As many know, Stuart O’Grady announced his retirement – effective immediately – on 23 July 2013. Shortly afterwards, he confessed to having used EPO in 1998. In February 2014, he hit the media circuit with the publishers of his book ‘Battle Scars‘. There are surely stories about his racing exploits, the challenges he faced as a teenager with enormous talent going to the other side of the world to pursue a career as a racing cyclist. But, based on the hype being generated, you could be forgiven for thinking that his is a book all about doping. It’s not.
The deal to write the book was struck before the confession. Reece Homfray was to be his biographer and an interesting story was going to be told. And last July that premise changed dramatically. The vast majority of his publicity tour of Australia has focussed on the topic of doping. O’Grady continues to state that he only used EPO once. It’s likely you’ve seen, heard or read his take on the matter. Topics such as this polarise opinion and this example is no different. Some want to forgive, others refuse to accept the rider’s version of events, many just want to move on – acknowledge it but then look to the future with the hope that the dark past is just that… the past.
RIDE has a long history with O’Grady. He was one of the original columnists in the magazine. For years, we worked with the rider and a designer, Greg O’Connor, in a collaboration on his personal website. Some stories of his exploits have been told in the pages of our magazine since the first issue was released (on the same day Willy Voet was arrested, thus sparking the incident commonly referred to as the ‘Festina Affair’).
RIDE has not had contact with O’Grady since his retirement announcement. We have, however, spoken about the ramifications of the end of his career and subsequent confession with a number of people who know him well.
A day after the admission of EPO use, RIDE‘s publisher Rob Arnold spoke with a former team-mate of O’Grady’s to try and put some of the news into context. It offers a reminder of the “incredible engine” O’Grady had and a first-hand perspective on how it feels to find out that a “mate” had doped. Here is a transcript of that discussion with Brad McGee…
Brad McGee – on O’Grady
– Interview by Rob Arnold
26 July 2013
If we’re going to talk about the emotions of this admission by Stuart O’Grady, the first thing to ask is: were you surprised? And, if so, why?
“Surprised? Yes. I was surprised that ‘Stuey’ had done EPO. It’s something that, any time I really sat down and thought about it, was something I wouldn’t have associated with Stuey. Not a hard drug like that.”
Even given the context of his time?
“Yeah. Look, in my mind, he was young in 1998. It was pre-‘Festina’. I just thought he’d have been too young and too Australian to have really been cleaned up into that system.”
What do you mean by that? A lot of people would say that it’s naïve to think that someone is Australian and therefore they wouldn’t cheat…
“I can remember long conversations with old pros in my early days. They’d be skiting about how good they used to be as neo-pros – before they got on medical programs. And the understanding was, back then, that these kids would come in full of talent and spend one, two or three years being beaten up by the big boys and then it was expected that they’d cross over into the dark side and ‘become professional’. You know?
“That was definitely an element of what was going on. I’m not saying it was always the case but it was part of the system, if you like.
“And so if I put two and two together, I could see Stuey as not being at that level, ready to take that next step – before the Festina Affair. And I keep coming back to the Festina effect because I think it is such a monumental occurrence that changed things dramatically. You see Stuey refer to the point that he was, after the Festina Affair, scared shitless about going to jail.
“For those reasons I was very surprised to hear that he’d crossed over to the dark side and was hitting the bad stuff.”
In his statement it seems that he’s covering his bases by saying he did it for 1998 but the cynic in me says, ‘Well, if he took it before the Tour how is it that stage 14 is the one that’s got the tainted control?’ In other words, even Willy Voet’s arrest – after the Festina team has been booted off the Tour – it’s more than likely that he’s taken an injection during the race.
“I wouldn’t know, Rob. I don’t know how that stuff works.”
A lot of people don’t know for certain but, anecdotally from what I’ve been told about EPO and what scientists have published about the way that it’s tested for – ie. it wouldn’t show up unless you’ve taken it three or four days prior.
