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.