The Race to Truth
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The Race to Truth
THE BEGINNING OF THE RACE
'Go on, get in! I'll help you!'
His emphasis on the word 'help' told me this was the last thing my older brother, Norbert, planned to do. A shove between the shoulder blades confirmed my fears as I plopped like a stone into the freezing water of the River Dodder, near our home in Tallaght, Ireland. Cycling my legs frantically, I bobbed to the surface.
'Norbert! Help!' I screamed.
'C'mon then,' he laughed, swiftly pulling me out.
'You're such a girl, Emma O'Reilly!' Spluttering, I went to give chase, but he was off, running across the fields, knowing full well I'd never catch up. I couldn't be annoyed for long, though. He was my much adored big brother and, growing up in Tallaght, a sprawling working-class area of estates in south Dublin, having an older brother could only be a bonus.
Way before me, Norbert learned to ride a bike, teasing me mercilessly when I couldn't join him. Not until I was seven did I pluck up enough courage to try – a ripe old age for a kid in our area to learn. But I was a 'chicken' – I didn't take risks that might involve getting hurt.
In the end it wasn't Norbert but our dad, Nobby O'Reilly, who coaxed me on to a piece of 1970s junk and wheeled the bike halfway down the hill near our estate one Sunday morning.
'You still holding on, Da?' I screamed as we picked up speed.
'Sure, Em, I'm still holding on,' he replied, his voice dissolving into the distance. The split second of realization that he was no longer holding me turned my terror into joy: suddenly I could ride a bike by myself.
'Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeee!' I cheered. It's a sound only a child can make after discovering a new form of freedom.
And freedom it was. Shortly afterwards, Norbert got a Chopper for his birthday and most weekends we would take off, racing around roads that back then were much quieter than they are now. We were true kids of the seventies.
I'm the middle child of three. My sister Clare arrived four years after me. Mammy and Dad had married in 1965 and even as kids we could see how much they were in love. My dad liked a pint of Smithwick's and was a law unto himself, bless him. Rules were 'guidelines' in his eyes. If there was a double yellow line, he'd park on it; if he could get away without getting insurance, he'd not pay for it. Once he was stopped by a copper for drink-driving – an incredible feat considering drink-driving wasn't a crime in Ireland at the time. No, Nobby answered to nothing and nobody, except our mammy, Terry. What Mammy said went and Nobby never crossed her. He daren't, but besides, he loved her too much.
For Mammy, family was everything. She was a traditional housewife, so the moment Dad returned home from work, dinner landed on the table of our utterly spotless three-bed semi. But that wasn't her only role in life. Mammy drove a car – rare for a woman in those days – and helped run Dad's catering business. Back then venues needed to serve food in order to obtain a late bar licence, so my parents had a chip van and would travel for miles to events. They were a good team: Dad was the ideas guy while Mammy grafted next to him. We were far from rich, but we kids had the best they could afford – the best clothes, the best food, the best of everything.
Mammy's sisters all lived in more upmarket parts of Dublin and didn't approve of her decision to settle in Tallaght to bring up her family. We were the black sheep, but to Mammy all that mattered was that we were happy, be it in Tallaght or wherever. To me, she was my hero and I never wanted to leave her side.
'Will you go and play, Emma, and leave me be?' she'd laugh, as I followed her from room to room. A quiet child, I liked routine, and that meant having her close. With her skin soft as sand, I loved sitting on her lap to have a cuddle, although she'd never let me touch her shoulder; she had a birthmark there so sensitive it made her shudder.
We were brought up Catholic, although neither Mammy nor Dad practised the faith at home, leaving all lessons in fire and brimstone to the strict nuns at our primary school.
One Saturday morning, Norbert was told to take me to school for running practice, but instead we stopped to play on the seesaw in a local park. Bumping me up and down, higher and higher, my brother laughed his head off until my screams of fear turned to pain as I bounced headfirst on to the seesaw handle.
'Emma!' Norbert cried, switching back into protective big brother mode, fearing he'd get the blame. I was bloody and bruised, but he begged me not to tell Mammy or Dad. On the Monday, when the nuns spotted my swollen eyes, one particular witch known as Sister Brenda had little sympathy.
'You deserved that,' she scolded. 'You defied us, skipping your running training like that. And now you've been punished by God.'
I hung my head over the desk, riddled with self-pity and guilt, wondering if I should mention this in confession later.
Mammy often went into hospital for ulcers and gallstones, and she complained of headaches. After one visit to the doctor she came home grumbling.
'I don't want to be taking high-blood-pressure pills,' I overheard her complain to Dad. 'They'll do no good.'
'Okay, if you can manage without them,' Dad agreed. He was never going to disagree with her anyway.
Soon after, I was watching her pack up boxes to go and work at the Tallaght Festival. 'Mammy,' I said, tapping her arm. 'Can I come?'
'No, Emma! It'll be a late night.'
'Can I help then?' asked Norbert.
'Not you, Norbert, either,' she chided.
