Tour de France Pundit And Former Racer David Millar Reveals Why This Cycle Race Is The Toughest

RISING Le Tour de France is three weeks long – what’s the toughest thing about it in terms of keeping up your performance as a rider?

David Millar ‘You should be arriving at your top fitness; if you're there you can do it, physically and psychologically. So normally the worst is if you crash and you’re injured or you get sick. Then it just turns into purgatory because it’s pure survival and that's just horrific. For Tour de France it's one of the few races where you will go until you can’t. The Tour de France has this sort of importance, this sort of old-school value that finishing is as important as winning, so that can make for hellish days.’

‘I had two broken ribs and a fever. I just fell on my second day, broke two ribs, had a groin strain and then a fever – the whole thing was fucking horrific!’

RISING Give us an example of that from your own racing days – what was your toughest day in the Tour?

DM ‘Stage 10 of 2010 Tour de France, I wrote about it in Racing Through the Dark. It was a mountain day, the worst day. I had two broken ribs and a fever. I just fell on my second day and broke two ribs and had, basically, sprains. I got a groin strain and then, yes, then because of how much stress I put my body under I had a fever two days later and just the whole thing was fucking horrific!’

RISING What will be the crunch points in this year’s route, do you think?

DM ‘Without doubt it's always in the Alps and the Pyrenees where it’s the hardest. In the Massif Central days it can get pretty hairy in the second half, the race can become unpredictable. But even mountain finishes, you always know what’s going to happen. It’s those days where it’s a hill or mountain start and hilly all day and it’s relentless where tactics can come into play and you can have really brutal days.’

RISING Obviously the bigger, stronger teams like Team Sky have the potential to control the race – how can the other teams break this control?

DM Well, we need those stages where it does kick off right from the beginning, where chaos is brought into it, because obviously a strong team can control it from the beginning. Where Chris Froome essentially lost the Vuelta last year, was when attacks went from right in the beginning stage. He and his whole team were caught out by Movistar and that ended up costing the race.’

RISING So the other teams have to take the fight to defending champ Chris Froome and be really opportunistic?

DM ‘That’s often the way; in order to win a Grand Tour and beat a team as strong as Team Sky and Chris Froome, you have to try to catch them out somewhere. It's very hard to do and even teams can’t predict it. Often it happens on a fairly innocuous stage where some circumstances happen, like it might be a crash, or a random bit of weather, or just a big rider who’s gone on a move that they weren’t expected to go in and it’s put the cat amongst the pigeons. Then the tactics are just “go”. Everyone has to think on their feet, which is often these days where people make mistakes. You have to have certain teams and riders within the race who are willing to throw it all down and risk losing everything rather than protecting a second, third, fourth or fifth place because that's when stuff gets interesting.’

RISING So you have to be willing to sacrifice your own status in a three week race race, in a moment?

DM ‘Yes, but it’s personality. Alberto Contador is kind of the best at that. You’ve got these amazing stats where he's won seven Grand Tours and never finished on the podium of one. So second or third don’t really mean anything to him, which is terrifying if you’ve got him in second or third place behind you, because most guys who are in second or third in the Grand Tour, they’ll protect that position. But for us spectators we need there to be riders who are willing to put it all on the line and lose second place in hope of perhaps getting first. But also be satisfied if they end up finishing 11th because they tried, and there’s less and less of that these days.’

‘So, dark horse: oddly, Quintana – everyone’s written him off slightly but I think he’s going to be good’

RISING Despite the teams trying to control the race, truly random stuff does happen in Le Tour – how important is it to think on your feet?

DM ‘Top guys are very capable of thinking on their feet. Look at Chris Froome last year – well, he was actually using his feet running up the mountain at one point! But he really was thinking on his feet, doing random stuff like in a crosswind going off, attacking over the top and winning on the descent. Those are tactics that you wouldn’t really expect a Grand Tour winner to take because they rely on their teammates and the predictable actions to get them to the finish. So the really good guys can improvise and not panic and not be scared to employ unconventional tactics.’

RISING Road bike racing really is a team sport, which is often missed by casual spectators – how does Team Sky reflect this?

