Becoming Philippa York - Part 3.1

“Millar was different, Millar could hack it out there” Billy Bisland

In the time I spend talking to her, York only touches lightly on the past to give context to the present. That persona has been sloughed away, a discarded snakeskin confected of dead scales and stale air. Yet, Gatsby-like, the present reaches endlessly back into the past. Especially a past as illustrious as Philippa York’s.

She was born in September 1958 in Glasgow, in the tenements of the Gorbals, one of the poorest areas of that mighty city.

“And when somebody says, ‘You were born a man’ I say, ‘That’s strange, because I’m sure I was born a baby.’”

York enjoys poking fun at the biological fundamentalists: I’m sure when my mum brought me home that her mum said, ‘That’s a lovely baby.’ Not a man. Could you fit a man in a pram? I didn’t come out a fully grown man, I think my mum would have noticed. And I didn’t even want to be a man, but I couldn’t stop it!” 

York has spoken in interviews about her feelings of confusion at school, of wanting to line up in the playground with the girls, not the boys. She has also said she wished she had the opportunity to transition at 16 and never been a cyclist.

“So, nowadays, I’m that kid they’re arguing about, about puberty blockers. My behaviours fit the profile of that kid. Yeah, that would have been me.”

Puberty blockers have been in use since the 1980s to inhibit early onset or precocious puberty in children, blocking the development of secondary sexual characteristics, like facial hair or Adam’s apple. They’re also widely used to treat PCOS and breast and prostate cancer. As York points out, “I would never have had to go through male puberty and correct all that stuff afterwards.” A pause, and then she adds. “If I'd fully transitioned at age 16? I don't know. I certainly wouldn't be sitting here talking to you.”

In his novel about the refugee experience, By the Sea, Abdulrazak Gurnah writes, “That's the way life takes us,' Elleke once said. 'It takes us like this, then it turns us over and takes us like that.' What she didn't say was that through it all we manage to cling to something that makes sense.” For York, the something that made sense was cycling.

“I was born in a council house and in a really poor area of Glasgow. There are only two ways out for us. Sport or music.”

I ask her if cycling was an escape from her unresolved feelings? “I didn't hide in cycling. I liked cycling,” she replies.

"I discovered racing, and I thought ‘I can do that’. I never thought I couldn't do it. I looked at it, and I thought, ‘Two arms, two legs. How hard can it be?’ But you know, I didn't realise that.”

She talks about her progression and how at any level, an aspiring rider can meet the limits of their talent and health. She says she only grew up when she moved to France, aged 20, “because there was no internet to make you into an adult then.” It was there, riding as Robert Millar, that the young and seemingly fragile Glaswegian hurtled into the public consciousness, one of the last riders to resist a typically destructive Bernard Hinault in the brutal 1980 Worlds at Sallanches.

In 1984, Millar was King of the Mountains at the Tour de France, with a fourth place on GC and a beautiful solo stage win in the Pyrenees ahead of Lucho Herrera tucked in the pocket of the fabled Peugeot jersey. Then in 1985 came the stolen Vuelta, the GT win that never was. It came as no surprise when Millar jumped ship the next year to Peter Post’s mighty Panasonic team. “He treated me like I worked for him,” York recalls. “And he said something like, ‘You know I own you.’ And I said, ‘No, you don’t own me, I work with you. I’m not a minion or a subject of yours. You might pay me, but you don’t own me.’”

1987 was another glory year, this time on the roads of Italy. Millar took the green climbers' jersey at the Giro d’Italia following a magnificent raid on stage 21 to Pila. Shepherding Stephen Roche to the Maglia Rosa also paved the way for Millar’s move to Fagor the following year. 

More jerseys joined the collection before Millar left the pro peloton in 1995 - among them the radically iconic Z Vetements, where Roger Legeay didn’t act like he owned his riders. Then came the graphic colour blocking of Cees Priem’s Dutch TVM squad and finally, the chaos of Le Groupement’s clashing colours and embryonic blobs, emblematic of the French team’s ill-fated and ridiculously brief presence in the peloton. And there was a steady stream of wins in Romandie, Midi Libre, Catalunya and the Dauphine plus stages in all three GTs. Millar signed off with wins at the British road race and Manx International GP as Le Groupement slid into scandal and financial impropriety.

And then Robert Millar disappeared.