Damning tales of dope from the massage table

Damning tales of dope from the massage table

The job title is soigneur, an elegant sounding name for the person on a professional cycling team who is assigned some unglamorous work: massaging the muscles of the cyclists, laundering their clothes, booking their hotel rooms and preparing their food. Discretion and loyalty are part of the job, too.

 For Emma O’Reilly, a young, onetime electrician from Dublin, the chance in 1996 to be a soigneur for the US Postal Service cycling team was an extraordinary opportunity. She had raced some as a teenager in Ireland, and served as an assistant on that country’s national cycling team. But the Postal Service team was a rising power, with its sights set on the Tour de France.

 In short order, however, it became clear to O’Reilly that her tasks with the team would hardly be limited to kneading leg muscles and doing laundry. In an interview this week, O’Reilly said she became a regular player in the team’s doping programme, one that investigators have charged took on its most sinister and far-reaching dimensions with the arrival of Lance Armstrong in 1998.

O’Reilly, then not yet 30, said she wound up transporting doping material across borders, disposing of drugs and syringes when the authorities were lurking, and distributing performance-enhancing substances to the team’s riders whenever they needed them.

 Discretion and loyalty, she said she came to understand, were not just valued qualities. They were paramount. “It was prevalent, but discreet,” O’Reilly said of the team’s doping. “The drugs were just part and parcel of things. You didn’t analyse it at the time. It was just part of things.”

And so, she said, she once traveled from France to Spain and back to fetch illegal pills for Armstrong and delivered them to him in a McDonald’s parking lot just outside of Nice. Another time, she said, she took a package full of testosterone and got it in the hands of another rider.

 O’Reilly said she provided ice to the riders who had thermoses full of doping materials they needed to keep from spoiling. She spoke of using her talents with makeup to disguise bruising on the arms of the riders from needles. Some of it made her ashamed, she said, and all of it made her anxious. But the truly hard part was to come: talking about it publicly.

 “The traumatising part,” she said in the telephone interview from Manchester, England, “was dealing with telling the truth.”

 O’Reilly first went public in 2003, when she was paid to cooperate on a book, LA. Confidentiel: Les Secrets de Lance Armstrong, that sought to expose Armstrong as a drug cheat. Armstrong sued her for libel.

 O’Reilly said Armstrong demonised her as a prostitute with a drinking problem, and had her hauled into court in England. Ultimately, a legal settlement was reached, and O’Reilly tried to pick up her life, sometimes talking about Armstrong and drugs, but to little notice.

Until now. This year O’Reilly, 42, gave a sworn account of her years with the Postal Service team to US doping investigators. Her testimony, along with that of more than two dozen others, including many of the cyclists O’Reilly worked with on the team, is at the heart of the US Anti-Doping agency’s formal case against Armstrong.

 “Talking about it made me feel like I was being disloyal in a sense, like I was breaking the code,” O’Reilly said of her early efforts to blow the whistle on Armstrong. “Lance tried to make my life a living hell.”

From the start, O’Reilly told investigators, it was apparent, that the team was involved with doping. She said riders even complained that the team was not aggressive enough in its use of banned substances.

 She said she saw one rider fill a syringe from a vial of clear liquid. Another learned she was traveling to Belgium, she said, and asked her to pick up a package for him.

 She was told to bring the package directly to the rider, George Hincapie, and to avoid bringing it to the United States.  “It is testosterone, and you do not want to transport it yourself,” she said she was told. 

O’Reilly testified that when the team was competing in the Tour de France one summer, and doping authorities were on the prowl, she learned that $25,000 worth of doping products had been flushed down the toilet of the Postal Service team’s bus and discharged into a field not far from a French village where a time trial was taking place.

 “I remember saying to one of the other staff members that $25,000 worth of doping products probably does not make very good fertiliser,” she said in her affidavit, “and that the team should come back to the field in a few years to check out the grass.”
 O’Reilly said she was once in a room giving Armstrong a massage when he and officials on the team fabricated a story to conceal a positive drug test result. O’Reilly said Armstrong told her, “You know enough to bring me down.”

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