Why Falling Helps Us Rise
As the world went into lockdown in February of this year, poignantly David Millar was asked to address the audience of TEDxWarwick on the subject of Creativity Within Crisis. Watch and read how he tackled his fall from cycling grace to courageously become a staunch anti-doping campaigner.
The playwright and novelist Somerset Maugham once said, “It’s very difficult to know people… For men and women are not only themselves, they are also the region in which they are born, the city apartment or farm in which they learnt to walk, the food they ate, the games they played as children, the schools they attended, the sports they followed, the poets they read, the God they believed in. These are things you can’t come to know by hearsay, you have to have lived them.”
I’m a firm believer in this idea, so I’m going to give you some waypoints through my life that I hope will help make sense of why I’m standing here today.
I don’t remember much from my childhood, although my parents tell me a story, I was seven, they organised a birthday party for me, I hid in my room and refused to come out until everyone had gone, not because I didn’t like them, but because I didn’t like big groups of people and preferred being on my own. My mother occasionally reminds me of that with the words, “Give me the boy at seven, and I’ll show you the man.”
That’s me and my sister, when we lived in Scotland. To be honest I’ve just put that in to annoy her.
Avoiding people dictated my past-times, art and sport came out on top. Art I loved and could do on my own, and everybody would respectfully keep their distance, as for sport, anything individual that wasn’t on the school curriculum. Cycling in particular.
My passion for art became secondary, I took to the bike, it was my constant, from the North of Scotland to the South of England to the Far East. It gave me freedom and space that nothing else could, then, as I got stronger and more skillful it introduced me to the thrill of fear and adventure, the speed and competition, eventually racing.
I fell in love with racing, when I was in that moment nothing else mattered, everything became so simple, so pure. It was the ultimate escapism. I raced BMX in England.
My parents got divorced and I left my sister and Mum and moved to Hong Kong with my Dad. I did my first mountain bike race there. I say races, nothing serious, I was 14 and just out doing my own thing.
A couple of expat guys noticed me and took it upon themselves to force feed me videos, books, magazines, anything and everything they could find on road cycling. I became a convert. I sold my mountain bike and bought a road bike.
Now I wasn’t alone when I rode, crowds parted in front of me, helicopters droned above, motorbikes screamed by, and the peloton was always chasing me. Every ride was a new adventure of imagination, a projection into a distant European world of racing I’d never actually seen for real. The seed was planted.
I let art go, partly because I didn’t think I was creative enough, mainly because I knew deep down I’d discovered something I was born to do. I saw life as binary, my adolescent brain had to make a decision, and it was either a one or a zero. Sport got one. Art got zero.
1997 was my first year as a professional, I was 19. I was so unprepared for the world I’d signed up to. It became apparent to me at my very first race that doping was rife, I’d heard rumours, even warnings, I’d taken them as badly informed jealousy until then.
My pride at turning pro so young and proving what was possible was now in tatters, why be part of this, it was a house of cards. I called my Mum from that first race and told her what I’d learnt, that there was doping, and that I was scared. She told me to come home, I could go to art college, my place was held for me. I didn’t want to do that. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m stubborn, and I don’t give up easily, but most importantly, I am an optimist, it’s that optimism that got me through the next four years. Yet optimism is like a plant, without sunlight and water it will wither and die, and the deeper I got into professional cycling the darker it got, and as for water, there was none, it was only ever about blood. Without optimism my fate was sealed.
I’d fallen in love with the Tour de France from the moment of discovery, I couldn’t believe something so totally insane could exist, a three week long race around France, traversing the Alps and the Pyrenees, only one rest day, forget about shaving legs, you’d need a haircut during the race. I was enamoured. I read and watched everything I could get my hands on. It’s designed to be a madness, much like Big Brother of today, multiple days of curated and narrated drama scripted by the human condition, enough to keep the audience coming back, over and over again. It’s Love Island, Survivor, National Geographic, Olympics, all rolled into one, and put on wheels.
I took part in my first Tour de France in 2000, the beginning of the Lance Armstrong era. I was 23, leading the nation’s number one team, in many ways I’d become French. I lived in Biarritz, no other professional cyclist lived there, which was the point. I didn’t want to mix with the professional world away from the races, Biarritz was like my port in the storm, I thought isolation would save my sanity and the only way to protect my independence from the doping culture was by hanging on to my own identity and values.
That first Tour was a dream, I won the first stage, wore the yellow jersey, I was in a bubble for the entire three weeks, I wished it would never end. On the final day my family and friends from Hong Kong came to Paris, one of my friends, said to my sister, as they stood at the barriers on the Champs Elysees watching me go by, “Look at him, he’s actually living his dream.”
