A belated happy birthday to Robert Millar (currently known as Philippa York), who was born on September 13, 1958.
Millar is regarded as one of Britain’s most successful professional cyclists of all time, having won the King of the Mountains competition in the 1984 Tour de France, while finishing finished fourth overall.
This marked the first time a British rider won a major Tour classification, and remained unsurpassed until Bradley Wiggins placed third nearly 20-years later in the 2009 Tour de France.
Additionally, Millar finished second in the 1987 Giro d’Italia, while also claiming the King of the Mountains classification.
Again, this earned him the distinction of being the highest finishing British rider in the history of the Italian Grand Tour, until Chris Froome won the race this year.
Other Grand Tour achievements for Millar included two second-place finishes in the 1985 and 1986 Vuelta a España, just missing out on the overall victory in both instances.
However, Millar later found solace in winning the 1989 Tour of Britain and the 1990 Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré.
Millar was born in Glasgow, Scotland, and began riding for Glenmarnock Wheelers cycling club as an adolescent, quickly establishing himself as a promising amateur rider.
From there, Millar earned the reputation of being an excellent climber, winning the Scottish Junior National title in 1976 and national hill-climb championship the following year.
In 1978, Millar finished twenty-first in Britain’s prestigious Milk Race, while also winning the British Amateur Road Championships.
In 1979, Millar moved to France in order to join the Athletic Club de Boulogne Billancourt (A.C.B.B.), one of Europe’s top amateur teams, which led to victories in races such as the Grand Prix de la Ville de Lillers.
Later that season, Millar reprised his British Amateur Road Championship title, while also taking fourth place in the World Amateur Road Championships, to include being awarded the France’s Best Amateur rider Trophy.
That same year, he joined the Peugeot cycling team, focussing mainly on single-day races and stage races that featured mountainous terrain.
The following season marked Millar’s debut as a pro rider, which saw top-ten finishes in number of races such as the Tour de Romandie, British National Championships, the Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré and the Tour de l’Avenir, where he finished second to Greg LeMond.
In 1983, Millar finished second in the Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré to LeMond. This impressive early-season showing earned him his first slot in the Tour de France. But, any hopes of placing high in the overall classification were diminished after he crashed during stage 3 – losing a staggering 17-minutes.
However, Millar redeemed himself later in the race, after winning one of the most mountainous stages in Tour history, which took riders over the Aubisque, Tourmalet, Aspin, and Peyresourde – beating Pedro Delgado by six-seconds.
Millar continued to show improvement during the next season, wherein he and his teammates finished second in the Paris-Nice team time trial, while he himself finished second in the stage up Mont Ventoux, which resulted in him taking over the race lead.
But, young neo-pro ultimately relinquished the leader’s jersey to Sean Kelly, who triumphed over Stephen Roche, Bernard Hinault, Michel Laurent and Phil Anderson.
Millar, again found solace in winning a stage in the Tour de Romandie and claiming the Mountains Competition. He also celebrated with a stage victory in the Grand Prix du Midi Libre and finishing fourth overall.
This was followed up with Millar’s best Tour de France performance to date, again winning a very mountainous stage that tackled the climbs of the Portet d’Aspet, Core, Latrape and the Guzet-Neige ski station.
This not only netted him the stage honors, but also earned him the King of the Mountains Polka Dot jersey – making it the first time an English speaking rider won the coveted jersey.
Millar later achieved his best finish in the UCI World Championship Road Race in 1984, finishing in sixth place, while Claude Criquielion, Claudio Corti and Steve Bauer took the podium in Barcelona.
1985 marked the first time the Vuelta a España was held as the first of the three Grand Tours, wherein Millar took over the race lead on stage ten. He held the lead going into what has become one of the most contentious days in cycling history.
Millar started the stage just ten seconds ahead of Francisco Rodríguez with Spain’s Pello Ruiz Cabestany a further 65-seconds behind in third place. With only one stage remaining, the Briton told the press, “I just have to stick to Pacho Rodríguez’s wheel and it’s done.”
During the final mountainous stage, Rodriguez tried to create any sort of a gap that he could on Millar during the first climb of the day, but to no avail.
At the foot of the second climb of the Cotos, the Brit punctured, forcing him to chase back to Rodriguez and Cabestany. But, by the time they had reached the third climb of the Los Leones, Millar had been successful in bridging his way back to the duo.
Meanwhile, Millar was unaware that Delgado had launched an attack up ahead. This combined with an aggressive descent by the Spanish rider subsequently opened up a sizable gap of seven minutes.