'But why?' I protested. Mammy was letting one of the neighbours' kids down the road help out and he was the same age as my brother.
'Ah,' said Mammy, looking me straight in the eye. 'No child of mine is serving chips at a festival and let that be the end of it.'
With Mammy's decision made clear, we said goodbye as she and Dad left for the evening. 'See you tomorrow,' she said.
The next day, I woke to a strangely quiet house, with no Mammy clattering in the kitchen making breakfast. As I went back upstairs to look for her, Dad told me she had fallen ill on the way home last night and was in hospital.
'Will she be okay, Dad?' I asked.
'I hope so, Emma,' he replied.
When I was dressed, I found Norbert outside with Dad on the driveway, wiping away tears.
'What's wrong?' I asked.
'Nothing,' replied Dad. 'Norbert's hurt himself, that's all.'
My big brother was always falling out of trees or grazing himself coming off his bike, yet I'd never seen him cry before. Soon after, the doorbell went and in streamed various aunties, all anxious to get the kettle on, all with the same expression as Dad.
Two days later, Dad came home from hospital, his eyes hollow with a pain I'd never seen before.
'Mammy has died,' he announced. 'She had a brain haemorrhage while we were walking the mile home from the Tallaght Festival and then another one the next day.
There was nothing the doctors could do.'
I stared, dumbfounded, as Dad's eyes welled up.
'Before the doctors switched off her machine,' he cried, 'I squeezed her birthmark hard and she didn't so much as flinch, so I knew she must be gone, Emma.'
I was eight years old and it was as though a heavy fog of grief had dropped on me from a great height, its dark cloak numbing my world.
For us three kids, the next few days were a blur of aunties and neighbours coming and going, bringing over casseroles and helping Dad in the house. Our poor dad. He'd his work cut out for him. He had no clue how even to use the oven. His working life also changed drastically, because he had to give up travelling to and from festivals to be home for us. For a while he took a job as a chef in a hospital instead.
Mammy's clothes disappeared and soon there was almost nothing left but memories. We kids never spoke about what had happened. It was too painful. Thankfully, though, Dad made sure we never forgot. As I grew up, missing Mammy terribly, Dad would tell me how much I reminded him of her.
'Terry knew her mind, Emma, so she did. You're so much like your mam.' When he said it, his face was full of the memory of their love.
My training as a soigneur began early. The word means 'someone who takes care of things' and, as the oldest girl in the house, my mornings started with making breakfast, the fire and the beds. After school it was dinners, washing, tidying, shopping. Dad needed me and I was determined to be there.
With Mammy gone, we grew closer to Dad, and I developed his and Norbert's love of professional cycling.
Every July for half an hour a day we were glued to the Tour de France on TV, enthralled by the drama of each stage, the agony of the climbs, the beauty of the backdrop. How envious we were of the crowds who got to stand so close to see the riders in the toughest race in the world fly by.
Money was very tight, which we knew full well every time Dad asked us to push the car up the hill when it ran out of petrol, or hide from the milkman when he tried to get us to settle our bill. Determined to buy his own racing bike, however, Norbert saved up from his Saturday job, then immediately joined the Irish Road Club, one of the best-known and longest-running cycling clubs in Ireland.
By now, aged eleven, I'd joined Cuchalann Running Club with my best friend, Sharon, but as soon as I was old enough I followed Norbert into cycling, joining a club called Rentokil. From there we moved to the Emerald-sponsored Carlsberg team, landing ourselves cool jerseys to wear. The club was run by the McQuaids. Pat McQuaid, who went on to be UCI president, was one of ten kids and they were a larger-than-life, cycling-obsessed family, determined to put Ireland on the map.
For me, running and cycling were social activities rather than competitive sports. I was never very good at dealing with the pain every cyclist experiences; when lactic acid burned my muscles and my chest felt as if it would explode, I always slowed the pace. Although I did well running the 800 metres and managed to win a couple of cycling races and medals now and then, I definitely saw myself as Miss Average.
Eventually, I fell more in love with cycling than with athletics, as there was a democracy in the sport and no sense of hierarchy. Unlike in running, winners and losers hung out together after cycling races; it was a true team sport. I had posters of Sean Kelly above my bed instead of Spandau Ballet, but I didn't care that this made me a geek. My sister, Clare, gave up on me in disgust when she realized I'd much rather lust after a man on a bike than a man with a guitar.
'You're just a pair of squares,' she cried when Norbert insisted on catching up with the Tour on TV instead of watching soaps.
Cycling at weekends was a wonderful way to spend my teenage years and I much preferred mashing pedals up and down to sitting in a classroom. In 1984 we watched in amazement as Greg LeMond rode the Tour and came third in support of his team leader, winning the white jersey for Best Young Rider. The Tour de France was no longer just for Europeans. America had arrived, and Greg's poster joined my other heroes on the bedroom walls.
My running coach was well connected, though, and managed to secure me a couple of scholarships in America, one in Eugene, Oregon – the place where Nike started – and another in Villanova, Pennsylvania. Dad was beside himself with excitement.
