Tough lessons learned by Team Sky and the language of the innocent. An interview with Fran Millar.

Photo: Team Sky

Photo: Team Sky

Fran Millar's history within the sport is an interesting one. Known dismissively by some as "David's sister", Millar has been a central figure in British cycling for nearly fifteen years. During that time, she's worked as an event promoter, rider agent, and has held several positions at Sky, having been there since the team's inception. My initial goal was to talk about the realities that come with being a visible and accessible member of Team Sky, particularly within the current climate in the sport. In the end however, we ended up talking about many other things, like representing riders, the difficult lessons that Team Sky has learned, the validity of doubt among fans, and yes, her brother. 

One other note: this interview was conducted right before the news about Jonathan Tiernan-Locke were released, so that topic is not covered. Nevertheless, I think the subjects we did touch upon are, in a broader sense, more telling and interesting. At least to me. Thanks to Fran for her time.

At what point were you introduced to cycling, and how?

I was about fifteen years old, and it was through my brother. By that point, he was racing on a domestic team when he was home, so I would watch the Tour with him on TV when he was home from Hong Kong.

Wisden Almanack

Wisden Almanack

Before entering the world of cycling, you worked for the Wisden Cricketer’s Almanack [ a cricket reference book published annually in the UK, and often referred as “the Bible of cricket”]

Did that that job entice you to pursue a career in sport?

After school, I had a temporary position in a really generic business, and I realized it wasn’t for me. I wanted to move to London, and I wanted to work in sports. The opportunity at Wisden came up, and I loved it. In part because of David, I had always loved sports anyway, and it’s certainly more exciting than a standard office job, isn’t it?

I was working at Wisden when David won the yellow jersey at the Tour, and my boss at the time had been business partners with Björn Borg’s manager. I mentioned that IMG wasn’t doing a very good job, and he didn’t have a very high of opinion of IMG, so he mentioned that maybe I should represent my brother. I had never thought about something like that as a job, but with him giving me the nudge, I thought perhaps I could do it.

So that was in 2000, your brother is considered a promising rider at a very high level, and you decide you want to represent him. Do you present this idea to your brother  with a full business plan, in an attempt to be as professional as possible, or is it as simple as a conversation between siblings?

It was pretty informal. At the time, I was living with a guy who was a web designer, and we thought we could build a fan site for David. Today, people in the UK enjoy and understand cycling, but back then, people here didn’t really understand the sport, and there was only a small hardcore group of fans that we thought we could tap into through a site. You know, maybe we were a little ahead of our time, because we thought we could build a pay wall, and let people have all this access, all kinds of stupid stuff. 

But in the end, it wasn’t a really serious conversation, it was more of us just dicking around. David and I have always gotten along really well, so it was more about, “we can build this website for you, we can do some PR for you.” So it was more of a fun thing. Over the course of the next few years, the guy who I built that site with for David did write up a business plan, which included getting other clients beyond David. I have that business plan somewhere, and I’ve read it back since, and it’s absolutely hilarious, particularly the kind of money we thought we would be making. In the end, none of it happened, because we ended up going more into event management than into athlete representation.

But you did end up managing other athletes, correct?

We did, simply because I had a real affinity to some of them, and I just loved the sport. But we never charged them any money. And in those days, it wasn’t a big money proposition anyway.

At the company’s peak, how many athletes did you manage, and were they all cyclists?

The company is still going today, and it’s one of the biggest cycling management companies in the UK, mostly doing events. But at its peak, around the Beijing Olympics, we had around 15 athletes. But we weren’t very good at it, and we openly admitted to that, but I was personally very attached to some of the riders.

Photo: Team Sky

Photo: Team Sky

Like who?

Mark Cavendish. I worked with him from before he turned professional, to right before he left Team Sky. Now, looking back on it, I think we were in the wrong sport to do athlete representation in, but the right one to do event promotion and building a brand in. Plus, representing cyclists back then was not a moneymaking business. Now it is, but I also see just how much it takes to do that now. The contacts, the experience, and the willingness to sell your soul too. We didn’t have any of those things.

If I have the timeline correct, that means you were representing Mark Cavendish, and you were working with Sky at the same time. How was that conflict of interests dealt with?

Right. I was working for Sky, and I had to declare that I had an interest in Mark, and that even though I was no longer directly representing him, he still asked for my advice on these matters. I had never taken money from Mark, I never got a percentage of his contracts, ever, but I did do his first book deal and got a percentage of that. So it was technically representation, but it was more like I was a big sister to him in that sense. 

So when he was coming to Sky, I asked him how he’d like it to be handled. Did he want me to be involved in negotiations? I also spoke to the team’s board, and it was determined that if Mark and Dave Brailsford was comfortable with it, I could be involved since I knew the team and Mark. So I was involved in the conversations, but it was completely open that I had an interest in both sides.

