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Cyclist’s 31 Inspirational Women No17: Emma O'Reilly

Maria David Sponsored
17 Mar 2021

US Postal Service cycling team soigneur, 1996 to 2000

Cyclist's 31 Inspirational Women

To celebrate International Women's Month, we have partnered with Zwift to tell the stories of 31 inspirational women across 31 days

Words: Maria David Photo: Offside

In her role as soigneur at the US Postal Service pro cycling team in the late 1990s, Emma O’Reilly found herself working day-to-day with the now-disgraced Lance Armstrong and his teammates during one of the notorious periods in cycling history.

Emma was charged with providing off-the-bike support to one of the most high-profile doping cheats in sporting history, and yet she herself has always been seen as a clean soigneur.

She is credited as one of the chief whistle-blowers on what the US Anti-Doping Agency describe as the ‘most sophisticated, professionalised and successful doping programme the sport has ever seen’.

However, ‘whistle-blower’ is not a term that the Irishwoman particularly likes, and is keen to emphasise that her actions were done for the sake of protecting riders, not getting anyone into trouble.

‘It wasn’t about blowing a whistle,’ Emma says. ‘I hate that term because I don’t see myself as a whistle-blower.

‘I would like to be known as Emma O’Reilly, who tried to help the next generation of riders. I spoke the truth, and I shouldn’t be stopped from doing that.’

In her book, The Race to Truth, Emma talks about how she kept her distance from ‘The Programme’, despite her capacity as US Postal’s head soigneur. As a result, some team members even joked that she was ‘not a proper soigneur’.

Although she had planned to leave the team in 2000, before she was aged 30, her departure ended up being under a cloud after a number of run-ins and an attempted dismissal by US Postal sports director, Johan Brunyeel.

Returning to the UK and leaving behind the frenetic pace of a travelling professional cycling team should have been a change to a more relaxed life for Emma.

But the reality was just the opposite, following Emma’s famous interview with journalist David Walsh in which she broke pro cycling’s code of silence – the so-called omertà – spilling the beans on what was really going on at a team where Armstrong famously boasted he had never failed a drugs test.

The whole situation was sad, but I still believe that in life you have to make a choice about your moral fibre, and I think [in that system] most people had to leave their moral fibre at home

In between the court cases, the subpoenas, the threat of being sued by Armstrong, potentially losing her home, being publicly branded a whore and an alcoholic, plus various other organisations requesting she give evidence for their own separate cases against the US Postal Team and/or Armstrong, there was no respite for Emma.

And all this was happening while she was trying to establish her physiotherapy business and take care of her ailing partner, for whom the situation was taking a heavy toll.

Yet Emma remained steadfast in her convictions. She says she was able to cope mentally by compartmentalising things and focussing only on what was in front of her at the time.

‘I had enough on my plate. I’d just bought the physiotherapy business, and my then boyfriend had multiple sclerosis.

‘I’d already left cycling about three years before so I didn’t have time to listen to Lance’s nonsense. In fact I didn’t watch any cycling programmes or documentaries. I just didn’t want to be reminded of it.’

Eventually, Emma was vindicated when ‘The Programme’ and the scope of Armstrong’s activities were fully exposed, but it cost her a lot of stress and her relationship.

Speaking to Emma at her physiotherapy clinic in Hale, Cheshire, she looks back on her time at US Postal team and the doping system she witnessed first-hand:

‘I saw the riders as being victims. Lance isn’t a victim, but in a sense he was a victim of the system, too.

‘The managers, the doctors and the UCI were not protecting the people they were meant to protect.

‘They were complicit because they were getting the results and the whole situation was sad, but I still believe that in life you have to make a choice about your moral fibre, and I think [in that system] most people had to leave their moral fibre at home.

‘Riders were living their dream, but the dream was actually a nightmare because they had to compromise their principles.

‘I could tell if the riders went onto “The Programme” because all the joy in these lads in their 20s would be gone out of them.’

Find the rest of Cyclist's 31 Inspirational Women here

Emma met with Armstrong for dinner after his famous 2013 confession on ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show’ (though Emma had already been communicating with him by text and phone in the year before the interview), and found it in her to forgive him and accept his apology. Armstrong even ended up writing the foreword to her book.

Moving forward, Emma believes that because competitive sport can be such a toxic environment, more should be done to provide athletes with support outside of that environment.

‘I have done a life coaching course to help retiring athletes, as they have so many skills but have lost all confidence because their identity was wrapped up in their sport.

‘The likes of UCI, British Cycling, all of these federations should also have a support centre for girls and boys who are feeling vulnerable, so that they have somewhere to go that’s not judgemental.’

Nowadays, Emma leads a simpler lifestyle in a peaceful village atmosphere nestled between Manchester and the Peak District, where she does get out on her bike.

Despite her negative experiences in professional cycling, the former electrician from Dublin has good memories of her time as a soigneur and would recommend it as a career to others.

‘I met some great people, I travelled a lot, and the weather was great. [What] broke my heart when I spoke out against “The Programme” was that some guys I’d worked with – mechanics, some soigneurs, riders, staff from other teams – were great and I had more laughs with them than I had tears; I miss them to this day.'

For more from Zwift this International Women's Month, visit here.