How a gung-ho pro cyclist learned to relax and love midlife cycling
“I never really got why people would go on crazy cycling adventures with their mates at stupid o’clock at the weekend,” confesses David Millar, who had to suffer on his bike every day because it was his job as a professional rider. “Now I am retired, I think: ah, I totally get why you do it. It’s your escape. It’s where you go to get some headspace, or to see friends and socialise.
“I hadn’t appreciated that until now. I’ve got family. I’ve got work. And sport is now this really important other space where I go to get some of my own time.”
After years spent following scientific training plans and forensically monitoring his power meter data, Millar, aged 42, has finally rediscovered the enjoyment of cycling for pleasure.
He may still live in the professional cycling mecca of Girona but he has swapped beeping gadgets and ruthless self-competition for playful mountain-bike adventures with friends, gentle spins around London on his fold-up bike, and relaxing family rides with his wife, Nicole, and children Archie, Harvey and Maxine. But this midlife transition did not come easily.
“I loved cycling but towards the end it just felt like work, with a lot of stress and pressure,” he says. “I was exhausted — psychologically more than anything, which meant I didn’t want to touch a bike for a while. I wasn’t ready. I needed distance.
“It’s taken a few years to see it differently. Towards the end of my career I would say cycling wasn’t a positive addition in my life. It dragged me down. But cycling is now a healthy place for me again. And I have a great deal of empathy for how people use sport for their mental health.”
I have also got back into mountain biking and I love just going out with a big smile, getting scared and doing crazy stuff.David Millar
Millar says he learned to enjoy cycling again by rewriting the rules. He ignored the snobbish barriers imposed between different cycling disciplines — by tribal cyclists and the highly targeted marketing strategies of brands — and the customs, codes of behavior and cliques which these divisions spawn.
By riding any bike, anywhere, in any way he wanted, he renewed his childhood view of bikes as a means of escape, a mode of transport and a source of pleasure.
“It’s taken me a few years to get here but by doing more mountain biking and riding my Brompton I just think of cycling as a whole now. I am not as secular as I once was where it was road bike or nothing. Now I’m just into bikes, which is what I was like as a kid. Cycling has become a multifaceted thing, rather than being this one-trick pony in Lycra on a road bike which I think, in all honesty, I had grown out of.”
Millar now uses different bikes to match his shifting frames of mind and needs as a busy father and businessman.
“The Brompton is my everyday bike. I hadn’t used a bike as a transportation device since I was a kid. You know when you have a BMX and go visit your friend? Just riding around cities in normal clothes has been cool because it means that I have a bike in my life all the time. When I’m in London I use it to get to meetings. Here in Girona I use it for whizzing around.
“I have also got back into mountain biking and I love just going out with a big smile, getting scared and doing crazy stuff. The road cycling is more of a social thing now. I almost only ever ride with friends, not former riders. Occasionally I’ll go on a head-banging session, just as a purely fitness exercise, but what bike I use is really a reflection of the mood I am in.”
Taking a more fluid view of cycling in midlife has allowed him to escape the grooves of habit, stop comparing himself to the pro rider he used to be, and reignite his passion for the sport.
“Now if I see something interesting on a ride I will stop and look at it. That’s the joy of not caring about data. The competitiveness has gone. At the Tour de France Ned Boulting, my commentary partner, and I will often ride to the start on our Bromptons but we look at cathedrals or historic places along the way.
“That is what cycling is about for me now. It’s a voyage. It’s meeting people. It is seeing new things. It’s having conversations you wouldn’t have off the bike. There are so many elements of cycling that you forget about when you’re staring at a power meter for years.”
Millar still enjoys combining cycling and travel — he took part in the Haute Route Norway sportive with Nicole in 2018, and in 2019 rode through the Yarra Valley near Melbourne — but he is just as happy to explore the countryside of Girona with his children.
“We go to Lake Banyoles with the kids and ride around there but we also live in a farmhouse so we can escape with some mountain-biking from here. So cycling for the kids is, for better or worse, embedded in their lives.”
Although he has the unique perspective of being a battle-hardened former pro, Millar knows enough business colleagues and friends who are also amateur riders to understand that many other middle-aged road cyclists can grow similarly fatigued by forever chasing faster speeds or pursuing more gruelling endurance challenges. Having spent his life chasing stage wins, Millar understands — and respects — that drive better than anyone. But it’s simply not an attitude he wants to carry into this next phase of his life, when he is increasingly busy and has different psychological needs.
“There is a coming of age in cycling, in the sense that the huge explosion in the last 15 years meant that everybody fast-tracked through it and maybe oversaturated themselves slightly. And some riders get to the point where you have done the challenges and you want something new. It annoys me when I see brands being so secular, just focusing on road cyclists, and there is so much snobbery about: ‘You are a road rider.’ ‘You are a mountain biker.’ ‘Ah, you just ride a Brompton.’ They are all bikes. And I love bicycles.”
His desire for new experiences led him to discover an unexpected passion for gardening and to sign up for the New York City Marathon, which he is running to support his former sports scientist Robby Ketchell, whose son Wyatt was born with Down’s syndrome. “I have taken that whole obsessive athlete side of things into running and kept cycling as my hobby. But running is a form of meditation for me too.”
Millar says he learned to think more broadly about the link between mental health and sport when he left the peloton and plunged headfirst into a new world of work. Launching his own cycling clothing brand, Chpt III, meant he was suddenly juggling business meetings and marketing plans, while his television commentary duties and commercial work inevitably ate into his family time, delivering scheduling challenges and stresses which will be all too familiar to other busy parents.
“What was quite strange, and I only realised this recently, is that I never learned to differentiate between work time and weekends,” he explains.
“Having been a professional athlete, 24/7, 365 days a year, even when you have time off you’re paranoid and neurotic about training or not training. I took that mentality into creating a business, so I worked 24 hours a day. Looking back, it was insane what I was doing when I launched the brand but I just overcompensated.”
It annoys me when I see brands being so secular, just focusing on road cyclists, and there is so much snobberyDavid Millar
The experience taught him that everybody needs a private space, outside of work, and even outside of family life, in which to escape for physical fitness and mental relaxation.
“There are a lot of people around my age who are going through the same thing, where they’re getting to maturity and they’re seeing life differently to what it was. And that’s where I’ve noticed we need this space in our lives for sport.
“It can be a hammer session on the road bike. It can be yoga. It can be socialising with friends. But I haven’t been doing that for the last couple of years and I know in hindsight that something was missing. I was so full on with family and work that I wasn’t in a good mental place. I had underestimated how important sport was just to keep good mental health.”
Millar now appreciates that as his work and family responsibilities grow, relaxing through sport is not something he wants but something he needs.
“We don’t acknowledge this enough,” he says. “We sort of graze on it by talking about meditation and yoga and mental health, but actually maybe it is quite simple. Maybe it’s just about going out and using our bodies more because it’s amazing the effect that has on us hormonally and mentally.
“This is something we should acknowledge as being a really positive thing in our lives — not just a little whim where we might go cycling if we have the time. We really need it.”
© The Telegraph