It wasn’t a dream though, I hadn’t doped, I’d stuck to my plan of standing my ground and seeing how far I could go in the hope of the world around me changing. Although without knowing it, I was being groomed. They kept me on an A-program of racing, they gave me leadership status, they put me on a four year contract when 1-2yrs was the norm, they started rooming me with older riders, seasoned campaigners who knew the ropes. And during all that, they’d taught me to inject myself with vitamins, intravenously and intramuscularly, it was thought back then that if you didn’t do this you wouldn’t recover adequately in stage races. The justification being that it was completely legal to do so and that if my stance was not to dope then I’d be irresponsible to abstain from legit supplements, even injectable ones.
Learning to inject yourself is not fun, it’s where the grey area began for me. In the world of drugs they talk about gateways, watching your own hand push the needle of a syringe as it punctures through your skin is not natural, it’s not sport, and yes, it’s a gateway. I’ll never forget how that felt, in a hotel room, being watched over and encouraged by an older rider and a team doctor. It still fills me with regret and sadness. So although I was a clean athlete by definition, I was already learning the tools of the trade, and deep down I think I knew that there was an inevitability to my situation.
I was now a respected name in the sport, my trajectory towards becoming a genuine Tour de France contender was bang on schedule, I could feel the weight of expectation, and I began to realise that the only thing I had in life was professional cycling, it was literally all I’d done since I’d left school. There was no home to go back to, Hong Kong wasn’t just faraway, it had become distant and incompatible, I’d left the UK over ten years before, and Biarritz, my port in the storm, was no longer a hideaway, my Tour de France success had erased my anonymity.
I crashed heavily on the first day of the following years Tour de France, it led to me quitting the race, my team management sent me to Italy, I knew why they’d sent me there. They wanted me to prepare properly for the Tour of Spain, they wanted me to finally ‘grow’ up and become the professional I was destined to be. I was 24. I couldn’t fight it anymore, the optimism I’d had, it had been withering steadily, like an unwatered plant.
In Italy I stayed in the family home of an older team mate, a Tuscan villa, something out of a film. That’s where I did EPO for the first time. For those unfamiliar, EPO is to endurance sport what anabolic steroids are to sprinting, instead of growing muscle it thickened your blood and increased your oxygen carrying capacity, like having altitude training in a syringe.
I won more races, I continued on my journey towards ultimate Tour de France success. Only it wasn’t my journey, I’d lost control, nobody could see because from the outside it looked like I was on target with a smooth and planned trajectory, yet on the inside there were warning lights and sirens and dials going haywire. The optimism had gone, all I had now was shame, regret, and lies, so many lies. And when I won, there was no longer joy, just relief that I’d hit my goals and justified the risk and fulfilled my obligations. I became World Champion.
I was arrested by French police on June 24th of 2004, they locked me up for 48hrs. I spent most of that time alone in a cell, or in a room being interrogated by the Parisian drug squad. It wasn’t very pleasant, and yet I felt like I deserved it, what I’d done was wrong. I had a moment of clarity towards the end of the 48hrs. I realised I had to let it go, it could be perceived that I had it all, yet in that moment I recognised I no longer had anything, not even cycling, the love had turned to hate, therefore I had nothing to lose. So I told them everything.
I wish I could say that was rock bottom, unfortunately I still had a way to go, and you know what, I learnt during that process that hitting rock bottom isn’t so bad, it’s the fall that’s the struggle, because during the fall all you do is look down, trying to work out when it’ll stop. Then, when you do hit rock bottom everything goes still, and you have to make a decision, do I just lay here broken, or I do I dare to look up, do I risk standing up. About a year after my confession I hit rock bottom, then I did, finally, find the courage to look up, and there it was, the ray of light, and that’s when my true life journey began, I decided to stand up, I was 28.
I believe in second chances? Fortunately others did too.
The kid who set off from Hong Kong to chase his dream was only focussed on one thing, and that was the outcome. I had that binary outlook, I would either succeed or fail, there was no inbetween. Yes, I was in the wrong place, at the wrong time, but ultimately I made the wrong decisions. I can only blame myself for that.
My fall from grace, or rather crash and burn was, in many ways, an existential crisis. It forced me to have a full system reboot. Instead of taking everything away it gave me everything back, hitting rock bottom and being offered a second chance was like having a rope thrown down to me. I remember, in 2006 speaking at an anti-doping conference in London, and somebody asked me in the Q and A afterwards how and why I turned it around, and I answered, without thinking,
Because that’s what it was, it was the human condition at its best, people choosing to take the hard option, choosing to support me, choosing to take pulls on the rope as I slowly climbed out of the darkness.