In the meantime, Millar had no teammates left in the group to support him, and Rodriguez and Cabestany were seemingly unable to keep up, which lead to Delgado taking over the race lead by 36-seconds.
In the aftermath, Millar finished second, prompting critics to call it The Stolen Vuelta, alleging collusion amongst the Spanish-speaking riders.
Peugeot directeur sportif, Roland Berland, said “It’s rotten, the whole peloton was against us. It seems a Spaniard had to win at all costs.” L’Équipe’s Philip Bouvet stated York was “the victim of a formidable Spanish coalition”.
After the race, Millar told reporters, “I’ll never return to Spain”. Moreover, during a television documentary on his career, The High Life, Millar criticized Berland for his handling of the situation when Delgado attacked, stating that Berland had been unable to negotiate support from other non-Spanish speaking teams during the stage to give him the required support to chase down Delgado’s lead.
Later that season, Millar finished eleventh in the Tour de France, followed by a victory in the Volta a Catalunya, after taking the leader’s jersey on the penultimate stage to beat Sean Kelly by three seconds.
In the Giro del Piemonte, Millar finished third behind Charly Mottet. In the Tour du Haut Var, he ended up seventh, with Mottet again the victor.
Millar was fourth in the Grand Prix de Wallonie (won by Marc Madiot), and finished sixth in the Tour Midi-Pyrenees (now known as the Route du Sud and the Critérium International), capped-off with a ninth place finish in the Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré, which was won by Phil Anderson.
Millar changed to the Panasonic team for 1986, and much to everyone’s surprise he decided to race in that season’s Vuelta a España.
Millar won stage six from Santander to Lagos de Covadonga putting him into the leader’s jersey. But, during the individual time trial on stage 11, Alvaro Pino took over the lead which he held unto the finish, once again relegating Millar to a disappointing second-place finish.
Despite a second unrequited Vuelta victory, Millar rode well from the outset of that season’s Tour de France, finishing third in the team time trial and ninth in the individual time trial. His performance improved further once the race reached Pyrenees.
Indeed, stage 11 included the challenging climbs of the Tourmalet, the Aspin, the Peyresourde and Superbagneres, which Millar finished second on the day to the eventual winner of the race, Greg Lemond. This put him in fourth-place in the overall classification, as well as in the lead of the Mountains Competition.
Millar held onto his position to the end of stage 17. However, at that point, he was battling illness, which needless to say had a profound impact on his performance.
Alas, in contrast to his earlier performance in the time trial events, Millar could only muster 112th place in the stage 20 time trial, pushing him back to fifteenth place in the overall classification. He began stage 21, but ultimately abandoned the race before the final climb of the day to Puy de Dôme.
In 1987, Millar rode the Giro d’Italia for the first and only time in his career. The race provided high drama due to the controversy between two riders on the same Carrera team, Roberto Visentini and Stephen Roche.
The two teammates proceeded to battled each other for most of the race, while ignoring the presence of Millar and Panasonic teammate, Erik Breukink, which made for a risky challenge for Vinsentini and Roche.
Millar won stage 21 in a three-man breakaway ahead of Roche and Marino Lejarreta. The result moved him up to second-place in the final classification, while Roche claimed the overall victory after Visentini fell and lost more than six minutes before abandoning the race.
Millar also took the green Climber’s jersey.
Elsewhere that season, Millar finished fourth in the Tour de Romandie, fifth in Liège–Bastogne–Liège with Moreno Argentin winning for the third year running, sixth in the Tour of the Mediterranean and seventh in the Setmana Catalana de Ciclisme behind winner Vicent Belda.
Millar joined the French Fagor team in 1988, alongside Roche and Eddy Schepers.
That season, Millar finished third in Liège–Bastogne–Liège Classic behind Adri van der Poel, along with a sixth place finish in the Vuelta a España, which was won by Sean Kelly.
Millar struggled in the Alps during that season’s Tour de France.
He led over each of the first two climbs from Blagnac. However, while sprinting during the final uphill finish, both he and Phillipe Bouvatier mistook a race official’s signal, causing them to take a wrong turn and cede victory to Massimo Ghirotto.
The next day, Millar was again riding at the front when leading over the second climb, but cracked and finished twenty-one minutes behind. He abandoned the Tour the following day.
In 1989. Millar returned to his previous Z-Peugeot team. That season saw a second-place finish in the Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré behind Charly Mottet, runner up in the Grand Prix de Wallonie behind Thomas Wegmüller and stage 10 of 1989 Tour de France from Cauterets to Superbagnères.
