This article appeared in The Herald
Twenty-five years ago this month the cult techno-pop hit Tour de France was riding high in the British charts. Europhiles may have been taken by Kraftwerk’s cycling-themed EP; the race itself, however, was nowhere to be seen on British television screens.
Here, the sport will never be entrenched in our culture like it is in France , Belgium or Italy , but at least these days one can follow the Tour – and the progress of our own David Millar, currently holding up well in this year’s overall classification – on Eurosport. On July 10, 1983 , another Scot, Robert Millar, won the Pyrenean mountain stage, Pau-Bagneres de Luchon, on his way to finishing 14th overall and third in the King of the Mountains competition, in his first Tour de France, aged 24.
Despite going on to become arguably the greatest British road cyclist of all time – his first trainer Billy Bilsland calls him Scotland ‘s “most successful Scottish athlete ever” – Millar was never properly acclaimed for his achievements.
Anonymity at home may have suited him. Now, certainly, he absents himself from any publicity – following his retirement from cycling in 1995, he wrote for a while in cycling magazines and had a spell as GB team manager, but is now believed to be a recluse.
Much has been made of his retreat from the world, but in 1983 the young Glaswegian was not averse to a little showboating. As he recounted to a journalist after that Tour stage win: “I looked round at three kilometres to go, and I could see the guy [ Spain ‘s Pedro Delgado] coming. So I put myself on the rivet again. And then at 500 metres, I took the hat out for publicity, put the hat on nice. And put the arms up. Always have to remember that.”
In the 1984 Tour Millar won a stage at Guzet-Neige and assumed the King of the Mountains throne, becoming the first Briton to win any major Tour classification. He also finished fourth overall, surpassing Tom Simpson’s British record of sixth in the 1960s. He would also finish second, twice, in the Tour of Spain – ceding victory in the penultimate stage in 1985 when his six-minute lead was eaten up following a puncture – and in the Giro d’Italia in 1987. His greatest win came in the Dauphine Libere classic in 1990.
Where his achievements were treated with indifference in Britain, Millar and other English-speaking riders who emerged in the 1980s were regarded with some suspicion at first on the continent. These included the great Sean Kelly, who in the 1983 Tour was busy winning the second of his four maillots verts – the green points jersey awarded to the best overall sprinter.
Having won the first of those in 1982, during which he also took the bronze medal at the World Championships, Kelly’s home town in Tipperary, Carrick on Suir, renamed its market square the Sean Kelly Square.
Kelly only won one Grand Tour – the Vuelta a Espana in 1988 – but was one of the finest classic riders in cycling history. He won the Race to the Sun, the Paris-Nice, seven times in a row, from 1982-1988, and following the introduction of world rankings in 1984, topped them for the next six years.
In the 1983 Tour Kelly finished seventh overall – his highest position was fourth in 1985 – and on his way to winning 33 races in 1984, earned the nickname “the new cannibal”, the original cannibal, Eddy Merckx, having retired in 1978.
When he retired in 1992, following a final classic victory in the Milan-SanRemo, and having won 193 professional races overall, he returned to Carrick on Suir for its annual Hamper race – accompanied by other greats of the sport such as Merckx, Bernard Hinault – the last Frenchman to win the Tour, in 1985 – and Laurent Fignon, who won it in 1983, and once more in 1984. There was no way Kelly, certainly a more congenial fellow than his Scots peer, would fade quietly into obscurity.