Stage 12 analysis: Millar time, finally

David Millar was the strongest and cleverest rider in today’s long break, winning his first Tour stage as a Garmin rider.

Words by Lionel Birnie in Annonay-Davézieux

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Friday July 13, 2012

David Millar wrote the foreword when Tom Simpson’s autobiography Cycling Is My Life was republished a couple of years ago. There was something fitting about that. Simpson paid the ultimate price for his ambition, and cycling’s inability to keep its excesses in check, when he died on Mont Ventoux on July 13, 1967. Simpson had taken amphetamines and alcohol and suffered terrible dehydration before collapsing.

On the 45th anniversary of Simpson’s death, Millar won a stage of the Tour de France, his first since he returned from a two-year suspension for doping.

Should we bring up his past every time? According to Millar, perhaps we should. He said afterwards: “We mustn’t forget I am an ex-doper. I was doped but now I am clean.”

What extraordinarily refreshing words. Most people in his position would want to skate over the past, leave it where it belongs. Millar understands that the person and athlete he is today is the sum of his past.

And today he reminded us of the great tragedy of his downfall all those years ago. Millar is a fantastically intelligent bike rider with a pedalling style so smooth it looks like he’s churning ice cream.

Considering Garmin were among the hardest hit by the terrible crash on the road to Metz a week ago, they could have been forgiven for approaching Friday the 13th, which is considered unlucky by some, with a certain amount of trepidation.

In truth, the 12th stage from St-Jean-de-Maurienne to Annonay Davézieux was not the most exciting in recent history. For all but the five riders who shaped the second half of the stage, it was as close to a day off as the Tour gets.

The difficulties were all loaded in the opening third of the Tour’s longest stage but the first category climbs of the Grand Cucheron and Granier came too early to be of any use to the riders who hoped to chip away at Team Sky’s stranglehold on the race.

After a fast start, a break of 19 riders got clear at the 18-kilometre mark. All five of the day’s main protagonists were in it.

Robert Kiserlovski of Astana, who was in the big break yesterday, reached the top of the Grand Cucheron 30 seconds clear of the rest, with the peloton at 1-06. Ten riders joined him and eventually the gap began to stretch.

It was on the Granier that the final five formed. Kiserlovski again probed and he was joined by Millar, Egoi Martinez of Euskaltel-Euskadi, Jean-Christophe Peraud of AG2R and Cyril Gautier of Europcar. Behind them Wiggins was feeling lively enough to chase down Jérôme Coppel and Christophe Kern. He later explained that he had made the move to give his Sky team-mates a break and to bring Coppel, 14th overall, under control.

The front five worked very well together and with 80 kilometres to go, their lead was 11 minutes, enough to make them feel extremely confident of fighting for victory.

Behind them, the peloton were putting the tourist in Tour and rolled along without ever looking motivated to close the gap.

With 43 kilometres left, the gap had actually gone up to 12-36.

The final climb, the Côte d’Ardoux, a shallow 5.9-kilometre hill, could have acted as a springboard for a winning move had the summit not come with 18.5 kilometres still to ride. It was just that bit too far and so the five co-operated fully until the final five kilometres.

The uphill drag with a couple of kilometres to go meant it was always likely to be a thinking man’s finish, which perhaps made Millar the likely favourite. Kiserlovski, it seemed, had paid for this efforts during two aggressive days in the Alps. Peraud and Martinez though dangerous, lacked the sprint finish to match Millar and Gautier, though highly rated by his manager Jean-Réné Bernaudeau, looked to be suffering more than the others. Besides, three consecutive victories for Europcar would be greedy.

Martinez dipped his toe in the water as they entered the final four kilometres but once he was closed down the race began edgy and tactical, like a sprint on the track. There was no need to rush, they still had almost ten minutes to play with.

Kiserlovski tried a desperate effort but Millar reacted quickly, then Peraud went with 2.7 kilometres left and Millar followed him too while the others waited. Peraud looked strong on the climb, which made him the perfect companion for Millar. The pair shared the workload as they reached the final kilometre.

The other three were finished, although Martinez mounted a late effort to get back up to them. Millar had the confidence to ride at the front and wait for Peraud to make his move, which came as they reached the final 250 metres.

Millar, whose last road race stage win of the Tour came a decade ago in Béziers, drew level, eased past and gave a satisfied punch of the air as he crossed the line.

He became the fourth British rider to win a stage of this Tour after Mark Cavendish, Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins – that’s four-fifths of the Great Britain team for the Olympic Games.

But Millar’s victory was more significant than that. Somehow it brought career full circle. He said so himself. And with the first British Tour de France victory looking likelier every day, Millar reconciled a part of the nation’s complex relationship with the great race.

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