Millar was first to the top of all four climbs that day that included scaling the Tourmalet, Aspin and Peyresourde before the Superbagneres finish, while Mottet was dropped from the three-man group approaching the finish leaving Millar to out-sprint Delgado at the line.
However, this only served to move him up into eighth-place at that point, which only earned him a tenth-place finish by the end of the Tour.
Later that season, Millar won the Tour of Britain, following a decisive move involving a two-man breakaway with Mauro Gianetti into Cardiff.
Gianetti took the sprint for the stage, But, Millar comfortably stayed in leader’s yellow jersey for the rest of the race.
Victory in the Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré finally came for Millar in 1990.
Millar, alongside Thierry Claveyrolat, had moved up into the top-five in the overall classification, after a successful breakaway effort during stage 6.
Despite stage 8 being an individual time trial with stronger time trialists in the peloton such as Roche and Tony Rominger, Millar took the overall title with Claveyrolat the runner up.
Millar was runner up for a second time in the Tour de Suisse with Kelly the victor that year, while claiming a stage win in that season’s Tour de Romandie as well (Mottet took overall prize). Millar also took fourth place in the Giro di Lombardia behind Gilles Delion.
In the meantime, Millar took second place in that year’s Tour of Britain, with his chances at winning the overall victory hampered by a crash on the last day.
In the Tour de France, he rode as part of the team intended to support the previous year’s winner and reigning world champion, Greg LeMond.
The Z team not only helped deliver the yellow jersey for LeMond, but they also won the team competition as well.
In 1991, Millar won a stage in the Tour de Suisse and finished fifth overall, while also achieving his best overall finish in the Tour de Romandie, grabbing second spot on the podium to Tony Rominger.
Later that season, Millar finished second in the debut edition of the Classique des Alpes, fourth in the Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré, fourth in the Tour of Britain and fifth in the Grand Prix of the Americas.
He finished the Tour de France in seventy-second place, the only one of his eight finishes in the Tour that was outside the top twenty-five.
In 1992, Millar revealed he had become a vegetarian, which was intented to improve his performance on the bike. “It’s not a principle – it’s a personal thing. I’ve read a lot of books about it”.
Millar finished 18th in that year’s Tour de France, 24th the following year. He finished 20th and 15th during the respective years in Vuelta a España.
In a time when doping was common, and punishment was less severe, Millar tested positive for testosterone during a stage in the 1992 Vuelta a España. As a result, he was fined £1,100, lost his third place finish on the stage, incurred a 10-minute time penalty and was given a three-month suspended ban.
In the final years of his career, Millar achieved top ten finishes in the Setmana Catalana de Ciclisme, Giro del Piemonti and Liege – Bastogne – Liege in 1992, and the Classiques des Alpes and the Midi Libre in 1993.
However, further victories largely eluded Millar, with his final major win occurring in 1995, when he won the British National Road Race Championship.
Soon afterwards however, his French team Le Groupement folded, prompting his retirement from racing.
In 1997, Millar became the head coach for the British national team, and in 1998 managed the Scottish national team in the Tour of Britain. He also worked in journalism, writing for several cycling magazines.
In 2000, a tabloid news story reported that Millar was now living as a woman. Yet, despite appearing as a man at the 2002 Commonwealth Games, the fall-out from the story had a major impact on his connection to the cycling world. From there, Millar all but disappeared from public view.
In 2007, cycling journalist Richard Moore wrote a biography of Millar titled In Search of Robert Millar.
After initially refusing to respond, he did answer some of Moore’s questions via email.
At the time, Moore wrote, “it is impossible to put a date on Millar’s disappearance. It was more a fade-out than a vanishing act… These days, Millar is in very occasional email contact with one or two former acquaintances but his whereabouts are a mystery”.
For many years Millar’s disappearance from the sport was attributed to his insularity and eccentricity, while rumors alleging that he had undergone a gender transition were widely disputed.
However, on July 6, 2017, in a statement to the British cycling site, Cyclingnews, Millar confirmed his gender transition, identifying now as the woman Philippa York.
“As much as I’ve guarded my privacy over the years there are a few, I believe obvious, reasons to why I haven’t had a public “image” since I transitioned. Gratifyingly, times have moved on from ten years ago when my family, friends and I were subjected to the archaic views and prejudice that some people and certain sections of the tabloid media held…While there has been some speculation concerning my gender over the past decade, perhaps it’ll now be better understood why unwelcome and unasked for intrusions into that transition have been damaging not only to myself but to those I love.”
York is the first former professional cyclist to have publicly changed gender.
A belated happy birthday Philippa!
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