Australian scared straight following Festina Affair
Embattled Australian cyclist Stuart O'Grady, an Olympic gold medallist and Tour de France yellow jersey holder, who fell from grace following a doping admission in July, sat down with Cyclingnews in Sydney on Wednesday at the start of his national book tour of his aptly entitled autobiography Battle Scars.
O'Grady opened up about his career including his claimed one-time EPO offence prior to the 1998 Tour and the 2013 confession that has since changed both his personal life and his legacy within the sport.
"I had just turned pro in 1995 and only ridden my first Tour in 1997, and my next Tour I'm standing on top of the podium and then the Festina Affair happens," said O'Grady of the 1998 doping scandal that surrounded the Festina cycling team, and ultimately led to the team's expulsion and confessions of doping from all nine riders.
"I think most people have come to the realisation that it was different era and the testing wasn't up to scratch and maybe the governing body could have been a bit stronger, but you can't just blame it all on one little part of it as it was a whole wheel of problems."
The former Orica-GreenEdge road captain, who helped teammates Simon Gerrans and Daryl Impey capture the team's first yellow jerseys and a team time trial stage win at last year's Tour de France, immediately announced his retirement from professional cycling the day after the final stage, and then admitted to using EPO ahead of the 1998 Tour on the eve of the French Senate report into doping during that year's grand tour being publicly released.
"I just kind of buried it so far back in my mind because it was just one of those things that I hoped would never surface," said the 40-year-old husband and father of three. "It was the darkest period of my career. It was the darkest period of cycling in general. It was a really bad time."
O'Grady says that while talking about his past indiscretions has been difficult, he hopes that his book, started in December 2012 and ghost written by Adelaide Advertiser sportswriter Reece Homfray, will help shed some light on a dark age in cycling and a mistake that he can never undo.
"We had pretty much wrapped up the book when my personal situation came out so obviously we had to rewrite it a bit and add a few chapters," he says. "It will be interesting to see how people take it on board. I just hope people can put into context and try to understand what it was like back then."
As far as detractors who may still have questions regarding his claimed one-time use, the Tour's most "People can believe what they want. I've done my best to portray the build up and what led me to [doping] and my career ever since."
The 2007 Paris-Roubaix winner and 17-time Tour participant – the most ever after another 17-time veteran George Hincapie was removed from three starts due to his involvement in the Lance Armstrong doping scandal – is steadfast he only doped for the short 10 to 12 day period prior to the Tour and that despite the rumours throughout the peloton, he had no knowledge of any other riders that were using.
"I had no idea," he said. "I didn't want to think that the men I was racing against were cheating. I didn't know that a Lance Armstrong or a Matty White was cheating and it all came to me as a complete surprise. All I know is what I've done.
"For me everything changed in 1998 with Festina. I saw guys handcuffed and being taken to jail and when guys start taken to prison over bike riding that's a pretty damn big wake up call and that was all it took for me. I am sure quite a few riders changed their outlook after that. Unfortunately as we have seen, quite a few have not.
"That was enough for me. I am pretty sure my Olympic samples, as well as others, are stored away somewhere," concluded O'Grady on lingering doubts over his reported limited use of performance enhancing drugs. "So I say go for it and rip them open. I am not afraid, I've got nothing more to hide."