Armstrong’s whistleblower reveals all
It has been a fraught journey for ex-US Postal soigneur Emma O’Reilly
Disgraced cycling champion Lance Armstong talks with Emma O’Reilly in Orlando, USA.
Emma O’Reilly in happier times with Chris and Sip from the Rabobank team
The day Emma O’Reilly was hired as a soigneur with the US Postal Service cycling team she rang home in Tallaght to tell her family.
“A swan what?” she was asked.
“A swan-your,” she replied. “It’s French for looking after people. I’ll be looking after the riders.”
It was January 1996 and O’Reilly was 25-years-old, but before long one of the riders she would look after was Lance Armstrong. Except O’Reilly would not be just massaging his legs or refilling his drinks; soon, she would be crossing the French border into Spain to collect doping products on his behalf. Or, on the eve of Armstrong’s first of seven successive Tour de France victories in 1999, using her make-up to help conceal puncture marks on his arm.
No one needs to be reminded of the deceit subsequently revealed behind Armstrong’s success story. And never once has O’Reilly denied her part in it. She knew what was going on at US Postal Service, that doping was rife throughout the peloton. But she always stopped short of administering drugs. She never felt it was her job to clean it up, either. Not when the omerta of cycling was as its most sacred.
So she was discreet, until slowly the trickle of truth about Armstrong began adding up to one big lie – a process O’Reilly helped start by giving an interview to Sunday Times journalist David Walsh in 2003which formed a central part of his and Pierre Ballester’s book LA Confidential. The rest is doping history – the US Anti-Doping Agency (Usada), in 2012, described Armstrong’s team as “the most sophisticated, professionalised, and successful doping programme that the world has ever seen”.
O’Reilly is now retelling that story from her perspective, and not without fresh revelations – or at least refreshed timing. Because last night, while the riders for the 2014 Tour de France were being unveiled in Leeds ahead of tomorrow’s Grand Depart, she was at a small bookshop near her home in Hale, Cheshire, to unveil The Race to Truth: Blowing The Whistle on Lance Armstrong and Cycling’s Doping Culture.
Will that race to veracity ever be won? O’Reilly can’t say for sure, but some things have changed. When she first spoke to Walsh about the doping at US Postal Service, Armstrong branded her a liar, whore and alcoholic. Now, in the foreword to her book, he describes her as someone he admires deeply: “I honestly don’t know if I’d have the courage and character to do what Emma did,” writes Armstrong. “This won’t come as a shock to anyone but this woman is a much better person than I am or ever will be.”
O’Reilly, surprisingly, returns that sense of respect, having reconciled with Armstrong, late last year. Walsh, ironically, doesn’t receive the same respect as O’Reilly believes she was partly manipulated by him in his “obsessive” quest to bring Armstrong down.
More importantly for her, however, is the fact her own faith in cycling has been restored, at least to the extent that she finishes most days with a 90-minute cycle around the rolling countryside of Hale, where she lives in a converted farmhouse. From there she told me how cycling has worked its way back into her life for all the right reasons.
“There was a time there I couldn’t even look at a bike, let alone a bike race,” she says. “Now, it’s funny, because, I really, really love cycling again. Just to get out on the bike, for 90 minutes on these summer evenings, is such great head space. So it really has come full circle. Full cycle, even.
“And I didn’t want to make it an entirely negative story because there are some positive sides. And for me anyway it does end on a happy note. There were so many low points, and I remember when the federal investigation into Lance fell through, I really thought to myself, ‘You know what, there really is no justice in this world’. That was a big low.
“But I always felt as well the thing about cycling, even though it’s madly dysfunctional, is that people look out for each other and there’s a camaraderie at the root of cycling that I don’t think is there in any sports.”
This comes from considerable experience, and comparison – given O’Reilly’s early foray into sport was distance running (and nearly took her on scholarship to Villanova). Yet she found her way into professional cycling by accident and design. When she was an eight-year-old her mother died suddenly and “dad needed me”, she writes. “And I was determined to be there.” That meant taking care of the family, cooking, cleaning, making beds – all the qualities of a soigneur.
Later, after first training to be an electrician,she took weekend courses in massage, which afforded her the opportunity to follow the Rás and work with Irish cyclists. It took a while for that fascination to sour, when she realised “doping in cycling had become less of a choice and more of an absolute necessity”. At times she felt like “nothing but a glorified drug smuggler”. By stopping short of the inner circle, and refusing to administer drugs, O’Reilly was soon cast out – leaving US Postal in 2000.
