RACING THROUGH THE DARK
By David Millar
Schuster, $26; 351 pp.
Scottish cyclist David Millar’s memoir, Racing Through the Dark, released in the United States this summer, provides a much-needed look at the underworld of performance-enhancing drugs in sports.
Recent writing on Lance Armstrong’s cycling ban lacks this nuanced view of the murky subculture of bicycle racing, which has been plagued by drug use almost since it began. Racing Through the Dark explains how an idealistic athlete sank into drug use and then became a critic bent on improving the sport.
In 2004, Millar admitted his use of erythropoietin, often shortened to EPO, after his public arrest and detention by French police officers. After serving a ban, he became outspoken about professional cycling’s culture of drug use. Millar accuses cycling teams of quietly encouraging doping as a professional’s duty to his team while the racing establishment looks the other way.
Cycling’s most-used performance enhancer, EPO increases red blood cells, which improves the movement of oxygen in the body — the best way to gain an edge in endurance sports.
Millar describes racing as a young professional in Italy, when EPO use was rampant, and seeing a veteran sprinter protest the insane speed maintained by the doping riders. He saw the racer “swing out of the line of riders, waving his arm in the air, angrily shouting obscenities.”
Profanely, the racer told them that what they were doing was not racing. In the book Millar describes a slow break with his ideals. Injuries from a major crash in the Tour de France weakened him, and a bout of bronchitis demoralized him. A staunch clean rider, he felt isolated from other racers.
A team manager and a veteran racer — a known doper — talked to him about recovering and racing later in the season. Millar listened to the pair describe skipping races in order to “prepare properly,” a euphemism for using EPO.
“I walked into that hotel room an anti-doper; I walked out a seasoned professional ready to do what was required of me,” he wrote.
Use of EPO increased his anxiety and caused Millar to distance himself from family and friends.
After admitting to doping, he lost everything and fell into self pity and alcohol. He then found redemption as an openly clean rider who still got good results, especially as a specialist in man-against-the-clock time trials.
Millar weaves an interesting, linear story. The book’s first quarter begins slowly, with Millar recounting his adolescence spent in Hong Kong, then speeds along when he begins racing in earnest. For readers interested in the culture of cycling, Millar’s memoir is a great insider’s view of the brutality and excitement of the sport.
For those wondering about the psychology of performance-enhancing drug use, Racing Through the Dark is fascinating.