MARKS OUT OF TEN: Seven
WHO WOULD PLAY THE MAIN CHARACTERS IF THIS BOOK WERE A MOVIE?
Angelina Jolie as Emma O’Reilly
Channing Tatum as Lance Armstrong
Dustin Hoffman as David Walsh
It was at the 2014 London Sports Writing Festival that I first encountered Emma O’Reilly, in a talk about her book ‘The Race To Truth’. I was in fact interested in Emma’s experience of being the sole female soigneur in an environment so alpha-male driven as that of professional cycling, but the talk I attended made it clear that the story went far beyond a simple tale of woman-in-a-mans world.
To surmise, O’Reilly worked as the soigneur of the US Postal Cycling Team, starting in 1996 and continuing as the team went from Yankee Outsider to indomitable velo-force with one Lance Armstrong as its heart. As the performance enhancing drug culture infiltrated the team, O’Reilly made a point of distancing herself from the narcotics programme, and eventually, against a backdrop of hierarchies and ego driven senior figures in cycling, left the team. And then, well, that’s when the fun started.
The Race To Truth really is a book that straddles both sport AND the concept of truth and responsibility. Upon leaving US Postal, O’Reilly was pursued by the Times journalist David Walsh who was thick into research for his book trying to expose the sheer extent of drug taking in cycling. With much moral anguish, O’Reilly told her side of the story to Walsh who had assured her that other friends and ex-colleagues were indeed, coming forward with the truth. What Walsh didn’t tell her, however, was that his other sources had insisted upon anonymity as a condition of their involvement; anonymity that was never offered to O’Reilly and that in its absence, would lead to her being front and centre in the US Postal and Lance Armstrong Fall-From-Grace Circus.
O’Reilly is clearly a salt of the earth Dubliner with a strong will and remarkable commitment to the truth. Both she and her ghost writer have done well with this book: the story flows and only at the end does it become a little hectic with the sheer weight of names and lawsuits. Credit is due for a clean prose style that takes us into cycling trailers and onto the relentlessly paced tour schedule, without being too artistically licensed. Be warned though, O’Reilly worked in cycling when it was, by all accounts, a filthy sport. Closed doors, mysterious doctors and the disposal of syringes in drinks cans paints a vivid picture for the cycling purist.
O’Reilly’s book – as mentioned – explores the concept of truth and of ‘doing the right thing’. Like the mafia, cycling has a powerful omertà and those that break the code are vilified or worse, perceived as having let the code down. The fact of the matter is, O’Reilly has beaten the odds and told her truth on her terms. It’s not a book that will necessarily crystallise for all future generations, the true essence of what went on in US Postal, but it’s a jolly good cautionary tale to know and does pose an important question; ‘If you’re not saying NO, are you just as much to blame as those who are saying YES?’
Legal Eagles and those who enjoy the politics of cycling will be entertained by TRTT; but if you’re looking for a tell-all on Lance Armstrong, you’ll be disappointed. As the investigations continue and the subpoenas arrive, the reader can feel O’Reilly’s frustration. We all sit as the cords of bureaucracy tighten and choke the story to a large degree – but my advice here is to simply pay attention.
O’Reilly is also admirably discrete in her discussions about Armstrong. There are nudges and examples of this drive, his attention to detail and his basic setting of ‘alpha male’. As such, these become basic observations about what it means to be a champion. Yes, there is controversy here; we all know how riddled with chemical horrors cycling was in the early decades of the millennium but again, TRTT displays a professional restraint and a delicate show-not-tell approach that makes for a refreshing read.
I’d recommend this book. Its legacy may be a small one in the WWF world of Sports books, but we should all admire the grace of O’Reilly to keep her head up whilst being within a maelstrom of what can only be termed a media stitch up. There are of course many writers out there who put pen to paper daily, but here is a book that respectfully aims to tell a simply truth on its own terms – and any writer that aims to do that deserves kudos.