So, let’s just consider your reaction and your knowledge of his history…
“Okay but the answer to, ‘Was I surprised?’ is: ‘Yes!’ I don’t have to go into why so much but I was surprised that he was involved in EPO.”
* * * * *
When you won the worlds [team pursuit] in 1995 with your brother, Rodney, who else was in the team that year?
“It was Stuey, Tim O’Shannessy, Rod, myself and Dean Woods.”
So Stuey rode the final with you and Tim and Rod?
At that point, we’re talking three years prior to the moment that O’Grady said he took EPO, you don’t think there was anything going on?
“I didn’t think there was anything going on ever. Certainly not going back to 1995!
“In all of the time I’ve known Stuey, I’ve just never had any real reason. I’ve never seen, heard or felt anything. You know, I’ve lived with the guy, been on the same team… and there was never anything to suggest that he had crossed over to the dark side.”
When did you live with him?
“In 2000. That was him, myself and Sharni near Toulouse, in Labarthe-sur-Lèze.”
So what would be good to understand from you is what your observations of him were from even before he turned pro.
“I remember watching Stuey clean up a national points score title as a first-year junior in Adelaide on the old Hansen Reserve track. He must have weighed about 45kg – there was nothing of him, and he just tore these big boys to bits. Already he had a reputation. And I’ve seen nothing but the same thing from him day-in, day-out. His ferocity and strength of character on the bike has only ever grown since. Some of the things he used to do in training in the Mexican mountains or out the back of the Adelaide hills was mind-blowing! That’s a big part of the reason I never really could consider that he would dabble… he just didn’t seem to need it. He was that good. And his performances over the years have been exception, but not to the point where you’d draw suspicion from it.
“I guess, being a mate, you are also always going to be bias on the side of leniency as well. When you consider that, it adds to the surprise of what his revelations are.”
Someone posted a comment on a forum saying, ‘I wonder if Stuey is going to call Brad McGee and apologise’…
“I’ve seen that a lot. Obviously I’ve been very vocal and pissed off about dopers and this is why the biggest emotion I’m feeling right now is a sense of being torn by my emotions.
“What we’re looking at is something before my pro career began. It’s not a direct hit on my career… unless you start to think, ‘Was there more thereafter…?’
“And this is where I’d love to believe that what he states is true.
“If I face the fact that I was racing one of my mates who was loaded up with EPO – it’s too hard to even contemplate, to be honest.
“It’s tough enough just digesting the information that we’ve got now without going into those ‘what if’ scenarios.”
So if we just move on from the speculation of if he continued on or not after 1998…
“Yeah, because I don’t think I could give a well-rounded opinion on it. I’d rather just not go there. It’s too hard. It is – it’s just too hard!”
It is, but it feels like what we’ve discussed in brief in the past, that there’s a compulsion that comes with cheating. Once you’ve started to tell yourself that you haven’t cheated – or tell the public you haven’t cheated – you start to believe it.
“This is stuff that only the individual will ever know. They can only know what they’ve admitted to themselves.”
In this case, it’s relevant because [in the past] you’ve explained some examples where you had a bonus scheme worked into your contract: if you won a race, then you win X amount more. I imagine most pros would have deals like that. Okay, when you look at the bigger picture scheme – one that goes primarily back to Armstrong – you think, ‘Okay, he robbed the public of the true race… but he robbed second place or third place – or down to 20th or whoever was actually the first ‘clean’ athlete – of their bonuses…’ and it’s impossible to monetise the theft. Isn’t it?
“Yeah. That’s part of the reason I guess it’s difficult for me to contemplate what extent doping has affected my career. It’s way too hard.”
I could easily go off on other tangents but I’m trying to keep this discussion based around what you thought about when you heard the news about Stuart.
When you heard that you were retiring, did you just think: ‘Oh that’s good, he’s finally realised that he’s going to be 40 soon and that he has a life other than cycling…’ or did you think there was more to it?
