Title: The Race To Truth - Blowing The Whistle On Lance Armstrong And Cycling's Doping Culture
Author: Emma O'Reilly (with Shannon Kyle, foreword by Lance Armstrong)
What it is: Emma O'Reilly's story of her role in the rise and fall of Lance Armstrong
Strengths: O'Reilly paints a nuanced picture of Lance Armstrong and shows that while it was all just about business for him, it was also just about business for a lot of other people too, including those who fought to reveal the truth about his doping
Weaknesses: Not a single mention of O'Reilly's role as a key source for another ground-breaking cycling book, Freya North's Cat
In the run-up to publication of LA Confidentiel, Marc Grinsztajn, a slight, engaging and clever man who worked for our publishers, had said to me a couple of times to look out for Emma in the aftermath. Of all of us she would be the one most vulnerable. I nodded but didn't see it.
Seven Deadly Sins
It's eleven years now since David Walsh - when researching LA Confidentiel, the 2004 book he co-authored with Pierre Ballester - reached out to Emma O'Reilly with an email: "I believe we need to talk and I believe it is in both our interests. There will be no strings attached to the conversation but it would be worth your while to hear me out."
O'Reilly was no naïf, she'd been around the block and knew the world. Once, back in the day, she was the star of articles in the sporting press, the female soigneur working in a male-dominated sport. When she quit USPS in 2000 journalists called her wanting to know why she was no longer working with Lance Armstrong. When the Actovegin story broke, the calls and the emails and the questions started again. Back then, she dealt with them by not dealing with them, ignoring the calls, deleting the emails. And now, long after she thought it was all over, here it was starting up again.
You wonder now if, could 2003 Emma O'Reilly call up 2014 Emma O'Reilly, what advice would she receive, would 2014 O'Reilly tell 2003 O'Reilly to go ahead and reply to that email, or would she tell her to delete it and just get on with her life, leave the past behind?
* * * * *
In his oft quoted essay on the Tour de France, the French semiotician Roland Barthes made reference to events on the Ventoux in 1955, a day when riders - hopped up on amphetamines and affected by the baking heat - fell like flies. Barthes likened the use of doping to the theft by Prometheus of the gift of fire from the Gods of Olympus. He likened what happened to the riders on that mountain on that day to the punishment meted out by the Olympians to their wayward son Prometheus, who was bound in chains to a rock, with birds pecking out his organs. Each night Prometheus's body repaired itself and each day the birds buried their beaks in him anew, his punishment unending.
That was how doping and dopers used to be seen: men who, like the demi-god Prometheus, were admired for what they had given us, but who still had to pay a price for what they had done. Antoine Blondin, the French novelist and L'Équipe journalist, probably expressed better the attitude of the time:
"As sports fans, we prefer to dream about angels on wheels, Simon Pures somehow immune to the uppers and downers of our own pill-popping society. There is, all the same, a certain nobility in those who have gone down into God knows what hell in search of the best of themselves. We might feel tempted to tell them they should not have done it, but we can remain secretly proud of what they have done. Their wan, haggard looks are for us an offering."
Time changes everything and we no longer see our angels with dirty faces as having any nobility. Where Barthes, writing in the 1950s, saw doped riders as demi-Gods trying to do right by doing wrong, we today tend to see those riders more in line with the myth of Prometheus as recast by Mary Shelley. We see the myth of the Modern Prometheus, Victor Frankenstein, who sought to steal the fire of life from the heavens and in return created an uncontrollable monster, a soulless beast who hurt those he came into contact with. Pitchforks and flaming torches are the only way to deal with that sort of monster.
* * * * *
It was 1993, at the World Championships in Norway, when Emma O'Reilly first crossed paths, fleetingly, with "a new boy wonder, a brash, cocky Texan who'd been tipped to win gold at the Olympics the year before and now, at twenty-two, was slaughtering the opposition." O'Reilly herself was twenty-three, early into her career as a soigneur, looking after the riders on the Irish national squad. Cycling for O'Reilly was a short-term option, a step on the ladder, the place she'd earn her spurs and make a reputation before moving on. She'd be out of the game when she turned thirty. And four years on from Norway that plan was working fine, O'Reilly was a soigneur with the Thom Weisel owned US Postal Services squad and had already done one Tour de France with the team.
