This weekend, Femke Van den Driessche, a 19-year-old Belgian cyclocross racer, lined up at the U-23 World Championships. She’d previously won the Euros and the Belgian championships, and she was the favorite to get herself a set of rainbow stripes. But she had a bad race, and was forced to exit with a broken chain one lap from the finish. Then all hell broke loose.
A post-race inspection of her bike revealed cables running from her seatpost down to a small motor hidden inside the crank. Van den Driessche, for her part, is claiming that the bike was her friend’s. Eddy Merckx called for a lifetime ban for moto-dopers, and Wilier Triestina (who manufactured the doctored bike) is suing Van den Driessche. The whole thing is a huge mess. Let’s get into it?
What is mechanical doping?
So, as you, reader, can probably suss out, it’s the illegal use of mechanized power to assist with the (very hard!) work of professional bike racing. If you need to keep up an average of, say, 250 watts for a six-hour race, but will occasionally need to have bursts of over 900, you can see where a motor that could help you generate 110 or so bonus watts (we’ll come back to this) would come in quite handy. Anyway, the official UCI rule that makes this obviously illegal thing illegal is Rule 12.1.013, concerning ‘Technological Fraud’, which they introduced almost exactly a year ago:
Interestingly, the actual six-month ban and subsequent fine apply to all non-compliant bikes, where you’d have to imagine the penalty for a real actual motor in a World Championship would be much far harsher.
Okay, so how does it work?
Cyclists have been pushing doping technology to new and illegal places for centuries (amphetamines! microdosing! something called “horse ointment”!), so this is a tricky question to answer. The classic method‚or at least the most publicly-known method—involves a small motor put down the seatpost to the hub, with wires extending to a discrete trigger next to the shifters. The trigger activates a crank that can accelerate your back wheel.
Not every such motor has a throttle—our friends at Gizmodo have a lengthy look at how exactly other seatpost motors would be activated—but whether they’re engaged by a button, a torque sensor, or a cadence monitor, cyclists would (theoretically) use these motors to give them little bursts at crucial times. CyclingTips installed a $3,000 model into a bike, tried to hide it as best they could (which included buying an “Invisible Performance Package”), and ultimately concluded that they could easily be used in the professional peloton.
However, the seatpost motor method, while the most direct, is probably not the only way this is happening. Yesterday, Gazzetta dello Sport (It.) published a report on the new frontier of mechanized doping: electromagnetic wheels. Magnetic power would be both quieter and more discrete. This method is far more expensive (over $200,000) and produces less power (only about 45 watts), but discretion is the ultimate aim here:
A motor hidden in the seat tube is old stuff, almost artisan. It’s been overtaken, it’s a poor man’s doping. The new frontier is far more technologically advanced and ten times as expensive. It’s in the rear wheel: it costs 200,000 Euros, and there’s a waiting list of six months. The first type uses a motor to turn the cranks; the second is electromagnetic.
Is is really that much of an advantage?
Yes! Cycling is a sport of small margins, and every racer is at the pinnacle of their physical condition. Even on grueling 150-mile Tour de France stages, the sprinters only ever finish 15 minutes or so behind the winners. There’s not a huge gulf separating the best from the average. So a little motor that could make you even 10 percent better could theoretically be the difference between winning races and not being able to break into top tens.
Wait, back up. How long has this been a thing?
All the rumors and hubbub about illegal motors started back in 2010, and the public caught up to it with the following infamous truther video of legendary Swiss cyclist Fabian Cancellara’s suspicious gear-shifting behavior at the 2010 Paris Roubaix and Ronde Van Vlaanderen (the two biggest one-day races in the world). Please enjoy the sound at 4:30, which I can only imagine is a computer’s death rattle:
Pretty convincing right? Are you ready to go to the mat for the fact that Cancellara did 9/11?
Okay, who else has been implicated?
Cancellara is one of the biggest names in the sport, but there have been plenty of others. Chris Froome filleted the Tour De France field in 2013 atop Mt. Ventoux, and again in 2015 at the summit of La Pierre St. Martin. His power data was then leaked and questions immediately arose over how he could have leapt over those two legendary passes with such ease. People started accusing him of moto-doping, which he’s fiercely denied and has since come out swinging, today saying his bikes have been inspected dozens of times and that he warned the UCI about this.
If you want another truther video (a much more convincing one), here’s Ryder Hesjedal (the only Canadian to win the Giro d’Italia) crashing and then somehow letting his bike run away from him on its own.
Sure looks suspicious. My friend Nick alerted me to this rather sudden acceleration out of the mud at the cyclocross World Cup, which could simply be a rider unsticking himself violently:
That’s a lot of examples. How pervasive is this?
Well, that’s the thing. Only Van den Driessche has been caught (or at least publicly caught). I asked a team manager whose team races mostly in the Americas about how many people he thought were moto-doping, and he stressed to me that while he hasn’t come in direct contact with it, he believes it’s more widespread than the public thinks. However, a rider living and racing in Europe told me he’s never heard of any direct usage of a contraband motor. So it’s quite uncertain, but the UCI has been testing for it for a half-decade, and the advantages, if you can get away with it, are tremendous.
Okay, sure it’s murky, but where’s the conspiracy angle? I want blood!
As good as Van den Driessche is on the U23 women’s cyclocross circuit, she’s not exactly a famous rider. If you wanted to believe that the UCI is more PR conscious with managing this doping scandal than the one that nearly sank the sport a decade ago, you could talk yourself into thinking that they went after a small fish to make an example of, in order to scare off more famous would-be offenders. The impact on the sport if Froome, Cancellara, or Alberto Contador were caught would be massive, and quite damaging to the entire enterprise’s credibility, right as they’re finally getting some of it back.
Of course, this theory is most likely bunk, since the UCI’s been ridiculed for even looking for motors, and getting anyone looks like vindication. But it’s still fun to consider.
What do we do now?
Now that the UCI has a confirmed use of motors in a very prominent race, they’ll be able to implement testing in more races. Unlike with “traditional” doping, mechanized doping is a lot more straightforward. The tangled combination of blood readings, power metrics, and whereabouts check-ins that the UCI uses to ensure riders don’t chemically dope is an extensive operation. Cracking a frame open and seeing a motor is about as cut and dry as it gets.
For all the testing the UCI has done, the scant evidence the public has, and the uncertainty raised by people within cycling I’ve talked to, it’s still difficult to figure out if this is even a real problem, or simply a too-funny-to-be-true bogeyman with one confirmed case. But the technology exists, and, as has always been the case in cycling, if it makes you better, someone will try it.
Photo via Getty