“I didn’t think there was more to it because I hadn’t heard about this list [from the French senate enquiry] until late in the Tour. And unfortunately, in the current environment, when such news comes up you have an air of doubt – as most people do. And if you look into the story with some suspicion even when you’ve known someone for a long time. Unfortunately that was the case. And I sort of held my breath hoping that it was just unneeded angst.
“Unfortunately it was what it was – or it is what it is.
“I just feel gutted, completely derailed if you like. I felt that, after all we’ve been through, and me getting things off my chest in recent months – or years even – that I was in a state where it seemed there were inroads going ahead in the fight against the whole doping woes… and this has just derailed me. I’m lost for words.”
Let’s say we hang up and Stuey calls you. What do you say?
“It’s still mate-to-mate… forever, regardless of the fact that we haven’t spoken to each other for weeks or months or years or more. That doesn’t go away.
“It’s different to when people ask me what I feel about the news of Lance Armstrong. In that instance, I don’t feel anything. I feel nothing. Of course, he’s a human being and you always feel for someone’s general safety but beyond that, there’s nothing.
“But when it comes to a mate like Stuey, of course there’s more to it. He’s like family and I can’t imagine how deeply he and those near to him would be hurting right now.”
And the same applies to many. Just like you, I was at his wedding all those years ago and I’ve watched the family grow around his successes as well. I see Faye and Brian turn up to the Tour and toast his victories and conquests over the years and I’ve seen the exuberance that he gives a lot of people and then there’s a big question mark hanging over all of those memories and it’s really upsetting.
“I understand you there, Rob.
“But as I was trying to get to before, I don’t think I’m in a healthy position to even have an opinion on that. I dare say it’ll change over time but at the moment, I’m not even prepared to talk to myself on that subject because I know I’m not in a healthy state to see if I can come up with a fair opinion.”
Where were you in 1998? What were you doing?
“I was at FDJ in February. I attended the early training camps.”
That was your first season with Madiot…
“Yep. And I was there until about… well, I didn’t even get to the Four Days of Dunkirk [first week of May] because I was already cooked!
“I went over and kicked everyone’s arse in the training camps after three months of solid training in Australia, just replicating the old Charlie Walsh programs – his old ways… and a few months later I was on my way home back to Australia to try and get fit and healthy again.
“I went back to prepare for the Commonwealth Games with the Aussie team but I didn’t make it to the end of the road block I was meant to have done.”
Let’s just remind people of before this temptation hit him [O’Grady]. I remember hearing a story of your 18th birthday in Mexico and apparently you got home after a near-300km ride and Charlie refused to let you have a piece of cake…
“Nah. No, that’s not the right story. It was a 300 kilometre ride on my 19th birthday and he did offer me a piece of cake at lunch time.
“And those were the days when Stuey would come in an hour or two in front of the last riders. That’s not an exaggeration. We weren’t allowed to attack until one hour of riding was behind us and, on more than one occasion, I remember seeing him drop off the back of the training group at 58 minutes and at 59 minutes and 59 seconds he would come past us at 70km/h and we wouldn’t see him again until after the rest of the 250 or 290km ride.”
So he is a freak of nature?
“An absolute freak of nature!”
But! His legacy is now different, isn’t it?
“And you’ve got to go back and consider what I’ve been very vocal on since I started looking at the reasons why people find themselves in these bad situations of making bad choices.
“Now I think about it and consider it, Stuey was put in those situations. He went over to France before the masses of Australian riders have since gone to Europe and been well looked after with support crews and knowledge.
“He went over into a system that was largely sink-or-swim. He lived by himself in the south of Paris there in hotel that was owned by the team he was with at the time. And he didn’t really speak the language that well. He just raced and went back to his single-bed room in that hotel for a couple of years.
“It was before the internet and mobile phones were in widespread use.
“I remember when I first went over there, I’d make a call home every two weeks – that sort of thing… no one knew anything about what races you were doing or how life was.
“And while Stuey, like me, had a very supportive family I think his drive and ambition is something that would have been a factor in his obviously bad choices at the time.”