Friday, April 22, 2016

Bike Racing is Dead

All attempts at resuscitation have failed. The patient cannot be saved. Somebody call it: Time of death . . . ?

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.
Rumors have been flying around for several years now about racers using hidden motors. Videos capturing suspicious bikes and behaviors in pro races have gone viral, but it was all just speculation until earlier this year when bicycle racing had its first confirmed case of "mechanical doping." Femke Van den Driessche was caught using a motorized bike in the Cyclocross World Championships and was disgraced. Soon afterwards, the Italian sports newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport reported that the type of motor hidden in Femke's bike was already "old stuff . . . poor man's doping." The un-named source claimed electromagnetic wheels are the "new frontier."

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.
Some may still have had their doubts, and many would have liked to think that the Van den Driessche case was an aberration, and that it was still highly unlikely that any professional road racers (or even wealthy amateurs and gran fondo riders) would actually attempt to cheat so blatantly. Whatever rationalizations people might be willing to make for performance enhancing drugs, actually hiding a motor inside a bicycle is just so obviously cheating and it's impossible to see it any other way. No professional would stoop so low, right? In fact, one French professional racer, Romain Feillu, has recently made the claim that such blatant cheating would require such a "huge level of complicity" between riders, mechanics, and the like that it would be "impossible." Nevermind that the same level of complicity allowed rampant drug use to sweep up entire teams, so why should this be any different?

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. 
One might ask, isn't the UCI checking bikes for motors? Well, yes, but the checks are haphazard and, according to the investigation, quite possibly flawed. Using handheld tablets (like iPads) with an app that detects disruptions in an electromagnetic field, officials wave the tablets around team bikes randomly - and if they get a suspicious "hit" they may or may not pull the bike for closer inspection. But how much of an electromagnetic field does a motor give off when it's not actually running? How well do the iPad apps work when being waved around bikes up on a roof rack? And why would I say "may or may not" pull the bike for inspection? I just read where at least one UCI commissaire isn't sure they have the legal authority to confiscate a bike.

In Cyclingnews, commissaire Philippe Mariƫn 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
thermal images.
From my view, I have no doubt that the tablets are "cost effective" but considering they've only flagged one bike (with an "old stuff . . . poor man's doping" motor), I'd have to question the "reliable and accurate" part of that statement. The Corriere report specifically dismisses the tablets and their software as unreliable.

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.


  1. Sadly, i think i agree with you,Brooks, that -on the professional level at least- bike racing is dead. i have given up on just about all professional-level sports. Perhaps it's because there's too much money at stake that gives such an impetus to cheating. Team owners' greed drives the pressure on their hired hands- coaches, trainers, and athletes- to win at any and all costs. The real losers are the athletes themselves and the fans. The athletes lose on so many levels with physical, emotional, and moral costs. The fans lose by shelling out hard-earned money for admission prices and promotional paraphernalia, cable TV fees, etc. (all the while lining the owners' pockets,) plus all the emotion invested in "their" favourite stars.

  2. If professional road bike racing wasn't 100% a marketing exercise for bike and component manufacturers, there would be a simple-though-revolutionary change to fix all this: introduce an NJS-like approval system for road bikes and their components.

    Sure, the bikes wouldn't be as cutting-edge, but then we'd know:
    a) no motor doping
    b) races would be determined by racer's efforts, not by technological advantage

    This obviously wouldn't change actual blood doping and drug abuse, but it would turn bike racking back into an actual sport instead of a big sales show.

  3. But.. but.... what about trickle-down technology??? :)

  4. Trans-Iowa V12 begins tomorrow at 4:00am. A 340 mile non-stop enduro race where there are no high profile sponsors. The racers are self supporting and there are no teams. The big prize is the honor of finishing. If you happen to finish first so much the better. The men (and women) who ride this and similar races don't have name recognition but I believe they are the true heirs to giants of the sport like Coppi and Bartali. I'll admit when gravel racing first began hitting big I was one of the ones who sneered. But after educating myself a little bit I now have a whole new respect for these guys. The races are very much in the same spirit as European races in the first half of the 20th century. So now it seems some of the best racing to be had might be taking place on the farm roads outside of your town. We had better turn of the tv and get out there and enjoy them before Big Money moves in and ruins it all like what happened to NORBA in the 80's.

  5. The money is on the side of fantasy, not performance. There's always the Little 500 approach or something similar. Teams/crews submit measurements and gearing preferences, receive otherwise identical bikes requiring assembly. Rotate use of manufacturers based on their sponsorship of given events. Or not. I love seeing what looks like true athleticism, but it is almost impossible to become emotionally invested and not feel like a patsy. It's the Olympics and college athletics too. Sports started getting ridiculous with radio, probably. It was better when you had to be there.

  6. The picture with the glowing seat tube is featuring a 60 year old guy riding a gruber assist.

  7. Do something like the IROC auto racing was in the US. Identical bikes (except for sizing) issued but the racing organization. Let the bike companies bid on being the sponsor and providing the bikes for different events.

  8. I've said, ever since I stopped watching the TDF with my kid (due to all the doping, as well as incessant, repetitive ads every 3 minutes), they ought to just throw in the towel, admit it exists, and hold two races, on the same course, starting a half hour apart. One clean, one doped as much as they want.

    Choose who goes first, I don't care (but dopers first could be interesting, yet confusing unless they wore screaming pink jerseys to make them stand out), but dopers first makes more sense since it's highly unlikely the two packs would intermingle at that point.

    I do (want to) believe there's a lot of pro riders out there who want a legit race, against a legit opponent.

    Those would be the clean guys.

    No hiding, no BS, no lying, cheat all you want, but if you get caught doping in the clean race, one stark difference, jail time and a lifetime ban.

    I pretty much despise all pro athletics, a bunch of over paid whiners, doing what the rest of humanity does for fun on weekends, for free, well, actually, they even need to pay, to play.....

  9. I have to assume the UCI really doesn't care to fix this, since it should be simple to do. First, all bikes enter into the possession of the UCI 48 hours before the initial stage. Second, bikes are only worked on in UCI controlled bays with toolkits that have been cleared by UCI officials. Third, every bike used by a top ten finisher in each stage has a thorough examination by officials. Finally, lifetime bans for any riders caught, season bans for teams, and five figure fines for mechanics.

    Waving a tablet at a bike hardly seems serious to me.

  10. I'm with the questioner, "what about the trickle-down technology?" As I age out of being able to keep up with ride groups, the idea followed by some group riders gains appeal - add electric assist. Of course racers will "cheat", look at auto racing. It isn't cheating if we do it to assist ourselves and keep riding into more advanced age. These concealed e-assist mechanisms are much more attractive than the big clumsy battery and wheel hub mechanisms. Bring them on. Save strength and save face.

    1. The reasons you mention are exactly why e-assist isn't illegal (and shouldn't be). For commuters, or people aging but still riding, such systems can be really nice. But you and I aren't racing (and getting paid to win). Obviously, the minute someone tries to hide something like this in a bike for a race, and tries to cheat, there's a major problem.

  11. It's been said that the UCI looked the other way when Lance was doping because the Tour--and, by extension, professional cycling--needed a boost after another public relations disaster.

    What caused that "hit" to the race, and the sport's, reputation? You guessed it: doping scandals--namely, the Festina affair and Marco Pantani's disqualification from the Giro d'Italia.

    Do you think in ten years or so, we'll see a story similar to Lance's--except that the "heroic" rider will finally admit, or be found, to have used an electric or motor assist?