The problem of doping in its various forms, with systematic sophistication, left the sport in critical condition, clinging to life support. Officials with the UCI and various anti-doping agencies would have liked to convince us that once they stripped "He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named" of his 7 Tour de France titles, that the illness was cured -- they had exorcised the demons, purged the poisons, and the sport could live on. But I doubt that many believed that doping began or ended with Lance Armstrong.
Even now, with suspicion of drug use still hanging like a sword over the head of anyone capable of winning a major bicycle race, a new cancer seems ready to end it for good: "Mechanical doping."
|Yes, there are other possible explanations - |
but one has to wonder, especially now.
|The rear hub on this bike glows almost as brightly|
as the racer's thighs. Most other hubs in the thermal
photos barely show up at all. One racer insists that
the hub just needs more lubrication.
Regardless of complicity, another recent report makes the case that it is almost certainly happening. The French television network Stade 2, in cooperation with the Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera, conducted a pretty damning investigation into the use of hidden motors in high-level bicycle racing. Using a thermal imaging camera at the Strade Bianche race in Italy, as well as the Coppi e Bartali race, the reporters claim to have found as many as seven bikes that were likely using some type of motor, as definite heat sources glowed in seat tubes, bottom brackets, and hubs.
|A pretty damning image here shows a glowing seat tube. I'll be honest - I can't think of anything else that would make a seat-tube glow like that other than something with a power source.|
|If your French or Italian aren't up to snuff, there's a pretty good summary of the Stade 2 and Corriere Della Sera reports in the New York Times.|
|Officials wave their iPads around some team bikes before a race|
looking for "disruptions" in a magnetic field.
In Cyclingnews, commissaire Philippe Mariën was quoted saying, "If the UCI wanted me to check bikes at the Amstel Gold Race on Sunday morning, and let's say I discovered a bike there that was, let's call it, imbalanced, and I would like to take it with me. Do I have the power, as a UCI commissaire, to confiscate the bike? I don't think so. Honestly, I don't think so."
In the meantime, the UCI is adamant that their current testing protocol is sound. In response to criticism after the Stade 2/Corriere Della Sera report, professional cycling's governing body said, "We have looked at thermal imaging, x-ray and ultrasonic testing but by far the most cost effective, reliable and accurate method has proved to be magnetic resonance testing using software we have created in partnership with a company of specialist developers. The scanning is done with a tablet and enables an operator to test the frame and wheels of a bike in less than a minute."
|UCI President Brian Cookson|
is shown some incriminating
I also saw in Cyclingnews that, despite claims by the UCI, many bikes are not tested prior to racing. Sometimes bikes aren't tested until after the races are completed, but it wasn't clear to me whether or not mechanics would have time and opportunity to make necessary changes to the bikes, such as disabling motors -- something that can reportedly be done with a simple bluetooth device, including wristwatches. A scene in the Stade 2 report shows a mechanic working on one of Alberto Contador's bikes, spinning the rear wheel repeatedly while fiddling with his watch, before taking the bike into a tent to make some changes. In the context of the report, it seems unusually suspicious.
In the Stade 2 program, there's a pretty tense scene where the reporter shows some of their thermal imaging photos and videos to UCI President Brian Cookson. The man's facial expression says a lot - at one point it seems he can't stop blinking, as if he can't look any longer. Does he still think their testing is reliable?
Just like performance drug dopers have their Dr. Michele Ferrari, the "doctor" of mechanical doping may be a Hungarian engineer named Stefano Varjas, whom I suspect is probably the "unnamed source" from the earlier Gazzetta dello Sport article. In the Stade 2 investigation, he shows how small the motors have gotten, making them even easier to fit into bike frames, hubs, and bottom brackets. He also displays a cutaway of one of the electromagnetic wheels that were mentioned in the Gazzetta article earlier this year, and the report shows an explanation of how it works.
According to Varjas, the little motors, which can drive a bottom bracket, can produce up to 250 watts. The electromagnetic wheels produce about 60 watts, which may not sound like a lot, but can make a big difference when used at the right moments in a race, such as on a climb.
Like a lot of people, I figured it was just too hard to believe that motorized bikes would make their way into professional bike racing. It seemed too stupid. Too blatant. I'd hear the rumors, and see the suspicious videos on the internet, but assumed there was nothing to the claims. But after following all these reports about the motors -- how small they've gotten, how easily they are concealed, combined with the thermal images, and other suspicious actions in racing -- it just gets harder and harder to deny that there are some pros who may be using them - at least in some races or stages. As if the sport had any credibility to lose.
In a lot of ways I feel like I've gone through this whole thing before. It wasn't all that long ago I would read the stories about EPO use, and I remember wanting to believe that my favorite racers weren't actually doping. And then there'd be a positive test, followed by denials, accusations, and counter-accusations, until the evidence was so overwhelming that it wasn't possible to deny any more. Sometimes people would use the defense that they had never failed any drug tests -- but then others would come forward to tell just how easy it was to keep a step ahead of the testing protocols to avoid detection.
And now with the motors, it all sounds so familiar. Only one bad, bad person was caught doing it. Everyone else is honest. Unfortunately, it appears "passing" the tests may not be so much proof that people aren't cheating as it is that they maybe just aren't getting caught.
So, will I be watching the Giro d'Italia this May? Or the Tour de France in July? I just don't know -- I really don't know if I'll be able to stomach it. If I do, I won't be able to take it any more seriously than I would a WWE wrestling match. Next time I see someone power away from the group, putting in a heroic effort, I'll probably be listening carefully for the sound of a little whirring motor.
I don't know if I'm the best person to call it. But I think professional bike racing is dead.