The main inspiration behind The Breakaway was a desire to ride my bike up the high-mountain passes made famous by the Tour de France. The art of climbing by bike has always held me in its thrall. I was (still am) a skinny chap, and so riding uphill was my forte, or at least I was better at it than most of my cycling peers. There was also a rather famous compatriot over in France providing inspiration (to me and many others).
|Millar in Polka Dots|
Robert Millar is the only British rider ever to have won the Tour’s King of the Mountains polka-dot jersey, a feat he achieved in 1984. In 1989, I was a sixteen-year-old riding my bike at every available opportunity. Millar was by then a 30-year-old, highly successful pro on the Z-Peugeot team. That year he won the summit-finish-stage from Cauterets to Superbagnères (which also included the climbs of the Tourmalet, Aspin, and Peyresourde), and finished the race in tenth place overall. I was a new convert to the joys of Le Tour and watched events unfold through Channel 4’s half-hour highlights programme, gazing wide-eyed at an exotic, exciting world, where men did battle on high-mountains passes with names like D’Huez and Marie Blanque. And in amongst all that exoticism was a Scot, a man from my own country — entertaining, awesome to watch and utterly inspiring.
Millar was a great inspiration for a teenage boy to have. He was, and by all accounts still is, an enigmatic figure. He might have been Scottish but to me he was positively, exotically foreign. He didn’t seem to care what anyone thought of him, and rode with obvious passion and flare. His image certainly didn’t look out of place pinned to my bedroom wall with photos of the indie-music stars I was also idolising.
Fast forward a few too many years and I found myself in the Pyrenees, celebrating what I had haphazardly, and half-jokingly, labelled Robert Millar Day. My friend and I were about to ride to the top of Superbagneres and the Col de Peyresourde in tribute to Millar. It was 40 degrees. I had the shits. I suffered horribly. And somehow it all felt like a fitting tribute. Millar almost made riding up mountains look easy. The reality, as I painfully discovered, was otherwise (see the short extract from the book below), and my admiration for the man increased several notches.
|Cooked at the Peyresourde|
In the 1923 Tour, Robert Jacquinot collapsed into a ditch on the Peyresourde roadside, paying the price for the monstrous attacks he had made earlier in the day upon the Aubisque and the Tourmalet. In that ditch he is reported to have lain, entirely spent, only able to watch as those he’d left behind came pedalling by. I couldn’t help thinking, if collapsing into a ditch is good enough for a Tour rider then it’s definitely good enough for me. That desire to keel over was heightened by the sound of water, trickling and burbling away in the ditch to my left (quite what stopped me diving in I’ll never know). I guesstimated that there were probably around three miles left to ascend but from where I was supposed to find the energy for the next three hundred metres I hadn’t a clue. I looked up to the ever-distant summit; the water trickled and tempted; my mind wandered. It was the closest I had come all trip to getting off the bike and giving up, something I hadn’t seriously considered on any of the other climbs, not on the mighty Stelvio, not even during my awful ascent of the Madeleine. (It’s possible the knowledge that I didn’t even have the energy to walk was all that kept me on the bike.)
Then, last Sunday, I found myself in Billy Bilsland Cycles, having wandered in there on the way back from watching the British Road Race Championships at Glasgow Green. I was hoping they might display a few flyers for The Breakaway. Come in, they welcomed me like a prodigal son, and come and see Robert Millar’s jersey.
“Which jersey?” I asked.
“Which jersey?” They laughed. “There is only one.”
There it was, the polka dot jersey (in this case a skin suit) from 1984, worn by the man himself. This precious relic was a gift to Billy, the shop’s owner, a Scottish cycling legend and former international racer, who mentored the young Millar. (Apparently Billy — Mr Bilsland to me — is one of the few people still in touch with Millar.)
Given how reclusive the man is, meeting the jersey is the closest I’ll probably ever get to meeting Millar, and I kind of like it that way. They say you should never meet your heroes, in case they disappoint you (or you disappoint them). I’ll stick with the air of mystery, the memories of Tours watched on the small portable colour TV, the ardour and ecstasy (mostly ardour) of that Pyrenean day spent riding in Millar’s wheel tracks.
Billy Bilsland Cycles are at 176 Saltmarket, Glasgow. 0141 552 0841 www.billybilslandcycles.co.uk