Fran Millar, Martin Ayers, Dan Buillemette, and Tim Kerrison (Photo: Scott Mitchell/Team Sky)

Fran Millar, Martin Ayers, Dan Buillemette, and Tim Kerrison (Photo: Scott Mitchell/Team Sky)

Cavendish aside, I was wondering, did you charge your brother a fee, or was there some financial arrangement to get your business going?

No, we just took a percentage of sales from the website, which probably added up to 100 Pounds (laughs). But no, I don’t remember him every giving me money. The thing that actually got the company off the ground was an event called the  Friday Meeting. We asked David if he would ride it, he agreed, but mentioned that maybe we should ask about promoting it, doing PR for it, and getting paid for that. So that was a great opportunity, and we would ask David to ride these events. We never paid him a fee, so I guess it was an exchange of favors really. But he demands a fee now (laughs)!

That speaks to how close you and your brother are. Which brings up a question: did you know about your brother’s doping as it was happening? Did you suspect it?

I suspected it, yeah. There was never a direct conversation that we ever sat down and had, but I think it was definitely…I knew what the sport was like, and I suppose I turned a blind eye.

David Millar speaks to the press at the 2007 Tour after Vinokourov tested positive for a blood transfusion

You’ve had several jobs within Sky since the team’s inception, but many still think of you as being the press officer, which you are not.

I project managed the setup of the team through 2008 and 2009 and then once we were racing there was a natural lead towards the marketing side for me—in part because I don’t have a performance background; I know nothing about training or equipment. 

Then when Brian Nygaard, out head of communications, left Sky [Nygaard went to Leopard-Trek, and subsequently Orica-GreenEDGE] I was asked to take on that role for the 2010 Tour de France, which I did. And it was fucking awful (laughs)! Because of that, many think that I’m the communications person for Team Sky, which I’m not. So people will call me out on Twitter, and tell me I should be doing my job for the team in communications, and I have to tell them, “I’m not the fucking press officer!” (laughs)

I think I know why it was a nightmare, but I might be wrong. Can you tell me why?

To be honest, it was a nightmare because we did this massive hoo-ha, about how we were going to win the Tour de France, how we were going to be amazing and we had this great, big shiny bus, we had all this money, and we were the new kids on the block. And we tanked. There’s no other way to put it. We tanked. Bradley had come in fourth with Garmin, and there had been this massive transfer negotiation and press about him leaving Garmin and coming to Sky. So Bradley comes to us, and we tank. 

And at that point, everyone smells blood.

Right, everyone was on us like a rash. And rightly so, because at the end of that season we all sat down and realized we had learned quite a few lessons about our approach and we had to do a wholesale review of our organization, to look at our mistakes, what we could improve on. The result was that much of how the team operates now comes from that review after 2010. So it wasn’t the work before 2010, but it was the failure that helped us put things in place to make us better.

And your job title now at Sky is…

Head of Winning Behaviors.

What does that mean?

Basically, when we first started the team, we had a really clear vision of what we wanted to achieve. Win the Tour de France with a clean British riders within five years, and to inspire a million people within the UK to ride more regularly. And we used that vision as a rallying cry, a north star to guide us, which made making decisions and communicating within the team much easier. At the end of 2012, we met as a team to realign the goals, and to look forward toward the next year, realizing that we’d achieved two of the goals we’d set out to achieve, winning the Tour and inspiring a million people to ride bikes.  

So we got everyone together in London to discuss the end of the year, and that’s when the USADA decision about Lance came out. So rather than talking about goals for the next year, we began to talk about the importance of reaffirming our anti-doping position. That meant re-interviewing people about their past, and having people leave the team as a result, and all the chaos that came from that. That meant that we went through the following season without really resetting anyone, or having really talked about who we are, and what we stand for. We felt that there had been a bit of a cultural drift, and it became clear that what had gotten us to that point was not going to keep us there. We needed to keep moving forward, and pushing on. So we decided that we needed a way to let our riders know what being in Team Sky means, what being a part of the team means, what’s expected of them, how they can get better. These are all things that you would do in a corporation, but doing it within the context of a sports team. So we call it “winning behaviors” since it’s about sustaining the behaviors that can keep us winning. So I’ve been building that program over the course of the last 6 to 8 months as the head of it.

Fran and her brother David in 2009

Fran and her brother David in 2009

Even though you are not the press officer for the team, as you mentioned, many think you are. Additionally, you are a public person because of who your brother is and your presence on social media. That means that you can be attacked and questioned in a very public and direct way. How do you deal with that, and did you ever imagine that this would be part of your job?