We each have to define our purpose, a reason to stand up, for me it was to prevent what happened to me happening to others, and that meant trying to change everything.
I began by approaching anti-doping agencies and federations, telling them I wanted to share everything I’d been through in order to give them a different perspective and understanding. I answered every interview request and told my story over and over again in the hope it would help people understand that it wasn’t a black and white world, that there was a fundamental cultural problem within professional cycling that everybody needed to wake up to.
My first race back after my ban was the Tour de France, in the days before the start one of the biggest drug scandals in the history of the sport came crashing in like a tsunami. I became the de facto spokesman as I was the only rider there willing to talk about it, it was crushing to realise nothing had changed in the two years I’d been away. Yet this time it didn’t affect my optimism. I had already decided that I’d never inject myself again, or let anybody else unless it was a medical emergency. I’d put a no-needle policy on myself. I had an off the shelf multivitamin a day and that was it. My new teammates thought I was mad, the team doctor couldn’t get his head around it.
I got through that Tour de France respectfully, if not gloriously, I then went to the Tour of Spain, and won the Time Trial on the 14th stage. In the post-race press conference the first thing I said was, “I’ve done this on bread and water, no injections, I want younger riders to see this and believe it’s possible.” I said this because I knew how important it was as a young rider to believe it was possible to win clean, it’s amazing how little hope we need to persevere, without hope there is not optimism.
Courageously, UK Anti-Doping put me forward as a candidate for the WADA Athletes Commission, this was unprecedented, ex-dopers were pariahs, yet my openness and transparency was beginning to have an effect.
My candidacy to the WADA Athletes Commission was accepted, I ended up sitting for four years, double my mandated time, it was in this seat that I was able to introduce the No-Needle Policy across all sports. I did this in a somewhat unorthodox manner, it was at a meeting in Lausanne, I went to a pharmacy and bought 12 syringes, 12 needles, and 12 ampoules of saline liquid. While everybody was at lunch I laid them out on the table, so on their return they found the medical paraphernalia in their place. There was immediate discomfort, I taught everybody how to assemble the syringe, snap the end off the glass ampoule, siphon the liquid out, roll up your sleeve, clamp your bicep, and then imagine injecting your forearm. I told them, “This is not sport, no athlete should ever have to learn how to do this.”
After my ban I ended up winning stages in all three grand tours, as well as becoming the first British rider to wear all leaders jerseys, I won national road, time trial and track titles. I captained World and Olympic teams. Yet I still consider the No-Needle Policy to be one of the greatest accomplishments of my career as a professional cyclist, I just wish it had been created before they’d taught me how to inject myself.
My final year racing was 2014, I was tired, burnt out. It’d been an intense 18yr roller coaster of a ride.
Everybody kept asking me, what’s the next chapter? And so here we are, full circle, that kid who loved art yet didn’t think he was creative enough. Well, at 37 I finally found the courage to be that other version of myself. In 2015 I founded a company called CHPT3. It wasn’t the second chapter, that’s for sure. So this is the third chapter, the final act, a company we’re building to change things. We have no exit plan.
All those things I’ve talked about till now, they are my waypoints, just as Somerset Maugham said, better ways of knowing me.
And the reason I’ve shared them with you is because I want you to believe me when I say this:
Nothing Is Impossible
It took me a long time to understand that. Remember the seven year old boy, the little version of me who hid in a bedroom at his own birthday party? Around that same age my Grandma took me aside and said, “David, you know nothing’s impossible?”
Only recently did I figure out what she meant. I was putting our boys to bed, they’re 8 and 6, and one of them said, “That’s impossible, Daddy.” Without realising what I was doing I sat between them and said, “Guys, one thing you must always remember: Nothing Is Impossible.” Unexpectedly to me, their faces lit up, they understood it in the way my Grandma had hoped I would, 36yrs before.
As we get older we lose the ability to think anything is possible, let alone that nothing is impossible. Yet that’s not to say we’ve lost it completely, more often than not it’s in crisis that we rediscover it, when we lay there, rock bottom, look up and force ourselves to imagine a better future, because without imagination there is no creativity. As the old saying goes, the darkest hour is just before the dawn.
Remember my sister? She’s now the CEO of Team INEOS. This photo is her fist-bumping a British rider she’s worked with since he was 19. He did win the Tour de France. She did with him what she wasn’t able to do for me. He did it clean. Nothing is impossible.