This article appeared in a year-long weekly series by the author in the Sunday Herald
Great British cyclists tend to come along with all the regularity of flu epidemics. And as the podium at this year’s Tour de France dangled the promise of sporting immortality under the nose of an inspired Bradley Wiggins over the last week, it seemed apt to remember that it is now 25 years, almost to the day, that a taciturn yet charismatic young Glaswegian was crowned King of the Mountains and gained fourth in the overall classification, an achievement never bettered by a British rider.
Robert Millar was a oneoff: a lad born in the Gorbals who devoted himself to a somewhat alien sport, a prodigious talent who dripped native sarcasm. Millar moved to France at the age of 21 and started riding for the Peugeot team. In his first Tour, in 1983, he won the Pyrenean stage from Pau to Luchon and finished 14th overall, a prelude to his greatest achievement in the sport a year later. He would finish in the top 20 in six Tours, finished second twice in the Vuelta a Espana and once in the Giro d’Italia. He also won the Dauphine Libere in 1990.
His descent from such pinnacles was to be rocky, however. In 1992, a drug test revealed abnormally high testosterone levels in Millar’s body. He dismissed the result, seeming to suggest his vegetarianism had something to do with it, and got back on his bike. But in 1995 he left his family and, when his team went bust, retired from cycling, resurfacing briefly as British national road coach the following year but thereafter becoming ever-more reclusive.
In 2000, a tabloid tracked him down and ran a report claiming he’d had a sex change; two years later he turned up at the Commonwealth Games very much his old self, but sightings of this strangest of birds have since been rare. When the journalist Richard Moore tracked him down by e-mail for his 2007 book In Search of Robert Millar, his subject complained of the “morbid attitude to privacy in this country”. Millar’s King of the Mountains jersey can be seen hanging in Billy Bilsland’s cycle shop in Glasgow’s Saltmarket.