An interview with Stuart O’Grady

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It’s been a little more than seven months since Stuart O’Grady retired from the sport and, a day or so later, admitted to using EPO in preparation for the 1998 Tour de France. Now, on the eve of the release of his book, “Battle Scars”, Stuart O’Grady is on a media tour to talk about his career, his successes as a track and road cyclist and, inevitably, about doping. O’Grady spoke to CyclingTips in Melbourne on Wednesday evening.

Stuart O’Grady is one of Australia’s most decorated cyclists. He’s won Olympic medals (including gold in the Madison in 2004), he’s won two Tour de France stages as an individual, he’s been part of two Tour de France team time trial victories, he’s worn the coveted yellow jersey for a total of nine days, he’s won the Tour Down Under twice and, of course, he’s won Paris-Roubaix. He’s also enjoyed a longevity at the top of the sport that few riders can boast.

But O’Grady’s long and distinguished career is tarnished by the use of EPO in the weeks before the 1998 Tour de France; a misstep that has cost the South Australian many fans.

“I did make a bad judgment a long time ago and it’s something I’m paying the consequences for now. I completely understand that. I understand people’s anger and disappointment, but no-one’s more disappointed than myself,” O’Grady told CyclingTips.

“Having to tell my family and my wife about something I chose to do 16-odd years ago that obviously will taint everything I’ve ever achieved … that’s probably the most difficult part of this entire process,” he said.

O’Grady’s still maintains that he only used EPO in the period leading up to the 1998 Tour de France. Many fans believe this assertion to be untrue — why would he have stopped using EPO when it helped deliver a stage win at the Tour de France? We put this to O’Grady, who responded by referring to the previous year’s Tour.

“1997 was my first Tour de France. I suffered like a dog; [I] got through it though, I got to Paris”, O’Grady said. “In 1998 I guess I was a bit afraid of failure, a bit afraid of being put through that same suffering that I went through the year before. [I was] probably a bit insecure, lacked a lot of support … and I made a very bad decision.”

“While having the yellow jersey in my room [ed. O’Grady lead the race for three days in the first week] the report came through that guys were being handcuffed, taken to jail and treated like criminals — strip-searched, the works”, O’Grady recalls. “And if you don’t think that’s a big enough wake-up call then I really don’t know what is.”

O’Grady was offered his first professional contract back in 1994 and moved to Europe at a time when he was just one of a small group of Australians in the professional peloton.

“Heading over to Europe for the first time was pretty daunting. Not speaking the language, living in Paris [where] the weather was shocking for training, having only one other English[-speaking] teammate Chris Boardman — who obviously lived in Manchester — it was a pretty hard period. But we knew it was what we had to do to succeed.”

O’Grady rode for the French GAN team from 1995 through to the end 2003. He spent two years riding for Credit Agricole and two years with Cofidis before landing at CSC in 2006. It was the following year, in 2007, that he took the biggest victory of his career: Paris-Roubaix.

“Coming into [the race] Fabian [Cancellara] — who I was rooming with — was the red-hot favourite so the pressure was completely off me. I just wanted to make sure I rocked up with 100% form and health and then do my job,” O’Grady said.

“The weather gods turned in my favour. Fabian doesn’t enjoy the heat whereas I favour the heat. As soon as we took off and I made the early break I knew things were looking in my favour, at least for the team”, he continued.

“And then as the day unfolded I punctured in the Forest [of Arenberg], which I normally would have thought would cost me my chance”, O’Grady said. “Instead of panicking I just got to the end, ate everything I had in my pockets, drank everything I had and got ready for the group behind to come across and managed to pull off the win.”

O’Grady spent the 2009 and 2010 seasons riding for Saxo Bank before a single year with the new Leopard-Trek setup alongside Frank and Andy Schleck. And in 2012 he signed up with Australia’s first WorldTour team, Orica-GreenEDGE where he spent his final two seasons as a professional.

The response to O’Grady’s doping admission in July 2013 has been, at times, vitriolic, not least because O’Grady only came clean once he’d been implicated by a French Senate report on doping at the 1998 Tour de France. With public sentiment against him, it was with some trepidation that O’Grady moved from his European base in Luxembourg back to Adelaide in January 2014.

“I was pretty anxious when I came back to Australia. Obviously I’d just been at home in Europe with my family and been out of the whole media bubble”, O’Grady said. “But I’ve gotta say it’s been an absolutely overwhelming amount of support that’s come through — it’s been really humbling to be honest.”

Stuart O’Grady has no concrete plans for the future, at least none he’s prepared to discuss publicly at this stage.

“There’s a few things on the horizon. At the moment I’m just enjoying some family time, spending as much time as I can with the kids and my wife and we’ll just see what comes up”, O’Grady said. “There’s a whole world of opportunities out there.”

“Battle Scars” was written by Stuart O’Grady and Reece Homfray and is published by Hardie Grant Books. It hits shelves on March 1.

Thanks to Logan Mucha and Niko Aulich from The Sweet Shop for shooting, producing and editing this video.

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