Nearly 5 years ago I saw the following video. It seemed pretty damn tinfoil-hat like at the time. The video showed how mechanic doping might be accomplished. Asked the question, do any professional cyclists use a bicycle with an electric motor? And then showed the suspiciously great performances of Fabian Cancellara in the Tour of Flanders and the Paris Roubaix.
The video made a bit of a splash in the cycling world, then disappeared when no hard evidence was found. A few years later in 2014, some more suspicious footage turned up of Garmin-Sharp team rider Ryder Hesjedal’s crash in stage 7 of the Vuelta a España. Hesjedal is seen falling to the pavement in a crash, his body comes to a complete stop quickly, but his rear wheel keeps spinning, and makes his bike spin on the ground as a result. No investigation was conducted, and again many questions were raised about so-called “moto-doping,” “mechanical doping” or hiding small motors in the bikes of top pro cyclists. Those of us who have crashed many times questioned the idea that an ultralight bike wheel would hold enough momentum to spin the bike as seen in the video below, but the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) seemed uninterested.
Again the rumors died down, but this past Saturday, January 30, at the UCI Cyclocross World Championship in Zolder, Belgium, a small motor was discovered in the bike of under-23 women’s world champion Femke Van den Driessche. “The UCI has established technological fraud and we can confirm that this is the bike of Femke Van den Driessche,” UCI Sporting Director Jos Smets confirmed. As of yet, nobody seems willing to take blame in a doping ring that could easily eclipse many blood-doping cases. You’re talking coach, mechanic, engineer, and rider involvement whereas many blood doping cases were simply between a rider and a shady doctor. 19-year-old Van den Driessche denied any knowledge of the motor in her bike, suggesting instead that the bike belonged to a training partner. I find that most “training partners” ride custom bikes with custom motor systems installed which could easily cost $20k.
Hint: if you don’t want to look like you’re cheating, you shouldn’t pull away from seasoned pros up to 4 years your senior at the age of 19 like this:
The penalty for mechanical doping is disqualification, a minimum six-month suspension and a fine of up to 200,000 Swiss francs ($195,000). The rider’s team faces the same six-month ban and a maximum fine of 1 million Swiss francs ($975,000). Consequences for blood doping: a four-year ban for riders and up to a 12-month ban for teams.
How Do You Hide a Motor in a Bicycle?
There are two common ways to install a motor into a bicycle: one way is to use a throttle, all you need is a small lever on the handlebar that makes the motor run. When you push the button or twist the throttle, the motor speed increases, and the bike accelerates. The obvious downside to this method is that the throttle is visible, not great for professional cycling.
The other way to install a motor on a bicycle is by using a cadence sensor or power meter. It’s able to detect the speed of your pedal rotations and the motor runs at a higher speed when the pedals are going faster. These types of kits often referred to as pedal-assist bicycles because the speed of the motor is entirely controlled by the rotation of the bike’s pedals.
Professional competitors would be using the pedal-assist method as it’s much harder to detect the illegal motor at first glance. There are plenty of options out there ready to be installed. The Vivax Assist is a popular torque sensor that costs 2700 Euros (approximately $2940) and can be retrofitted into most racing bike frames. The company even touts the inconspicuous look of the motor, “The special design of the drive unit allows it to be built into any bicycle frame with the requisite seat tube internal diameter of 31.6 mm or 30.9 mm and is therefore invisible on the bicycle.”
So how would a pro actually use this thing? Obviously no battery small enough to hide on a pro cycling frame will run a motor for the 4 hours necessary to win a tour stage, so instead a small switch is installed on the bike. The motor would remain inactive for most of the race until a chance to pull away from the group or win a climb or sprint presents itself. At that point the cyclist would press a button and gain an additional 110 watts, for up to 90 minutes in the case of the Vivax, that’s enough to win the Tour de France. Add in rumors that cyclists have been using batteries disguised as water bottles, which could be swapped from the team car, and riders might be getting a huge wattage boost throughout an entire 4 hour stage. If you’re a pro cyclist who can average 400 watts for 90 minutes another 110 watts is an almost unimaginable advantage. It’s akin to putting on a magical shirt and bench pressing 412 lbs when you normally max out at 315.
How Does The UCI Prevent The Use of Illegal Electric Motors?
For several years, the UCI has used large, airport-style x-ray machines at the Tour de France to scan bicycles for illegal use of electric motors in bicycles. Last year, when rider Chris Froome was accused of using a motor inside his bicycle during competition in addition to doping allegations, he applauded the bicycle checks because he felt like it would put an end to speculation about whether or not he cheated.
The UCI reportedly caught Van den Driessche by using a computer that can read radio frequencies emitted by the motor. When the computer detected signs of a motor in Van den Driessche’s bicycle, the governing body removed her seat post and discovered wires sticking out.
The vetting process for all professional cyclists is still being hashed out by the governing bodies. The rules have not yet caught up to what’s possible. In the future, there are bound to be more powerful motors that require less battery power.
While the discovery is shocking to some, I joined the believers club long ago, the most bizarre part is that the first verified instance of mechanical doping happened during a women’s cyclocross race in the under-23 category. If the technology has trickled down that far, it’s basically indisputable evidence that the classics and tours have seen motorized doping for year. Once again we cyclists will get to enjoy the stigma of enjoying the cheater’s sport. Fuck cheaters.
Updated 3.9.16: Several videos taken down on Youtube, new sources linked above.