To be honest, it doesn’t really get to me. Having been with David with what he went through, and having seen what happened to him, I think it gives you a thick skin, and makes you realize that it’s not the end of the world. When everything was happening to David, I realized that some people had a point. They were angry that he had cheated, and lied. But I know that Team Sky riders are clean, I know that our lads are not doing anything wrong, so people can throw all the crazy in the world at me, and I don’t find it to be that bad. And if I can, I’ll corrected them, but you can’t try to correct every person on the internet, because you’ll go mad. But if people ask me legitimate questions, or if I feel that something hasn’t been communicated properly, and I can try to correct that in 140 characters, then I will. 

But when I get called out by the more…challenging people, whose mind you will never change, I tend to disengage because you can’t win. But that doesn’t upset me. In fact, I understand it. This sport has had a long history of lying and cheating and all sorts of negativity. So it’s unrealistic for anyone to expect that after the biggest icon of the sport was brought down, everything will suddenly be perfect, nice as pie and questions won’t be asked anymore. It’s just unrealistic.

I feel that doubt can be healthy, and that questions must be asked. But I wrote something about this before, the fact that despite its value, doubt can sometimes come from the very same place that blind belief did earlier. This is not to say that it's bad, but perhaps to point out that it can be just as blind, if it’s merely an inversion in logic.

There are a variety of things going on. You’ve got something like Twitter, which didn’t exist twenty years ago. Some people on Twitter think that they are agents of change, because they are asking questions. During the height of Change Cycling Now, there was a false sense that Twitter was governing the editorial decisions of major newspapers, which was insane. In the UK, only 27% of the population is on Twitter. And of those, only 3% tweet regularly. So we are talking a tiny majority who had an impact on editorial decisions of newspapers, which is an interesting evolution of news coverage and interaction. Had Twitter existed in the days of Lance, he too would have been bombarded with questions, but people didn’t have a way to do that.

But there are two things here. We as a team are dominant. We won the Tour de France twice, we were number one and then number two in the world, and we race in a dominant way. We say things like, “the days of attacking in the mountains are gone”, but then do it. To some people, it’s like, “the only time I saw this before was with Lance, and I believed that, so I won’t be fooled again.” So I totally get that, and if I was a fan, and not as close to Team Sky as I am, and didn’t know the riders, I don’t know.

When did you think about that in particular?

I remember watching the Dauphine in 2012, on the Col De Joux Plan, Richie and the guys just absolutely battered everyone. And I remember thinking, “whoa, if I didn’t know this team, I would be asking questions.” It’s understandable. The other thing I want to mention is this. I work a lot with the Head of Comms at Sky Sports and he said to me a few years ago—If you look at how Lance dealt with accusations, he stole the language of the innocent.

That’s interesting.

I think it's true. You cannot say anything today that Lance didn’t say. He’s used all the lines, and the language of the innocent. So what can we say. We train harder, we use the best equipment, and we eat better. He took it all. He used all the lines…not “lines”, he took the truth, and used it for his purpose.

And Sky has been mocked for us saying those lines.

Yes, people tease us on Twitter, saying that Sky is what it is because of "the pillows", or "the pineapple juice". It’s not the pillows or the pineapple juice. They are part of what we do, but it’s the work that our athletes do, day in day out, at camps and up on Mount Teide [in Tenerife], is unprecedented. That’s why other teams go there now, because it has a huge impact. So as a team, we have to go through a period of recognizing that anything we say, whether is where we train, sleep, pillows, training harder, we are going to sound like Lance. And we may look like Lance, but we have to know that we are not. So we can’t expect everyone to believe that, but time will prove us right. I really hope that some of those more vitriolic people on Twitter will recognize that. I doubt they will, but we can hope.

"The pillows", as featured on Bike Radar

"The pillows", as featured on Bike Radar

If I could give you a magic wand, I don't know why I’d be trusted to be the keeper of this magic wand, but let’s pretend. With this wand, you could make one thing about cycling change. What would that be?

Wow, that’s a massive question. I would like to get to a point where our fans can trust the authorities are doing their utmost to manage and run a clean sport. And that our fans could compete at the top of their game, winning, and have absolute faith and knowledge that they are doing so clean. That’s not in place now because people don’t trust the system. I don’t generally think that people don’t trust Chris Froome, I think they don’t trust WADA, or the UCI. So if I could make fans feel like they know that the testing works, and that the system is working, it would be game changing for the whole sport, and things would fall into place. It would be more commercially viable for sponsors, it would have a huge impact across the board.

I mean, I would love the change the financial stability of teams, and their reliance on sponsors, but ultimately, that would come with having a sport that people can trust. ■

In part two of this interview (which will be posted on Thursday), I speak with Fran about Colombian riders within Team Sky, cultural assimilation, Sergio Henao being removed from competition, and biological passport testing in South America.