Blazin' Saddles

Giving O’Grady the once-over as Omloop looms

Once upon a time - only once, mind - there was a rider called Stuart O'Grady who had to rewrite his autobiography in the light of a French senate report which, in the end, didn't actually incriminate him. If only he'd known - perhaps he'd have saved himself a lot of trouble.

The world of cycling was shocked (in as far as it can be when a rider from that particular generation admits to a penchant for needles) and the Australian veteran went into hiding following his sudden retirement. Then, when his tell-all book 'Battle Scars' came out, O'Grady hooked up with reputed Aussie sports anchor Mike Tomalaris for a 25-minute warts-and-all interview.

"You have to differentiate between people who have done systematic doping and someone who may have done it once," O'Grady told Tomalaris towards the end of an uncomfortable tete-a-tete.

"It's like putting a murderer and a thief in the same cell."

All things considered, pretty harsh words for the fallen American superstar who O'Grady defended so vociferously as late as January 2013 at the Tour Down Under...

(Lance Armstrong has been accused of being many things in his time - but so far no one has gone as far as suggest he was a cold-blooded killer.)

Back then, O'Grady and his ghost writer were already putting the finishing touches on his own literary retrospective. In fact, the book was already written by the time O'Grady made his shock confession last July.

"Of course we missed out some stuff so obviously we had to rewrite a bit," he said with a shrug and a grin.

So, to recap: O'Grady admits that he was prepared to release an autobiography devoid of any doping admission prior to the Senate report being made public in the wake of last year's Tour de France.

What does that tell us about his levels of honesty?

Before essentially rewriting history (or, to be a pedant, his story), O'Grady openly conceded that he was prepared to paper over the cracks and lead people astray – people like his family, team-mates, colleagues, fans and most ardent supporters.

Even before looking at the reworked book and its contents, does this nugget of information not lay down some important markers as to how any of us should tackle 'Battle Scars'?

Surely O'Grady cannot realistically expect us to wholly suspend disbelief and believe everything he says at face value?

"All I can do is give my story," said the man who admits he was prepared to take his secrets to the grave - and a man who, judging by the TV interview with Tomalaris, took wry pleasure in admitting that he could well have kept denying his doping past because "I was only on the suspicious list from the '98 Tour, not one of the positives" (something, alas, he didn't know when he felt obliged to come out last July).

And what is O'Grady's story? In a nutshell, that he doped "only once" in his career.

Were you to ask Tom Boonen how many times he's won Paris-Roubaix and he'd replied, "only once", you'd have raised your eyebrows. Similarly, if you'd asked Armstrong back in 2006 how many times he'd won the Tour and he'd said, "just the once", you'd have called his bluff.

Because by "only once" what O'Grady more specifically means is that he injected EPO every other day for a 12-day programme in preparation for the 1998 Tour. So let's say around six times, give or take.

O'Grady took the leftovers of the vial of EPO - bought over the counter from a pharmacy in Spain - with him to the Tour with the intention of continuing his "training" but got the jitters on the Belgian border and flushed the rest down the loo.

Some might say conveniently, the day he decided to flush away his single repeated doping dalliance O'Grady took the yellow jersey for the first time in his career. In his hotel room he watched on TV as French gendarmes arrested Festina team officials that night. This taught him a lesson. And he destroyed the vial and turned a new leaf.

All this was just a "tiny moment in my career". As such, as well as being "ashamed" of the "darkest period of his life," O'Grady is "disappointed to be put in the basket of doping all my career".

Because that wasn't the case. You see, 1998 was a "big wake up call. People were being taken to jail for bike riding and I understood this was not the path to go down".

Instead, the path O'Grady went down was the same one as Codifis (the French team busted for doping in 2004), Bjarne Riis (who would later confess to doping throughout his career) and room-sharing with fellow Aussie (and confessed doper) Matt White.

But during these years - in which O'Grady plundered the Tour's yellow jersey once again, as well as won the demanding cobble classic Paris-Roubaix before morphing into a climbing domestique for the Schleck brothers - O'Grady not only kept clean but "never witnessed anyone else dope".

When Tomalaris put it to him that people may not be surprised should it emerge in the years to come that O'Grady was not being true to his word, the Adelaide native said defiantly: "Impossible, because it's not going to happen. I'd be more than happy for all my samples in the past 20 years to be opened and tested. I'll even open them myself."

Will Blazin' Saddles be reading O'Grady's book? Perhaps just the once. But he won't be buying it, that's for sure.

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Back to the actual racing, and this weekend marks the start of, well, actual racing. As much as we all relish those early season desert dashes in Arabia and around Stuey's neck of the woods in Australia, the harsh European spring is where real races are at.

The Belgian classics season gets under way with back-to-back races for which Tom Boonen seems to be the outright favourite. Injury-free and in solid form after two wins in Qatar, Boonen is the man on the tip of everyone's tongue (steady on, ladies) as he bids to nab that elusive victory in the cobbled semi-classic Omloop Het Niuwsblad on Saturday.

A super solid Omega Pharma-Quick Step team also includes the likes of Gert Steegmans, Zdenek Styber, Niki Terpstra and Stijn Vandenberg, making them very much the Manchester City of one-day classics.

But there's a new verve about BMC now John Lelangue has moved on - and despite the absence of Philippe Gilbert and banned Alessandro Ballan, BMC have the likes of Greg van Avermaet, Thor Hushovd and Taylor Phinney to rely on.

Katusha boast last year's winner in Luca Paoloni as well as the Russian Alexander Kristoff, while Sky will throw in Ian Stannard, Bernie Eisel and Edvald Boasson Hagen and hope their numbers come up. 2012 winner Sep Vanmarcke will double up with Belkin team-mate Lars Boom, while in-form Gerald Ciolek (MTN-Quebeka) may be one to watch.

Boonen's big classics rival Fabian Cancellara will wait until next week's Strade Bianche to test his legs while the Lampre-Merida team of Filippo Pozzato won't even make the journey north.

But most people, deep down, are hoping for a win for either Sylvain Chavanel or Heinrich Haussler in commemoration of their late IAM Cycling team-mate Kristof Goddaert, tragically killed in a training accident a fortnight ago.

One thing's certain: by the time the riders roar onto the famous Taaienberg climb, no-one will be flicking through the tainted autobiography of a retired rider soon-to-be long forgotten.

On Sunday the focus will shift to the very different Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne race, which was cancelled last year due to snow and freezing temperatures.

In the absence of the 2012 champion Mark Cavendish and the heir to his sprinting throne Marcel Kittel, Lotto-Belisol's big friendly giant Andre Greipel is the favourite.

Unlike Omloop, this is one that usually ends in a large bunch sprint - and depending on what happens on Saturday, Boonen cannot be discounted after getting the better of Greipel in one head-to-head in Qatar.

Let the fun and games commence...

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