DM ‘Team Sky only have one leader, Chris Froome. Those eight other riders, their sole purpose is to deliver Chris Froome. They'll have two riders whose job is always to ensure the race in the first 100 kilometres. On the back of those they'll have two or three climbers who are good climbers, but not the absolute best. They’re there to control the mountain stage. They’ll have two riders who are essentially there for the finale, who in their very own right could be team leaders in other teams, like Mikel Landa or Geraint Thomas. They’re the final two lieutenants, if you like, to Chris Froome and they’re capable of winning races, finishing very high in the Tour de France. They have to realise that if they're in fourth in GC and Chris Froome’s leading and he has a puncture or a crash, they're going to have to wait for him and put everything on the line to take him back and probably lose their position. Finally you’ll have guys whose sole job is to go and get water bottles, do all the donkey work, the hard graft.’

RISING What about teams with high-ranking specialists who can win sprint or mountain stages?

DM ‘Quick-Step which has a three-pronged attack with Dan Martin, they have Marcel Kittel and they have Philippe Gilbert. That’s three different types of rider so in that set of nine riders, they have Marcel Kittel for sprinting as a leader. They have Dan Martin for GC and mountain stages as the leader, and they have Philippe Gilbert, who’s a bit of a free agent; he can go on breakaways. But they’ll have six other riders and out of those six riders, they'll have had to have chosen two of those who can climb, two of those who can lead out, two of those who can do all the donkeywork. So each team has its different make-up.’

RISING Why is the Tour de France such a physical challenge beyond the three-week duration?

DM ‘You've got to remember, a big Tour de France stage or a bike race can be five, six hours, seven hours long – you’ve got sometimes equivalent of a marathon cardiovascularly, a 200m sprint, a 100m sprint, a 400m effort, an 800m effort. They’re doing all those different physiological things in one event. Take the break – you might have to do like a 400m effort, a minute to break away. Then settle into a 1,500m pace just to hold it off, stabilise it. Then it’s a 10,000 kilometre run: “I've got to just hold this pace up for 30 minutes.” Then it settles back to marathon pace. Then it might go lower and then it starts kicking all back up again for the finale. So you're just putting yourself through different energy things constantly.’

RISING What’s the actual experience like of being in a breakaway and leading the race ahead of the peloton in a small group of riders?

DM ‘Getting in a breakaway is extremely hard in the Tour de France – it’s all-out war to get in a breakaway. I was one of those type of riders, Philippe Gilbert is one of those type of riders. Then once you're in the breakaway it’s a ‘team time trial’ for the first half an hour, 45 minutes until you break the elastic on the peloton. You have to form an alliance with other guys in the break even if they’re on different teams. But then it's normally the last 25, 30 kilometres where it becomes super-tactical, where people will start to try and figure how they're going to win it, what they have to do to beat the other guys.’

RISING It sounds a bit like a game of chess – do you have to pick a tactic?

DM ‘Yes, it is pretty much. It just comes down to you having to be able to beat the guy who’s feeling good, know what their strong points are and know what their weak points are and be doing that with about five or six guys, sometimes ten guys; and knowing how to play them and what to do, anticipate their moves and choose your tactic. Often you have to choose your tactic and stand by it because if you start to overthink it and start to play around, you tend to lose.’

‘When you’re in those moves in the Tour, it’s like the biggest guns trying to just basically shoot each other down and there’s nothing like it’

RISING In terms of this year's race, who are maybe the dark horses to watch who you think are quite strong?

DM ‘They don't really make dark horses these days. In honesty, there never is. That's the thing with the Tour de France; it’s rare to be surprised. Chris Froome is going to be up there, Nairo Quintana is going to be up there, you’re going to see Bardet up there, Richie Porte will be up there; all the big names. There might be one rider in the top 10 that could be a bit of a surprise. So dark horse: oddly Quintana, probably; I think everyone’s written him off slightly but I think he’s going to be good.’

RISING Why is the Tour de France such a ‘next level’ race for the riders?

DM ‘At the highest level it's just so fast. When the attacks start to go between the big guys, I don't think people can quite comprehend just how fast it is and how committed every single rider is in that move. It’s like doing a full team time trial when a break’s going away; you’re maxing out. Especially in the final moves of a race, when it starts to go it's just... it's mind-bending how hard it is and it's just complete commitment. I did a lot of racing but it was only in the really big races where that would happen – you’d just be going just like you were trying to rip each other to pieces. When you get to the Tour, when you’re in those moves it's like it’s the biggest guns trying to just basically shoot each other down and there's nothing like it.’

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David Millar is a Maserati ambassador.