By Stefan Abram
As a TT specialist who won four stages of the Tour de France, five at the Vuelta a España and one stage of the Giro d'Italia before retiring in 2015, David Millar's pedigree as a road cyclist is unquestioned.
Gravel, on the other hand...?
As we cut through the narrow, cobbled streets of Girona's old town, with 90 degree turns followed by sudden wall-like ramps, Millar cheerfully told me how his formative years had been spent BMX racing and downhill mountain biking in Hong Kong.
Although he started the transition to road at 15 when he got his first road bike, that penchant for dirt didn't go away. When riding for what was then Garmin-Sharp (now EF Education–Nippo), he and Michael Barry would mix up their training with Girona's plentiful gravel tracks – naturally all done on their unmodified team bikes with 25mm tyres.
After a surprisingly short time, we popped out onto those smooth, wide and deserted tracks – that prime gravel riding those of us less lucky in our locations can only dream of.
On Millar's custom spec gravel bikes from the CHPT3 collaboration with Vielo, we were motoring along – the longer, slacker and much more cushioned ride making short work of the tame trails he first rode on a road bike.
Perhaps I should have guessed that we wouldn't be sticking to those for long.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves, those trails were yet to come – and the flat, open tracks gave a chance for Millar to explain what he's been up to with CHPT3.
He set up the brand straight after his pro career as a kind of 'skunkworks' project, collaborating with various brands such as Castelli and Brompton to develop products which brought a new angle to received traditions.
But in the spring of this year, the brand received an 'angel investment' from businessman Mikkel B. Rasmussen – himself a passionate cyclist – which has let the brand dream big.
Millar wants to produce lines of clothing that cater for road, gravel and urban riding with complete parity for women, using sustainable materials and production – with everything being sold at an affordable price.
No point in doing things by halves.
Of course, all this can't be done at once – even aside from the complications and delays that have come post-Brexit and the global supply chain pressures.
Although CHPT3 itself is keeping production within Europe, the effect on other industries has had a knock-on – and is compounded by there being only a limited number of suppliers producing recycled fabrics of sufficient quality.
As a result, men’s and women’s summer road kit is currently all available, but not yet the winter range. CHPT3’s first foray into gravel and off-road kit has just been launched – the eponymous DIRT collection – but the women's version of this kit isn't quite ready yet.
Blending high performance with a causal and everyday aesthetic is understandably quite a challenge – and CHPT3's urbanwear is still a way off. Although arguably this line will be the most important, with active travel being the future for local transportation, and will encompass far more people than just those who self-define as 'cyclists'.
Incrementally, the trail started to drop away. Roots and loose rocks started to appear, with gullies cut into the ground by the rain which – I’m told – although infrequent, can be very heavy.
Although red where the Sussex’s South Downs is white, the terrain started to bear a surprising similarity to my gravel back home. Pockets of dust from the chalky soil offer deceptively good grip before suddenly falling away and taking the tyre along too.
Although forging ahead and expanding the clothing lines, Millar's instinct for collaboration hasn't abated. To go with the launch of the new DIRT collection, CHPT3 teamed up with Vielo – another small, British brand – and took control of the spec and the paint.
With Campagnolo supplying the groupset of Millar's first pro bike, the choice of the 1x13 Ekar gravel gruppo for the CHPT3 V+1 gravel bike was easy. One part nostalgia, one part functionality – there's just something about the analogue, mechanical simplicity of a cable-actuated derailleur.
He also asked Eduard, the Catalan painter who previously painted many of Millar's bikes and shoes to come up with something for the frame, with the vague brief of wanting the bike to look dirty when it was clean and clean when it was dirty.
Eduard's answer was to paint the bike in a range of bright colours and then cover them all in a layer of black paint. Once this was done, he'd carefully sand back the top layer to reveal the bright colours underneath – with each being entirely unique.
Darting off the side of the trail and into a tight, leafy tunnel, we were whipped by brambles as we hopped over fallen branches and ducked under those that hadn't quite made it to the ground.
It wasn't until we hit a near vertical bank about two metres high that it became clear we'd entered the wrong leafy tunnel. Too far in now to turn back, we go for a combination of scrambling up the slope and passing up the bikes.
We hiked up the rest of the unrelenting climb until we popped back out onto the trail, with the consolation that we had at least made short work of all the climbing we had left – although I'm not sure it's a shortcut I'd choose to take again.
It was my first time wearing CHPT3's DIRT kit – and my first time wearing baggies in years – but I was quite impressed by just how light, airy and stretchy it all was – particularly the shorts.
They hit the mark of being barely noticeable on the ride, which is exactly what you want from your kit – no distractions. But since that's what quality road kit does too, it is fair to ask what's really the point? Why is this needed?
I actually got the answer after the ride and having lunch at the Hotel Carlemany. Although very friendly to cyclists – many people who were in town for Sea Otter were staying there – I still wouldn't want to be the only person in the restaurant wearing skin-tight Lycra.
Wearing the baggies, I didn't feel out of place, maybe still a little dressed down for a four-star hotel, but still not jarring. Versatility seems to be what the DIRT line offers, suitable both on and off the bike.
With that in mind, I asked Millar whether there's a bit of a tension between the relaxed and causal DIRT line and pairing with Vielo – a brand which is pretty unequivocal in going after the racier side of gravel.
He was ready with the explanation that in a collaboration, he always wants to bring something different to what the brand is already doing – or else what's the point? That shone through with Brompton x CHPT3, where he fought to get the bike without mudguards, tan sidewalls and in more exotic materials – very different to the pure functionality the brand generally goes for.
With Vielo x CHPT3, Millar's taken a brand with bikes in such lovely, smart and uniform pastel colours and gone instead for something that’s jagged and random. He’s taken a bike designed to go fast, but tempered that with more relaxed clothing – taking things less seriously, but still lively for messing around.
Starting off riding mountain bikes on the South Downs way, he soon made the switch the road cycling. Now, he’s come full circle and is back out on the trails, although the flat bars have been swapped for the curly ones of a gravel bike.
Always looking for the next challenge, he’s Everested in under 12 hours and ridden the South Downs Double in sub 20. Although dabbling in racing off-road, on-road and virtually, to date his only significant achievement has been winning the National Single-Speed Cross-Country Mountain Bike Championships in 2019.