by Emma O’Reilly.
None so blind as those who will not see.
Memories return in snippets.
Soigneur to US Postal.
Being branded an “alcoholic, whore.”
Spitting in the soup.
Bit of both.
Not being sued.
The Late, Late.
Forgiveness brings peace.
People are awestruck by Lance Armstrong. He is definitely a one off. I think that’s down to what he came through in life. His mother had him at 17. He became a professional triathlete at 16. Cancer survivor at 25. Livestrong. Hero. Seven time Tour de France winner (annulled). Doper. Liar. Cheat. Father. Podcaster!
Nobody’s life is painted black and white. There are different shades of grey.
I am Emma O’Reilly. In another lifetime I was a soigneur to Lance Armstrong.
“Someone who takes care of things” is the translation from French. It’s different nowadays, there’s more staff around pro cycling teams. In my day, the mechanic looked after the bikes while the swanny minded the riders.
And all that entailed…
We existed like satellites in their orbit, but they needed us to keep going day after every gruelling day.
Lists and plans: Order food from sponsors, order the race kit, stitch it, wash it. Stage ends. Off the bike and guide them to the truck or car, back to the hotel. Feed them. Water them.
Wash the bottles. Multiple tubes of massage creams to rub raisin calves until they were breathing like grapes again, so they could race again.
Send them to bed. Make sure their rooms are near the lifts because they cannot be walking. Not after what they do to themselves.
First aid. Shampoo. Pack the food. Chart the route to the drop off point, to food zones, to the finish line. Pointy elbows were needed to reach your riders after each stage. Figure it all out. No mistakes. None. See what’s needed before everyone else.
Jesus, they used to drive me nuts, but you had to respect what they were doing to themselves to create my job in the first place.
Some of them were fragile. Not Lance, mind. Never Lance. He had this remarkable inner strength.
Moody shites the lot of them! After a bad day some of them just needed their mammies. The sprinters were always the most likely to burst into tears. Come-here-to-me and I’ll give you a hug. The others are stronger, but sprinters almost need to be emotional souls. They are cloaked by the peloton, pin-balled to the front for the marvellously dangerous finish.
Riders become walking skeletons a week into the tour. Tuck them into bed. Rustle them up at the crack of dawn. Ructions at breakfast as French and American riders clash over double dipping knives into the jam jar. The OCD guys would lose their minds as the threat of flu or any germs could destroy a season, ruin a team.
Mostly, it’s Groundhog Day.
A soigneur definitely does not mean “someone who spits in the soup”.
Or the jam.
It’s a secret society. We are the trusted helpers. Cycling trusted me. All the way into the inner sanctum.
But I like to think I altered the definition of the swanny’s role – at least temporarily – by refusing to administer EPO, HGH, testosterone or cortisone.
Used to be the way that the soigneur would carry for the riders.
I vowed to avoid that. And did, except that one time. Just after Willy Voet had been caught.
And that other time. For Lance.
Everyone eventually sells their soul. Especially in pro cycling.
Nothing was black or white about “the program” (as it became known).
Shades of grey.
Coming from an American team – as opposed to being an ex-cyclist from Belgium or France – I grasped the benefit of seeming naive to what was going on behind bedroom doors. The less I knew the less I’d be asked to do.
Play the girl card, Emma.
Still, I became head swanny on the “most sophisticated, professional and successful doping programme sport has ever seen.” The USADA report said that.
Travis Tygart has done a fantastic job of cleaning up cycling, but that line always felt like a marketing strap to me. What about Ma’s Army – the Chinese women in the 1980s and 1990s – they still have their medals, no? The East Germans? The Russians then and now?
Lance’s name has been erased from the record books. He was caught. So, not very sophisticated now. Not anymore.
Anyway, I never knew how to inject someone, so they never asked me. None of the riders took pride in doping. This I did see. The look in their eyes. The shame.
They did what was needed to do to survive. On the team. During The Tour. In the sport.
The riders never ran me down for not being involved, they would tell me to steer clear.
Some of the staff were different. I was a nuisance. An efficient nuisance who Lance wanted around.