She now feels a degree of confusion persists concerning the truth and the true villains. “Lance was a bully, a nasty piece a work, overly aggressive about everything he did, but there is some goodness in him too. My initial relationship with him, that connection, was built on friendship. I knew he was no angel. I was never fooled by any of that. But we had some good times.
“And there were a lot of positive things, such as his Livestrong Foundation, his work with cancer. That was all done with good intentions. And I can’t ignore that. Ironically enough, bringing our past up again has helped me move on, too. I know some people might find that strange. I won’t, and never will, excuse his behaviour.
“But I think one of the main reasons I can forgive Lance is that when I spoke to David Walsh, it was really about the UCI [cycling’s governing body], who are meant to protect the riders, to govern the sport. But to me they were part of the system, and the riders just inherited that. I never wanted to hang the riders. I wanted to hang the system, and the infrastructure that was making that system, and protecting it.
“The other thing is that people still go on about the drugs, the drugs, the drugs. But I saw as well the dedication those riders put in . . . To me they are still human beings, so I wouldn’t get consumed by the hate.
“Now, I never had that connection with David Walsh. So I just feel I was exploited by him, and the Sunday Times. I also feel David got too single-minded about his story. But we are bonded by this, now, and I put him in the acknowledgements of the book, because he was an important part of the journey. I will always be fond of David, but this is my story of what happened over those 10 or 12 years. In all fairness, I probably wouldn’t be telling my story if it wasn’t for David.”
Cycling’s doping story, however, rides on. This week South African Daryl Impey – who last year became the first African to wear the yellow jersey at the Tour – failed a drugs test. Which begs the rhetorical question: can the race to truth ever be won?
“I feel the culture has changed,” says O’Reilly. “And [it] still is changing. I genuinely feel that.
“Because I’m not part of that culture anymore I can’t say for definite, but I know from talking to some riders, like George Hincapie, he reckons the biological passport has made a huge difference.
“Now, I think the riders do have a choice. And for me that’s the most important part of the change in culture; before there was no choice. So my motivation to speak out was always to clean up the sport. It wasn’t just about Lance. It was about something bigger than that. Because riders were dying, their lives were being wrecked. That system needed to change.”
“Overnight my story as sporting hero and Tour de France champion went from a lilywhite picture to jet black. But, unlike many others, Emma doesn’t view it like that. She wasn’t going to sit there and say, ‘It’s black or it’s white.’ She sees the cool shades of grey. She says what is right and what is wrong and for a time that worked against the lies I was telling the world.” – Armstrong on O’Reilly.
“I began to get to know Lance the person, not the rider. Without a doubt, cancer had been a big motivating factor in his life. He had always been extraordinarily driven, of course, initially to escape from his relatively poor upbringing, but almost dying and then being rejected by Cofidis [cycling team] appeared to have sent him into overdrive. His little black book was full of sponsors, directors to whom he wanted, needed to prove himself.” – O’Reilly, on first getting to know Lance Armstrong.
“For the first time, a growing sense of responsibility began to burgeon in me. The lads couldn’t speak out, as they were still part of the mad Planet Cycling, where winning at all costs was the only thing that mattered, regardless of the consequences. They were trapped, whereas I was free. I started to feel that choosing not to speak out was in effect lying. The seeds of principle behind telling the truth had suddenly been planted.
“The following morning I woke up knowing in my guts there was only one thing to do. Omerta or no omerta. The senseless, tragic deaths of talented riders was all I needed for the final kick. It didn’t matter who thought what about me, what the consequences were. For sure, I was desperate not to hurt my ex-team-mates, but I had to look at myself in the mirror every day. If any other riders died, I’d no longer be able to do that.” – O’Reilly, on speaking out against drugs in cycling
“I’d already lost a huge amount of trust in David, but more than that, I saw an unrelenting obsessiveness in the man, the journalist, out to ‘get Lance’ at pretty much any cost. That was what mattered to David, not me, nor probably any of his other sources. In my mind, however, I always felt that it wasn’t Lance or any of the riders who were the problem . . . It was the whole culture of cycling.
"He’d hung me out to dry - but worse than that, the publisher had even openly warned him of the impact this would have on my life and had recommended proper support. Something I feel I never got . . .
"He admitted the interview I’d given him on my sofa that hot July day was the biggest story he’d ever get in his life. ‘It was my Christmas,’ he enthused, as I found myself rolling my eyes. ‘Yes, David, your Christmas was at my expense’ ” – O’Reilly on journalist David Walsh.