Credit: Graham Skellern – NZ Herald
Former Olympic cyclist Graeme Miller has immersed himself in the virtual reality world to train and prepare for the World Masters Games in April.
Instead of pedalling for hours and hundreds of kilometres a week on the road, Miller slips into his garage at his Remuera home and builds his fitness on a stationary bike.
He switches on the digital training programme Zwift and the memories of past racing days come flooding back.
Miller, 56, trains in a simulated 3D cycling environment with familiar landscapes, familiar competitors and virtual races. The Zwift programme measures his power by the watts he produces, and his speed is adjusted to his height, weight and the road gradient.
“It’s serious training, made fun with the computer programme,” says Miller. “I’m doing a bit of running as well – I’ve raced two half marathons – but 90 per cent of my training is indoors, rather than on the road.
“The roads in Auckland are too crazy and I don’t feel safe out there. The old skin rips easily nowadays. The challenge is to see how competitive I can be by using the indoor trainer.”
Four-time Olympic and five-time Commonwealth Games representative Miller has entered the criterium at Wynyard Quarter, road race at Ardmore, and points, scratch and individual pursuit events at the Cambridge Avantidrome in the 55-59 age group.
Depending on the schedule, Miller has also entered the athletics – 5000m on the track and 10km on the road – having recently run the Gold Coast Half Marathon in 1 hour 27 minutes.
“That’s not too shabby for someone who’s 55,” he says. “I do enjoy running and trying to do a novice sport at a decent level is a great challenge.”
But returning to competitive cycling is his first priority at the World Masters Games. Miller recently tried out the new Cambridge indoor track on a borrowed bike – “It was 30 years old” – and discovered fellow masters riders whizzing past him on the latest equipment. He knew he had to be more serious.
Miller tapped his old sponsors – Specialized Bikes and Shimano are helping him ride a new road bike – and national selector Dale Cheatley is fixing him with an old Cycling New Zealand track bike.
Southern Spars has provided a set of the latest wheels. The equipment Miller will bring to the Games is worth $30,000.
Former coach and fellow New Zealand representative Paul Leitch, who encouraged him to enter the Games, is overseeing his training.
“I think my old contacts were keener than I was to compete at the Games. I think they wanted to have a laugh at my expense.
“I’m relying on 30 years of racing in the bank and hopefully I can draw some inspiration from that,” says Miller. “I’ll do at least 10-12 hours a week on the trainer. That’s 350km-400km, but when I was racing, I would do 1200km a week in training.”
After first representing New Zealand in 1980 at the age of 20, Miller’s illustrious amateur and professional career ended in 2002, when he finally succumbed to a back injury. He was riding for the Mercury Team in the United States, when his back blew out.
“I had an emergency flight home and went straight into hospital. I had injured my back earlier in the year and I just think I was going too hard for my age [at 42]. I always said I’d keep going until something fell off. It was an honourable discharge.”
Miller had three back operations in Auckland and finally had three lower vertebrae fused, performed by leading orthopaedic surgeon Dr Gordon Howie. A former builder, Miller turned to selling houses and was mentored by two mates, Grant Lynch and Olympic sailor Barrie Thom, owners of UP Real Estate.
“A month after the first back operation, it was like waking up out of a coma. I never realised there was a world out there that didn’t involve cycling.
“I was amazed how I had stayed focused on training and cycling for so long and I loved every second of it. I rode through three generations of top New Zealand cyclists.”
The constant racing and travelling cost him two marriages and he has been engaged for 10 years to lawyer Toni Sythes, a talented runner, who gained a US athletics scholarship from Baradene College.
Miller was selected for four Olympic Games, but made it to three – Los Angeles 1984, Seoul 1988 and Barcelona 1992 – after the boycott robbed him of competition at Moscow 1980.
His best Olympic effort was eighth in the road race at Seoul – one that got away.
“I was in the break all day and then the main pack caught us with 8km to go. They attacked us, and I went with the guys who finished first and second. I got out of my seat, a spoke in the wheel broke, I hesitated for a second and they were gone. I was in a group of 20 sprinting for the bronze medal.”
He found greater glory at the Commonwealth Games, winning silvers in the time trial and team pursuit at Brisbane in 1982 and Edinburgh in 1986. Then came the golden days in Auckland four years later and he also competed in Victoria, Canada, in 1994, and was the team captain and flag bearer at Kuala Lumpur in 1998.
In Auckland 1990, Miller won the team time trial on the Southern Motorway with Fowler, Gavin Stevens and Ian Richards. Then, after 170km, he rode home in front of the field in the road race that finished in Ash St, Avondale.
No doubt the memory of that day 26 years ago will push Miller towards an exemplary performance in the World Masters Games road race – and get the last laugh on his mates.