The swanny who couldn’t give a massage for love nor money was a dead giveaway. I’d be chasing after him, cleaning the coolers he was supposed to sterilise. Complaining until I’d stumble across him doing what was he was really brought in to do.
Inject. Carry. You also knew from how much they were making.
It was such an endemic part of cycling. Lance compared it to putting air in your tires.
“JESUS LADS”, I’d yell at them, “NO SYRINGES in the hotel toilets! Some poor women on minimum wage is cleaning those bins.”
I wanted to keep my values for when I turned 30 and left the sport. The longer I stayed the harder it would have been to stay away from the drugs.
The courier and drug dealing aspect of professional cycling was never how I interpreted the role of soigneur.
Three times I performed that task. Petrified crossing the border.
My 20s in one word: magic.
I was just a girl from Tallaght with Seán Kelly on her bedroom wall while others had God knows what.
I loved the whole vibe of cycling. It was tangible; if we all do our jobs we will have a big smiling Lance Armstrong on the podium in Paris. Victory. Doping. Euphoria. Getting rid of syringes. Living our lives in the fastest lane imaginable.
The pro cycling experience began in California, bringing me all the way to the 1998 Tour de France.
The Tour of Shame, as it is now branded, started in Ireland so I came home early, to see family. I checked into the hotel and went to meet everyone at the port, so nobody got waylaid.
Police motorbikes beat me there.
You lads here as an escort?
No, no, we’re customs, here to search the trucks.
Well, you may call in the riot police as a shower of grumpy, knackered team drivers and what not are about to pour off this ferry with tunnel vision: get to the hotel, get ready, get some sleep. This is the Tour De France! A riot, I tell ya.
Lads, your best bet is to show up at the hotel first thing. Do the search properly.
They didn’t know what to make of me, the heavy Dublin accent and all.
I’d no idea Willy Voets had been picked up with a car full of stuff.
Lance Incorporated really started in ’99. People in US Postal who knew him said everything was going to be different. More organised.
Is that a good thing for me?
Everything changed when this alpha male arrived late one night into the US Postal hotel in Ramona, California and instantly took over the pride.
I stayed up to hand over his room key. We clicked. Two straight talkers. He was displeased with the set-up. He wondered aloud about his old soigneur. I had his number and handed it over knowing I was probably doing myself out of a job. The former swanny never arrived.
Lance is supposed to be intimidating. They said he didn’t accept no for an answer. You can, actually, say no to him, just be sure you have a better idea.
We buried the hatchet a few years ago – I buried it into his back and then he returned the favour.
My issue was never with riders going on “the program”. I saw their dilemma. Only after committing their life to cycling did they realise doping was the only way to be successful. It was bigger than them. The “EPO generation” (Lance’s words) of the 1990s knew no other way.
My issue was always the same – they were not protected by the so-called guardians of the sport. A doping culture existed in cycling from top to bottom. When that happens elite athletes – who will do whatever they can get away with to win – fell into line.
Dope or stack shelves – what would you do?
Your legs are in bits and a doctor raps on your crappy hotel room door. You are too tired, too sore to sleep.
Here, this will make you feel better. You’ll fly off the saddle tomorrow.
Recovery is everything in cycling, in elite sport. Lance Armstrong is not the worst, most evil doper in the history of sport. He is a calculated pragmatist.
He became the lightning rod for those running cycling to cower beneath. Even his doping scandal created careers for the people who took him down. A library of books. I should know.
Lance Inc – became bigger than the sport he dominated.
Ever hear the one about ethics, cycling and doctors?
I think they liked seeing results through their magic potions. I believe they were competing amongst themselves.
When possible, I refused to engage with the doctors because I disagreed so fundamentally with the situation they put riders in. I can explain why I was complicit and why the riders doped, I understand all of that, but I’ll never accept the actions of the doctors.
Never mind the physical damage, the mental anguish inflicted upon riders was disturbing to witness up close.
Now, of course, cycling needs a close relationship with medical practitioners. I hope the current generation isn’t going through the same experiences as what went before.