Like many of us who grew up with posters of Sean Kelly on their bedroom walls O'Reilly knew that swannies did a lot of things, that rubbing the tiredness out of muscles was just one part of the job, that soigneurs were also often dispensing chemists, providing their charges with all the medicines they needed to do their job, from shots of B12 through to the drugs which sport in general had been claiming to be eradicating since first banning them in the 1960s. O'Reilly, though, didn't want to be playing with fire and she drew a line: she'd wash and carry and prepare the food, she'd mammy her riders, she'd rub them down but when it came to charging up, that was somebody else's problem.
When Lance Armstrong - still brash and cocky - joined the US Postal team, for the 1998 season, the bond between the two was quickly formed. They learned to respect one and other, they learned to stand up for one and other, they learned to stand up to one and other. They learned to like one and other.
You could say that O'Reilly was like a mammy to her riders and possibly there is some truth in that. She'd had to grow up young, her own mother dying when she was just eight and she becoming a surrogate mother of sorts to her brother and sister, and maybe that brought out that side of her. But really, where the riders were concerned, she was more like a sister. A mammy would tell you when you'd done wrong, she'd smack the back of your leg, put you on the naughty step, or tell you you'd disappointed her. O'Reilly, she'd roll her eyes and laugh along with her riders.
In 1998, at a training camp in the build up to the Tour, O'Reilly told Armstrong that she was fed up with the grind of always being on call and would be shutting up shop at ten o'clock in future. If he or any of the other riders wanted anything after that they could "friggin' get knotted." A couple of nights later she was woken at two in the morning by a knock on her door. It was Tyler Hamilton, sheepishly looking for a bottle of water to drink. And behind him, cracking up at the joke he'd pulled on Hamilton and O'Reilly, was Armstrong. That was the way it was with them, they could sound off and joke around and still he a happy family.
That year, 1998, must have been a strange time to bond with Armstrong. He was post-cancer. Harder, in some respects. But softer too, fragile, only rebuilding his armour. O'Reilly saw both sides. She saw the fragility. She saw how Armstrong drove himself and drove the team. And she admired him. She was no innocent, she knew the role doping was playing, but even though she wanted no part of that side of the game, she was still proud of what he and the team were achieving. She could see that doping was not one rider breaking the rules, that the whole sport was at it, and that the sport's governing body, the UCI, were doing little or nothing to deter it. She saw the shades of grey.
* * * * *
When O'Reilly finally decided to talk to David Walsh, he told her that he was writing a book about cleaning up drugs in cycling and that she would be just one source among many. She agreed to talk to him but on condition that she could withhold permission to print anything, that she would only later make the decision as to whether or not to be a source for his book. When he interviewed her, she detailed the things she'd seen and heard. She told him about ferrying testosterone for George Hincapie one time. She told him of doing something similar for Armstrong once, and of disposing of syringes for him another time. She told him about the back-dated TUE that excused Armstrong of his cortisone AAF in the 1999 Tour, and of the role played in that by the UCI: "You see, if the UCI gave Johan [Bruyneel] the heads-up about Lance's cortisone," she told Walsh, "it proves a cover-up. The governing body has a lot to answer for. Doping in the sport comes from the top down."
Through the Summer of 2003 and into the Winter Walsh and O'Reilly talked, he following up their initial interview with more and more questions. But still O'Reilly had not yet agreed to be a source, to actually stand up and spit in the soup. She'd seen what that did to people, she'd seen in the 1999 Tour what that did to Christophe Bassons. Then the riders started to die. Denis Zanette. Fabrice Salanson. José María Jiménez. "I was horrified," O'Reilly writes. "This was my generation. The Postal generation. Who was going to be next?" We all know who was next: Marco Pantani.
"I woke up knowing in my guts there was only one thing to do. Omertà or no omertà. 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-teammates, 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. Plus, what was the worst that could happen? I no longer worked in cycling; I had a new life now."
Before granting Walsh permission to use what she'd told him, O'Reilly sought some form of indemnification, some form or protection from the publishers. Walsh told her he'd sort that out.
