panicky, over-training that will just put me back in the hole again. It’s better to completely get healthy again before coming back too soon. The team is really supporting me and encouraging me to heal up properly,” he said. “I hope to be 100 percent for the Giro. The team time trial is really big for us and then I’d like to try to win a stage this year at the Giro, to make up for my bike-tossing incident a few years ago. I will have more personal goals at the Giro, then it’s everything for the team at the Tour de France.”
For the Tour, Millar says he will be working to help Christian Vande Velde make a run for the podium. Vande Velde has been battered by two years of bad luck and crashes, but Millar says he confides in his American teammate.
“The Tour is very important for our team this year and helping Christian is my No. 1 priority. I want him to have the Tour that everyone knows he’s capable of. I think if everything goes right, he can be with the best on GC,” Millar said. “He’s already proven he’s got the talent. What he doesn’t need is anymore bad luck. Of course, he’s podium potential. When you finish fourth in the Tour, the podium is right there.”
Millar spent a good chunk of the off-season working on an autobiography that’s due out in June. Millar’s story of a prodigy tempted by doping to his comeback as an outspoken spokesman for clean racing should make for some compelling copy.
“It’s the first time I’ve done a book. It’s an interesting process. Jeremy Whittle (an English journalist) is helping to mentor me through it,” Millar said. “I had a few intense months to get through it. People often think it’s cathartic to write a book, but I’ve been through all that in my life. I found it a more technical challenge on how to write a book and tell a story. It’s quite hard.”
Millar says he’s enjoying racing more than ever and said encouraging signs that the sport is cleaning up its act makes the job of being a professional cyclist more rewarding than at any time in his career.
He’s on a one-year deal with Garmin-Cervélo and said he will worry about his contract situation later in the season. In the meantime, he’s intent on getting back to the top of his game in time for the season’s main targets.
“I want to race bikes as long as I can. I know how lucky we are to be professional cyclists. This is as good as it gets,” he said. “I will go as long as my body allows it. My mind and the motivation are there. It will be my body that will go first. When that day comes, I will call it a day, but I think that’s still a few good years away.”
If that’s the case, Millar might have to add a few chapters to that book that’s due out in June.