One evening a debate about Lance’s back-dated Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE), for a positive test in 1999, took place while I was like the quiet mouse in the room working away on his calves. That was my ethical dilemma. The UCI knew what had happened. They gave US Postal the opportunity to get their story straight.
That’s why I became a whistle blower.
Spat in the soup.
How naive I was to how the media worked, how the legal system operated.
Advice to my 30-year-old self?
Protect those around you more. Shield them.
The whistle-blower can take it, can your family? Can your partner?
If you are going to take on the beast, don’t be dragging others – especially loved ones – into a fight they are ill-equipped to handle. Because the stress is enormous. Telling the truth about collective wrong-doing comes with a serious health warning.
I’m better now but the guilt I carry to this day, and to my grave, is about the people I spoke out about, people I cared about.
I did care for the riders. The sport had been really good to me.
When I look back, from the rocking chair, I can always say – wow, I lived the best way imaginable; travelled the world, met some wonderful and weird people, built a lasting career off the back of cycling and even saved some money.
Then I turned on the sport and its doping culture. I don’t regret doing what I did. It’s about being able to live with the guilt.
But others suffered. Innocent people that I loved.
My boyfriend at the time, Mike, had Multiple Sclerosis (MS). When the lawyers were circling, after the book LA Confidential was published, he suffered the most.
MS and stress are dangerous bed fellows. He went from walking to a wheelchair as the writs began to pile up.
Mike’s health suffered. He has since passed away.
It’s about being able to live with the guilt. And I must, because I acted as the judge and jury, when I became a named source for, the journalist, David Walsh. Once you give eye witness accounts of doping in elite sport, you are leaving yourself exposed.
After the thrill of being a swanny for US Postal in my twenties the decade that followed was a time of constant legal struggles.
Mike was getting worse and had to quit working so I became the main earner. I opened a business – The Body Clinic – which took a while to get off the ground. My main focus was protecting Mike. He was getting more and more down. Here was a big alpha guy, the man of the house since he was very young, so having to go into a wheelchair and be looked after was tough to take. It made him feel worse.
So whatever Lance was branding me in America I couldn’t really care. I parked it for reality.
There was a shame to it all. I was being branded a “whore” and an “alcoholic” by Lance Armstrong.
People used to believe everything he said.
So, if you are going to tell the truth, protect your loved ones – and perhaps the only way of doing that is by keeping them in the dark. I did that with friends and family back in Ireland.
My intention for the rest of my life is to never have to mouth off again for what is right. But blowing the whistle is part of the reason we no longer live in caves. It’s why we exist in a civilised society – having principles, and standing up for them, that annoys people.
Would I do it all again?
I’m not sure it helped but sometimes you have to stand by your principles.
I saw these young, talented men deciding to dope. Some of them could handle it, but the reasons they started pedalling in the first place began to disappear. The success wouldn’t bring euphoria. It was contained. They couldn’t look you in the eye.
They not only lost their love of the bike, they lost their love for life. I hated seeing that.
Personally, I feel the doping program led to depression. Look at that generation of cycling. When doping was rife.
Redemption brings a hollow feeling.
After the Oprah Winfrey interview, a theory grew legs that Lance Armstrong is a sociopath.
I am no expert but, no, I can’t see it. I know he is an extremely driven person. He has a lovely side, there is a real decency to him but that comes with an unbelievable desire to win.
Sociopaths don’t give back to society, they wouldn’t do all that work for cancer, right?
Right now, in 2018, I can ask Lance to reach out to a cancer patient knowing within two hours they will get a message from the most famous survivor of the disease.
Lance Armstrong is not some evil mastermind.
Just a regular mastermind.
Has he found redemption? I don’t talk to him well enough to answer that but he is getting on with his life. He spends more time being a dad and still has some of his old crew of friends.
Now the lawsuits are sorted maybe he can stop feeling haunted by it all.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Lance gets enough people to forgive him or a new generation of people will tune into something he does next – like the podcast.
They say there’s no second acts in American Life what about the third act, redemption?
