One-Armed Bandits: Robert Millar Loses It

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He was robbed… Robert recalls petty pilferers and profiteers on his racing travels in Ireland and Italy

Photographs: Offside/l'Equipe
Robert Millar, Superbagneres 1989

A wise man once said travelling broadens the mind. It’s true.


But what the wise man failed to mention was that travelling can also empty your pocket, suitcase, hotel room or car. Allow me to share with you the two top countries where I was most likely to be parted from my possessions when racing: Ireland and Italy.


Firstly, Ireland – that smiling, friendly, leprechaun-filled, Guinness-swilling Emerald Isle. Or as I remember it, the wet, windy and potato-growing den of petty crime. I should point out that Mrs McGinty’s B&B is excepted, because at her lovely abode we were served hot tea and chocolate digestives until we could eat no more. And nothing got nicked.


Everywhere else was trouble. Maybe it was because Mrs McGinty’s B&B was in the middle of nowhere, but I think it was more to do with no humans being in reasonable walking distance of her premises. Plus it was lashing down, of course. Even thieving toe-rags need a break from the weather.


What I found most annoying about Ireland was the opportunism involved. One moment of inattention in any kind of crowd and your water bottle was gone, race food taken from your pockets, rain cape half-inched from the back of the car. Unless you tied it down, it was nicked without you noticing or being aware of grubby little fingers helping themselves to your personal possessions. And it was always something personal. Gloves, shoecovers, arm warmers: all went missing and became souvenirs.


Presumably these scrotes were one-armed or one-legged, because they only ever took a solitary item. Maybe they thought I wouldn’t miss just one glove or arm warmer. Towels, watches, books, magazines, sunglasses – all went. Where? I’ve no idea but the shades were the work of an optimist, for sure.

Stefan Schumacher
Has anyone seen my Oakleys?


We were staying in a tall hotel in Limerick one time. It had, of course, been raining, so I washed the muck out of my Sidi shoes and put them outside on the window ledge – not that they would dry but the idea was that they might be less wet next morning. Little comforts and all that.


Dinner time came and we all went down to be fed potatoes, but passing through the hall the receptionist called us over. She asked if we’d put anything outside to dry. Yes, we said.


“Oh dear, you’d better go take them in, they won’t stay there long.”


We were on the fourth floor; there were no balconies, stairs or other obvious means of scaling the building. There wasn’t even a drainpipe, but I knew she was right – somewhere out there lurked a disadvantaged Spiderman with a penchant for collecting cycling memorabilia. I never took anything to Ireland I wouldn’t miss.


Italy was an altogether more ambitious place for procurement. They didn’t bother with being contented with one of anything. If their collectors wanted something, they took it. All of it.


The first flight to Milan was a warning. Allegedly my bag never left Paris, but thankfully I’d learned from the Irish experience to keep race shoes with me, so it was just a matter of being given replacement kit by the team and using those crummy little airline bathroom sets for my ablutions. I also got the bag returned a few days later, which was a shock, along with tags saying it had indeed been to Linate via Athens and a few other places. The contents of the bag had somehow fallen out on the way.


On the next trip, suitcases were lost and the team car donated its radio equipment. Then there was the small matter of every time you crossed the border, gifts were distributed to ease the passage and save everyone from passport inspection. Jerseys, tyres, caps, posters and bidons were a minimum donation. I suspect wheels and whole bikes sometimes stayed behind too, because you would see guys kitted out in team clothing on full team bikes that were never sold in shops. Unlike Ireland, small stuff rarely got taken from hotels but everywhere else was fair game and if it did, it was usually more organised – a situation perfectly illustrated by the Napoli incident.


The scene is near Pompeii, a forgettable little early-season stage race and a hotel forced to open for the passage of said event. The mechanics were working in the hotel car park, 200 metres away on the other side of the road. They’ve been told it’s secure, guarded all night and included in the stay, so they won’t have to form a circle of wagons with the Spanish team that has also been allocated this place.

Coppi museum
“Pay up or the wheel gets it”


As night falls, a car pulls up and two guys in black suits get out. They exchange pleasantries and then inform the mechanics that there are charges to be paid to ensure everything remains safe until the morning.


Having been in a similar predicament before, our guys nod their agreement and go to fetch the money demanded. The Spaniards, however, are new to this and say they need a receipt for their expenses if they are going to pay.


“No receipt,” is the reply from the suits.

“We have no money,” say the Spaniards.

“Your things will be safe if you pay the charge.”

Still the Spaniards insist they have no money.


Our mechanics return with the brown envelope of cash and listen as the suits tell the Spaniards that they have no choice if they want their truck full of bikes and their team cars to be safe. Otherwise they’ll be like the last guys who refused the charges and thus forfeited their truck. It was found six months later in Austria doing supermarket deliveries for a farmers’ collective. Colnagos to cabbages in one fell swoop. The Spaniards finally got the message and the suits got a second brown envelope.

Colnagos to cabbages


Next day, the trucks, cars and bikes were there as promised and we all left to continue our business. It was almost a happy ending except for 10kms from the finish one of Cipo’s leadout men threw his arm warmers away and they ended up wrapped round my rear mech. And the Spaniards? They lost the number plates and radios from their cars at the next place of rest.


From issue 62 of Rouleur


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