Stuart O’Grady: Once is enough

John Thompson-Mills Columnist

By , John Thompson-Mills is a Roar Expert

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    Stuart O'Grady admitted to using PEDs in 1998. (AAP Image/Tom Miletic)

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    In July last year, Stuart O’Grady retired from cycling. He retired suddenly, just as the 100th edition of the Tour de France finished in Paris.

    O’Grady retired because he was certain his name was about to appear in a French Government Senate report conducted into the 1998 Tour de France, which, of course, was dominated by the Festina affair.

    The 17-time veteran of the world’s most famous bike race was convinced his name would appear on a list of riders who had tested positive for EPO during the race.

    As a yellow jersey wearer and stage winner at the race, O’Grady had had several post-stage doping controls and, given he’d taken EPO in the lead-up to the race, was sure his name would emerge.

    As it happened it didn’t, O’Grady’s name only appeared on a list of those whose tests were ‘suspicious’.

    But O’Grady says the fear of anticipating the report’s release and the obvious fallout that would follow was enough to convince him his time as a rider was up.

    Furthermore, it was time to come clean about the dirty secret he had kept for 15 years.

    So O’Grady confessed to doping before the 1998 Tour de France, but in his words, he “only did it once”.

    As I wrote back in late July when this story broke, O’Grady was my first cycling hero. I’d met him soon after his first Tour de France in 1997, and after only seeing the race on TV, this “flesh and blood connection” was all I needed to be totally hooked.

    I followed his career closely ever since that day.

    But the “only did it once” comment never sat easily with me.

    I wanted to believe him, but in my opinion, even when we know we’re about to do something wrong, if we get away with it, the temptation to try it again is often too great to resist. After all, we’re only human.

    So I found it hard to believe O’Grady only doped once. Well that was until I read his book, Battle Scars, which has just been released.

    That said, what O’Grady says qualifies as “doping once” and what I consider, as “doping once” are different.

    In my world, it means, you dope on one occasion. Once. Just a single pinprick and then that’s it. Nothing more, nothing less.

    What O’Grady explains in Battle Scars as doping once, is doing it in preparation for one race, which in this case was the 1998 Tour de France.

    As he reveals though, it wasn’t just one injection. It was something he did every second day over a 10-12 day period, all from a single vial he says he bought from a pharmacy in Spain. O’Grady says he was too scared to inject every day just in case he took too much.

    O’Grady writes he then took the remaining EPO with him to the Tour – which in 1998 started in Dublin – but when he saw police stopping team cars on the Belgian border and finding EPO, he was too scared to use the rest.

    Then incredibly, on the very day he realised a lifelong dream and claimed the mythical Maillot Jaune, O’Grady went to back to his hotel room to watch Festina officials being arrested on TV.

    O’Grady says it was that moment that convinced him of what doping could cost him. So he waited until his teammate was out of the room, smashed the vial, and flushed the EPO away.

    It’s easy to be cynical about cycling stories, but reading this chapter has changed my mind about what O’Grady has admitted to.

    So despite him riding right through one of the sport’s dirtiest eras, I believe the Festina affair was enough to convince O’Grady to stop doping there and then.

    Stuart O’Grady refers to this time as a “tiny moment in my career”, and a few days out of 20 years is a tiny moment, but the fallout had a profound effect on his life, not to mention his family, friends and the sport of cycling.

    From reading Battle Scars, I can understand why he decided to take EPO. The physical pain of his debut Tour de France and the fear of struggling to cope in ’98 were strong. The intrigue as to what the fuss about EPO was all about. And, perhaps crucially, the lack of someone to debate the pros and cons of EPO with.

    He says of that time in late June 1998, he had no coach and no housemate to discuss it with. He just knew from what he’d heard in the peloton you could get EPO in Spain, so that’s where he went.

    Eventually he says he summoned up the courage to go in and buy some. And then after more agonising about the morals of what he was considering, he did it.

    But from then on, it was a secret until O’Grady confessed to his Orica-GreenEDGE boss Shayne Bannan during last year’s Tour de France.

    A few days later he told his family and then the rest of the world.

    Reading this, and also hopefully the book, you’ll have your ideas about what to believe.

    Maybe it’s because I want to believe O’Grady that I’m prepared to publicly retract what I originally said, but I genuinely believe the events of the 1998 Tour de France were so profound that their coinciding with O’Grady realising a life-long ambition created a perfect storm.

    Yes, my definition of “once” and his are different, but Battle Scars has put those doubts to rest.