'It's a great opportunity, Emma,' he said proudly. But when I shrugged my shoulders his face fell.
'Aw, Dad, I prefer cycling,' I explained.
Poor Dad was furious, especially with Norbert. 'This is your fault,' he cried. 'Getting Emma into cycling when she could've made something of herself with running.'
Turning down the opportunity felt easy, but I needed to think of something else to do. When I left school at sixteen there was no way Dad could afford for me to go to college so, after rattling through various options in my mind, I settled on applying to be an electrician. You got free training and a guaranteed job – perfect. The fact that the industry was dominated by men never entered my head.
Without telling Dad, I did an aptitude test; there were only four women taking it out of a total of five hundred people. I passed with flying colours and broke the news back home.
'An electrician!' Dad cried, his eyes rolling almost into the back of his skull. 'You can't be a tradesman, Emma!'
'No?' I smiled. 'But Dad, I've got a place on the course.'
Incensed, Dad brought his friend Eddie Byrne round and thrust his chapped, dirt-stained hands in front of me. 'Look, Emma,' he said. 'See what happens when you take up a trade.'
'But being an electrician isn't a dirty trade,' I argued.
Dad had to admit I was right. As much as he was appalled by my career choice, out of all the trades it was the cleanest.
Straight away I settled into a year of training at a government centre, working entirely with lads after the only other girl on the course dropped out. It never bothered me, as I loved the craic. They were all like big brothers. I had my own rules: don't curse or tell dirty jokes yourself and then you can tell the lads off for doing it. My philosophy seemed to work. I could banter with the lads, but always got shown respect.
A year later we were transferred to Davenham Engineering in Dublin to complete our training. I suspected I wasn't going to be the world's best electrician, but I knew I'd have a job at the end, so I carried on. One afternoon we were all working over electrical board panels on a big desk when some of the lads began looking over my shoulder and laughing. I turned to see that a load of Page Three posters had been pinned up on the wall behind me. Taking a deep breath, I rolled my eyes and stood, hands on hips.
'Okay, lads,' I said. 'Yous all have a good gawp at the wall behind me, then go move them elsewhere, like in the toilet, so's not to embarrass me, okay?'
Jokes were made about never coming out of the loo, so I laughed along, and an hour later the posters had vanished and my faith in the guys had been restored.
By the time I was nineteen, I longed to go away on holiday, something aside from the caravan to Wexford where we usually went as a family. But with no money to spare after helping Dad with the household bills, it was out of the question. Then I hit on the idea of volunteering as a massage therapist for a cycling team, so I could see a bit of the country.
I found a college with a massage course held at weekends and signed up. While other girls on the course were training to work in gyms or beauty clinics, I was aiming for cycle races, hoping someone would take me on. And my plan worked. After getting my certificate, I managed to wangle a place volunteering at a nine-day amateur race called An Post Rás with the Telecom team. Afterwards their manager, Kevin Eccles, kindly got on to Alasdair MacLennan from the Irish National team to say, 'Take Emma, she's great!'
So, initially on an ad hoc basis, I became the soigneur for the Irish Nationals – a bit of a coup. Their mechanic was Tony Campbell, whom I always knew as TC, and the two of us became our own little dysfunctional but tight team. Put simply, the soigneur is the person on a cycling team who really does everything that needs doing. Not only was I massaging around six riders a day, but I'd be washing up water bottles, preparing food and clothes for races and booking hotel rooms. Whatever they needed, I'd do it, and I loved every minute. If behind the scenes it was organized chaos, on the track we were doing very well, even surprising a lot of people at the World Championships in 1991 in Stuttgart, doing better than expected for a team that wasn't very prominent in international cycling at the time. Not only was I having fun but, more importantly, I was also getting to travel abroad for the first time.
But however comfortable I felt with the lads, at times it was mortifying being the only girl. At a five-day amateur race, called the ESSO Breton Tour, in 1992, we found ourselves having to stay in an old barracks, with dorms to sleep in and communal showers. Cringing inside, I had to ask TC to stay and hold the shower-room door shut while I nipped in for a panicked wash alone.
Being part of the pro-am racing scene was an eye-opener. Years earlier, probably as soon as I was old enough to understand what doping was, I had realized taking performance-enhancing substances was an underground part of the sport. There were even whispers about our hero Sean Kelly, but nobody talked much about it. Naturally you knew there would be more doping among the pros, especially on the European teams. Lads who rode for French amateur clubs always raised eyebrows. If they'd made it in France, something was very likely going on, because competition was so fierce there that it was just assumed their riders were doping. This was all suggested, although none of it was either proven or disproven. The ongoing joke about any champion was: 'They must know a good pharmacy.'
We referred to this as 'not normal'. If a rider took off like a rocket, or behaved in some strange way, we knew what was likely to be behind it. One year during the Milk Race, the precursor to the Tour of Britain, I heard how a particular rider, unable to control an aggressive rage, came to fist fights all over the shop with various staff. We knew full well it was likely to be amphetamines behind his sudden mood swings.