‘Motor doping’, ‘mechnical doping’ or ‘technological doping’. Is it widespread? Or just an urban myth? Well we know for sure that the latter is now false. Although many have speculated that it has been around for a number of years, with the discovery of a hidden motor in Belgian Femke Van den Driessche’s bike at the world cyclo-cross championships in January, Motor doping was thrust into he spotlight. The rider was previously National and European under-23 champion and despite initially claiming the bike wasn’t hers, she has since been banned for 6 years and subsequently retired.
It had been nearly six years since the first allegations of ‘mechanical doping’, and this was the first confirmed case in the sport. It is without doubt the biggest scandal since the Lance Armstrong affair came to a head, and has the potential to tarnish the sport again – after recovering somewhat from the widespread drug use over the past two decades. But what exactly is mechanical doping?
The technical regulation from the UCI states: “The bicycle shall be propelled solely, through a chainset, by the legs (inferior muscular chain) moving in a circular movement, without electric or other assistance.” As you can imagine with only one confirmed case of motor doping, there is still a lot to be learned about the technology and how widespread the use of motors actually is and has been previously.
It seems the best place for any motor is either in the wheel hub or in the bottom bracket. Hub motors were thought to be much more complex and harder to conceal, therefore if the aim is concealment which is obviously vital to any would be doper, a cylindrical motor inserted into the seat tube would be the preferred choice.
Fortunately motors like this are available to buy! So you can gain an understanding of how easily they work. One example is the Austrian made Vivax assist motor (available for a couple of thousand Euros), which just happens to be the same motor (most likely with modifications) used by Femke Van den Driessche when she was caught back in January. The Vivax motor sits in the bottom bracket area to help propel the cranks, and is operated via a small button which can be placed on the handlebars (or hidden). The company claims that it can provide up to 200 watts (on top of pedalling power) to the drive shaft.
To clarify, Vixax don’t specialise in providing the pro-peloton with the technology to motor-dope (at least we hope not). The company sells approximately 1,000 units each year and says that riders over 60 are their main customers, with the majority of customers simply wanting to keep up with who they ride with such as club mates, riding buddies and spouses. But it does show that hidden motors are available and can be easily concealed even before any clever team mechanics and technicians can (potentially) modify the design and system to still work effectively and more discreetly.
So if motor doping is more widespread and not simply confined to one rider in cyclo-cross, then a fair question would be to ask why there isn’t more evidence of it so far.
The first mention of motor doping came in a whisper back in April 2010. Fabian Cancellara, the Swiss rider who has become a legend in the ‘Monuments’, winning seven (3x Paris-Roubaix, 3x Tour of Flanders and 1x Milan San-Remo) and finishing on the podium 16 times, aroused suspicion in some quarters. Cancellara was able to ride away from Belgian Tom Boonen on the steepest part of the Kapelmuur (the steep narrow cobbled climb with an average gradient of 9.3% and a maximum of 19.8%), leaving commentators stunned at the force of his acceleration whilst still seated in the saddle. Interestingly the Vivax style of motor is thought to be more effective when seated as opposed to standing.
Cancellara went on the Win the race along with Paris-Roubaix a few days later, and an Italian video was posted to YouTube afterwards analysing his attacks and drawing attention to his hand movements suggesting the use of a hidden motor. The UCI did inspect a bike which was supposedly his, but found no evidence and Cancellara has always maintained his performance was a result of his physical superiority.
Despite the UCI continuing to deny reports of motorised doping, and claim it was impossible to conceal motors as batteries would be ‘the size of a bag of sugar’, in June 2010 they began to discuss the issue of ‘mechanical doping’. In July, along with visual inspection, they brought in scanners similar to those found in airports for the Tour de France.
Since then there have been suspicions raised on a few occasions. In 2015’s Giro d’Italia, winner Alberto Contador took some oddly timed bike changes on stage 7, with rumours of motors swirling around, some claimed he was using the swaps to get on a bike with a motor. His bike was eventually disassembled on stage 19 but nothing was found.
In April 2016 after the Van der Driessche saga was continuing to unfold, a joint investigation from French TV show Stade 2 and the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, claimed that the UCI’s tablet which is used to scan bikes is ineffective, and purported to have evidence using thermal cameras showing that there have been motors used in the professional peloton – as recently as Strade Bianche and the Coppi e Bartali. It claimed to show five riders using bottom bracket motors (which is what Van den Driessche used) and two other riders using rear-wheel magnet systems.
Unlike cheating with heavy tube motors, motor doping via electromagnetic wheels is much more subtle. A series of neodymium batteries are hidden inside the rear wheel, and a coil tucked away below the seat generates an induction force, which gets you 60 extra watts of power. The field is controlled via a bluetooth activator. The programme claimed UCI’s current detection methods won’t pick up on in-wheel motor-doping, according to their source who they say, is a manufacturer and provider to pro-riders. Eluding electromagnetic detectors however comes at a price. A wheelset from costs north of €50,000 – considerably more than the seat tube motors, which is why elite riders are the only market.
They also commented on the incident with Alberto Contador and claimed the mechanic working on the bike before inspection was strangely tinkering with the wheel and and his wrist watch, speculating something was awry. Despite of this, nothing that the two news agencies present as proof in their investigation is 100 percent definitive. They did call in a thermal imaging expert to inspect their findings, and he confirmed that they were indeed suspicious.
Between the videos highlighting potential cases of motor doping, the French/Italian media claims from manufacturers and thermal imaging footage, it does seem like there is most probably some degree of undetected mechanical doping taking place within the peloton. However whether it has been used in the most prestigious races and grand tours and been taken up by the biggest riders will remain a mystery, for now.