* * * * *
Lance Armstrong, during his SCA deposition, called Emma O'Reilly a whore. The irony of that lie is that, after LA Confidentiel appeared, so many people involved with it and the sport fucked her over. The fucking began even before the book appeared: comments O'Reilly had made to Walsh about the role of the UCI were edited out of her interview. "David," she told him, "I definitely want all the stuff about the UCI to go in. It's the cycling governing body. We can't leave that out! This can't all fall on the riders [...] the UCI is behind all the doping culture! The riders are just pawns in this." Walsh, though, insisted it couldn't go in, it would just be inviting a lawsuit.
The lawsuits arrived anyway. The protection O'Reilly had sought through Walsh didn't. Armstrong and his army of attorneys fucked O'Reilly over. And those on the other side did the same too. The lawyers for La Martinière, the French publishers of the book, tried to use her as a way of getting the case thrown out, getting her to agree to meet Armstrong's UK lawyer, Keith Schilling, so they could claim intimidation. It was nearly a decade before O'Reilly realised just how much those involved with the Sunday Times case had fucked her over: when she pulled out her files in the Summer of 2013 and actually read the paperwork of the lawsuit O'Reilly finally noticed that something was missing. Lance Armstrong vs Sunday Times, Alan English and David Walsh. Despite having been led to believe by Walsh and others that Armstrong was suing her in the UK, as well as in France, she was not named in that suit.
The fucking didn't stop with those directly involved in the case. When her ex-husband Simon Lillistone was asked to testify in support of one of the stories O'Reilly told Walsh, about ferrying drugs for Armstrong, he refused. He was now part of British Cycling - his boss was Brian Cookson - and neither he nor they wanted the bad PR confirming the story would bring. When she met Cookson in 2013 - after he'd announced he was running for the presidency of the UCI on a clean broom ticket - O'Reilly told him he should have stood up for her in 2004: "I needed only one person to back up my story. If in 2004 you'd made Simon come out and admit what had happened, all this could have come out. Cycling could have been cleaned up way back. You could have done something great."
There were so many, many others, from the heights of the media down to the lowest fans, a lot of people taking offence at what O'Reilly had dared to say.
* * * * *
If you think that, in the end, it was all worth it, that USADA's reasoned decision in 2012 finally vindicated Emma O'Reilly and meted out justice to her nemesis then you're wrong. As far as O'Reilly is concerned USADA - who used her testimony as part of their reasoned decision - simply used the riders: "Cycling's governing bodies appeared barely to get a footnote in comparison to the riders and directors." The children of Gen-EPO, though, did not invent doping. The USPS team did not invent doping. Lance Armstrong did not invent doping. The system is older than them. Bigger than them. But in the hype and the hoopla of the reasoned decision no one cared about the system. Slaying the monster was all that mattered.
* * * * *
Ahead of his appearance on Oprah in 2013 Lance Armstrong set in train his peace and reconciliation tour and started to reach out to those he'd done wrong by. Emma O'Reilly was one of those people. At first she refused to take his calls and ignored his texts. Eventually, though, she texted him back. He replied. They moved to emails. And then arranged to meet. She took a journalist along but after he got his story Armstrong and O'Reilly went off for a meal together, alone. The years evaporated, and some of the pain with them. Some time later she was talking to Tyler Hamilton and he asked her what Armstrong was like now. "Is he like he was in the training camp in '98?" he asked. "Yeah he is," O'Reilly replied. "He's become human again."
* * * * *
Emma O'Reilly's The Race To Truth is the latest in a growing pile of post-USADA books about Lance Armstrong. So far I can't say I've been overly fond of any of them. I can now. The Race To Truth is the post-USADA Armstrong book everyone should read.
This is a personal story, and maybe it misses out on some of the wider story, it's not the story of the rise and fall of Lance Armstrong. This is Emma O'Reilly's story, not Lance Armstrong's, the story of a kid from Tallaght who found herself at the centre of one of cycling's biggest shit storms. Telling the truth about cycling's doping culture cost O'Reilly, it cost her dear, emotionally and financially. Telling the world today that Armstrong is not a monster may hurt her again, many are not yet ready to hear that. But it is a truth that needs to be told. Cycling's doping culture was and is the real problem. It should never have been all about Lance Armstrong.