Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Mechanical Doping - Now Reality

By now, I'm sure most readers have heard that the specter of "mechanical doping" has become a reality in professional racing. I mentioned it in an article about the 2015 Tour de France because the race officials had taken to using tiny flexible cameras to inspect bikes at the Tour for hidden motors. They didn't find anything, but it became very clear that the UCI was taking the possibility of cheating with hidden motors very seriously.

"Mechanical doping" check at the 2015 TdF.
Rumors and accusations have been floating around for a few years now, and leveled at riders such as Fabian Cancellara after a dominating performance in Paris-Roubaix, and Ryder Hesjedal when a bike he was riding in the 2014 Vuelta appeared to take off by itself after a crash. In those cases, and others, there was never any hard evidence of foul play, but that didn't stop the rumors.

As the technology for electric assist motors has improved and gotten more and more compact - to the point that it could be concealed easily inside the oversized carbon fiber frames used by all racers - then the possibility that someone could try to use the technology in competition seemed to become a question not of "if" but "when."

It looks like "When" is "Now."

UCI has confirmed that at the Cyclocross World Championships last month, Femke Van den Driessche used a bike with a hidden motor. Although she was a pre-race favorite, Van den Driessche was eventually forced off her bike in the final lap due to mechanical problems. Her bike was taken for inspection after the race, and officials announced their discovery soon after -- making the Belgian rider the first official case of "mechanical doping."

The outcry was immediate. Eddy Merckx proclaimed that anyone guilty of mechanical doping should be banned for life. Wilier Triestina, the maker of Van den Driessche's bike (the pre-adulterated version, anyhow) is going so far as to threaten legal action against the rider for tampering with the bike and besmirching their reputation. The rider herself faces at least a 6-month ban and some pretty big fines.

Van den Driessche, for her part, denies any wrongdoing. "I don't know how it got there. I'm focused on myself that day. I took care of myself . . . the mechanics made a mistake." Later, she said that the bike she used wasn't her bike. "That bike belongs to a friend of mine. He trains along with us. He placed the bike against the truck but it's identical to mine. My mechanics have cleaned the bike and put it in the truck. They must've thought it was my bike. I don't know how it happened." Although some might find the excuses hard to swallow, apparently a family friend of Van den Driessche's has come forward claiming to be the true owner of the bike, and trying to lend credence to the story. On the other hand, the racer's brother, who is also a bicycle racer, is currently under suspension for doping.

Dammit this sport is hard to take seriously.

State of the art for mechanical doping?
To add to the controversy, the Italian sports newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport recently reported that motors hidden in the frame are already "old stuff . . . It's a poor man's doping." The "new frontier" is electromagnetic wheels. The source cited in that article claims to have personally sold more than a thousand of the "old tech" hidden motors. The new electromagnetic wheels, he claims, cost 200,000 Euros and have a waiting list of 6 months. At that price, they are well out of reach for even wealthy amateurs and gran-fondo riders -- but not outside the budget of a professional team. The diagram of an electromagnetic wheel that was included in the Gazzetta article leaves out some important technical details, but the idea seems plausible. And if true, might be harder to detect than a motor in the bottom bracket. Was the source to be believed? Are such things being used? I suppose time will tell.

Unless someone is in the top ranks of professional racing, though, I can't imagine how the rewards make any of it even remotely worthwhile. The source in the Gazzetta article mentions that numerous gran-fondo riders are using hidden motors (bought from him, supposedly). Others resort to "traditional" doping - as in, drugs. The expense of such things can't possibly lead to any kind of payoff for someone in any kind of amateur racing, gran-fondos, or Strava KOM-chasers -- but I have no doubt that these are all places and situations where people are probably trying to get away with it (and maybe succeeding). And in the professional ranks, where a person can potentially profit from their "enhanced" results, it's reprehensible. Truly, the whole thing is just pathetic.

There are so many ways to cheat now, it seems, that it makes someone like me wonder why anyone would bother getting worked up about bicycle racing -- either as a fan, or as a participant. Chasing after Strava titles when the "competition" could easily be using a motor? Join the ranks of licensed racers, only to wonder if your typical mid-pack finishes are because the winners are cheating, or if it's simply because you suck (likely both)?

Bicycle racing has a serious credibility problem. And instead of getting better, it just looks like it stands to get a whole lot worse.


  1. Having just seen the UCI championships in Richmond, I was aware of the lengths the sport was taking to put doping behind it for the sake of the next generation, and I saw phenomenal world class athletes leaving it all out on the asphalt. That anyone among them could besmirch these fine athletes and this great sport through such pathetic charades is beyond comprehension. I agree with the accused's fellow Belgian: a lifetime ban, especially at this early stage of detection, is the only course of action. The sport can afford no less.

  2. It's sad to see but I will still watch the Tour De France. Wouldn't it be cool if they removed all the techy stuff from racing during the race. No radios or power meters, electronic shifting, carbon wheels, or oversized tubing. Just a "basic light wt bike" and a rider competing in the purist form.

    1. Maybe the "throwback" thing isn't as popular in Europe as it is here, where NFL, NBA, and MLBaseball all have "throwback" days where they'll wear old versions of their uniforms. A few throwback days in the TdF would be cool -- like you said, no radios or electronics. Could be cool.

  3. I would love to see all of the doping, mechanical and otherwise, end, and witness the TdF and other races in their "pure" form.

    But how can anyone make that happen? As long as events are won and lost by fractions of seconds and millimeters, competitiors will seek whatever edge they can find. With large sums of money riding on the outcomes of said events, sponsors as well as team directors, managers and coaches will want their athletes to use whatever might give them an advantage. And, among those athletes, coaches, sponsors and such, there will always be some who are unscrupulous as well as others who could be tempted if the stakes are high enough.

  4. After Vincenzo Nibali's car towing act last year, cycling died for me forever. No surprise there is another dirt.

  5. Maybe the UCI should adopt the model used by Keirin racing. That is to say the only bikes and components allowed must be stamped with the seal of approval be the governing body. Keirin frames and parts are sturdy and generally bulletproof but hardly high tech. This would take the trick tech stuff out of the equation and make the competition between riders again. And besides who here on this blog wouldn't love to see the 2017 TdF run on lugged steel frames and polished alloy parts.

    1. Except cyclism make a lot of money out of sponsorship with bike companies. Companies who have an interest in sellintg you new stuff.

      Same with magazines and ads, really.

  6. I see an entertaining, and elegantly simple solution.

    Separate but equal races. A "doped, teched and tweaked as you wanna be" race, and a clean version.

    You can only compete in one, and the clean guys get equal $ to the dirty ones.

    It lets both sides, have what they want, and allows the media consuming public, to choose which is more interesting.

    Think of all the ridiculous cheats that have yet to be created, and let's face, their gonna make 'em anyway, might as well be safe, "approved" and likely less threatening to the physical health of the riders as there's no need to hide anything.

    I dunno, cheaters gonna cheat and such what....