He is not trying to redeem himself, but I see dignity in his behaviour since the Oprah interview. He didn’t seek to be painted as the victim – well, not entirely.
I have forgiven someone who branded me an alcoholic and a whore. I knew he was going to attack me after breaking cycling’s code of silence. I expected little sympathy from within cycling, and felt guilty for speaking out because, whether I agreed with doping or not, I lived by it.
That’s what made it easy to forgive him. First, I had to forgive myself.
Doping is never black and white.
Shades of grey.
Lance made contact before the Oprah show. I knew what he was up to. I knew he’d use it. A simple hello would allow him to say he reached out and spoke to me.
Sod off. Actual forgiveness came later. It took months, text messages back and forth. We were going through our own journeys.
I remembered Lance Armstrong the person not the global superstar. That allowed me to move past the horrible attack on my character. I remembered the person he was and is today.
Forgiveness allows you to move on with your life. You have to care an awful lot to hate. And you shouldn’t be caring about someone you hate. It messed me up for years.
I got more hassle for forgiving him than speaking up, but forgiveness brings peace, it really does.
Eventually I realised Lance never sued me. The Sunday Times were named, not Emma O’Reilly.
I can never fully forgive that. One of the reasons I spoke the truth about Lance Armstrong to David Walsh was because he worked for The Sunday Times – a big reputable UK broadsheet.
It was very late in the process that I realised LA Confidential was going to focus purely on Lance and that I would be the primary named source on the record.
My reason for coming out was off the back of the UCI telling Lance and Team Postal to come back with a reason for a back dated TUE (they said it was cream for saddle sores) after he tested positive for corticoids in 1999. It was really important to me that it became clear cycling had a problem from the top down. I didn’t want it to be about me slating the boys, the riders, it had to be about the governing body as well.
That was my reason for talking – to expose the doctors and the UCI. Late in the process I was told that references to the UCI would not be going into the book for legal reasons. My hope was to clean up the sport. I was naive
Usually my advice to people about journalists is to avoid them like the plague.
That’s why I did The Sports Chronicle. I can put my name to this story.
In 2013 I agreed to meet Lance, but I brought Matt Lawton from The Daily Mail with me. I’d been done over so often, I needed my own protection. Lance could just send out a picture on twitter of us in a hotel lobby and I would have lost all control yet again.
My relationship with David Walsh is complicated.
I have not, nor will I be reading his book on Team Sky. David told me about that project when we were doing The Late, Late Show together in February 2013.
I told him it was a risk as he would not know what to look for. Someone like Paul Kimmage or Frankie Andreu inside a team would be interesting. It’s about being part of the culture.
None so blind as those who will not see. People didn’t want to see. They wanted to believe. That’s the same in all aspects of life.
Can a clean team win the Tour de France?
I’d like to say yes, but I’m not involved anymore so I don’t know what lies beneath. I gather that the culture has changed since the USADA report. A lot of cycling teams are part of the MPCC – Mouvement Pour un Cyclisme Crédible which strives to go beyond the rules of WADA.
They have really strict guidelines. For example, a TUE for corticosteroid means the rider must take eight days off racing. Some notable teams have not joined.
Doping has existed in cycling forever. I’d love to go see the Tour de France, out of curiosity… not as a swanny.
That race is over.
I still run The Body Clinic in Hale, outside Manchester. Physio and massage is about to expand into Life Coaching with a focus on retired athletes. They have all these skills – time management, great communicators, really disciplined and team orientated, yet they are left floundering after retirement in their twenties or thirties. I’ll seek to help them reinvent themselves because where they lack education and work place experience, they have these unique life skills gained from elite sport. A lot of them don’t have the tools to move on, hopefully that’s where I come in. They can’t always see it but what they do possess is so employable in the second part of their life.
I’ve started with a couple of footballers (there’s plenty in Manchester). You have to challenge them as their whole identity changes. I have seen the pitfalls. I can pivot into this career by using some valuable life experiences picked up along the road.
The Sports Chronicle brings you stories from the world of sport by the players, the coaches and the unsung heroes, all in their own words.
You can also check out our Podcast. Subscribe today for more.