ANNONAY, France — David Millar, a reformed “ex-doper,” won a stage at the Tour de France on Friday, saying his victory is proof riders can win cleanly.
His British compatriot, Bradley Wiggins, is of like mind. Wiggins, who holds the overall lead, is looking to not only win the race when it ends July 22 but win over cycling fans troubled by the sport’s long history with drugs.
“I do want to start building bridges to prove that I’m doing this off bread and water. … So if I can be as open and as honest as possible, then hopefully that will go some way to gaining people’s trust,” he said.
Millar’s victory and Wiggins’ assertions came exactly 45 years after Tom Simpson, the first Briton to wear yellow, died on the slopes of the Mont Ventoux after using a lethal mix of amphetamines and alcohol.
“It’s particularly poignant that I win the day of this anniversary because I’m an ex-doper, I made mistakes,” Millar said. “It’s a nice kind of full circle that I’ve now won today a clean rider — after making the same mistakes that Tommy made.”
He added: “I hope that today I’ve shown where cycling has come in the last 45 years, and even in the last five years.”
Millar, who rides for the U.S. Garmin-Sharp team, has been cycling’s most vocal critic of doping for years. The 35-year-old Scotsman says he learned hard lessons after “making a mess” of his life through drugs.
He won the Tour’s 12th and longest stage Friday by leading a five-rider breakaway as the race left the Alps. The 140-mile ride from Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne to Annonay-Davezieux featured two big climbs, but did not change the top of the standings because Wiggins and his main rivals finished together.
Wiggins, a three-time Olympic track gold medalist, is trying to become Britain’s first Tour winner. His Team Sky has controlled the Tour in a style reminiscent of Lance Armstrong’s former US Postal squad. Armstrong, a seven-time Tour champion, is battling charges from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency that accused him of using performance-enhancing drugs. He denies any wrongdoing.
Millar, while riding for the French team Cofidis, was banned from cycling for two years in 2004 after using the banned blood booster EPO — once the drug of choice for cycling cheats.
“I’m an ex-doper and I’m clean now, and I want to show everyone that it’s possible to win clean on the Tour,” Millar said.
Wiggins also rode for Cofidis. He has said he threw his jersey into the trash and swore never to wear it again after Cofidis pulled out of the 2007 Tour following Italian rider Christian Moreni’s positive test for testosterone.
This year, the French team has been at the center of a doping case. Remy Di Gregorio, a Cofidis rider, was placed under investigation Thursday following his arrest two days earlier as part of a French doping inquiry. He is suspected of illegal possession of doping products or equipment.
The stage victory was Millar’s fourth in his career but first since 2003. He also became the fourth Briton to win a Tour stage this year, after Mark Cavendish, Christopher Froome and Wiggins.
The victory was also a vindication for Garmin-Sharp, which had a terrible first week when it lost two top riders to crashes: Giro d’Italia winner Ryder Hesjedal of Canada and Tom Danielson of the U.S.
“For me, personally, it’s enormous,” Millar said. “Today I kind of wanted to show that we’re still here, and show that Garmin-Sharp is still one of the best teams in the world.”
As for the strong showing by British riders as the London Olympics near, Millar said: “Yeah, I think we’re at the top,” referring to himself as “the old dog” of the bunch.
Millar sped ahead of the others in the breakaway with a little more than a mile to go, and France’s Jean-Christophe Peraud chased. In the last mile, it was a two-man battle. With a few hundred yards left, the Frenchman struck and wheeled around, but it was not enough as Millar beat him to the line.
After the finish, an exhausted Millar lay on the ground. Microphones and cameras hovered over him as he breathed heavily and put his forearm on his forehead.
Wiggins was content to let the breakaway go. His Team Sky did not lay chase because the top-placed rider among the five in the bunch was more than 25 minutes behind the Briton as the stage began.
Overall, he leads teammate Christopher Froome, in second, by 2:05. Vincenzo Nibali of Italy is third, 2:23 back. Defending champion Cadel Evans is fourth, 3:19 behind. Jurgen Van Den Broeck of Belgium is fifth, 4:48 off the pace.
The ranks continued to thin Friday.
Rabobank said Dutch team leader Robert Gesink, in 67th place and more than an hour behind Wiggins, quit to focus on the Spanish Vuelta. Rabobank has only four of its original nine riders remaining. Cofidis star David Moncoutie crashed after about 24 miles and dropped out.
The three-week race heads toward the Mediterranean on Saturday for France’s July 14 national holiday, Bastille Day. The 135-mile stage goes from Saint-Paul-Trois-Chateaux to Le Cap d’Agde, a coastal resort known for its nudist colony.