Friday July 01, 2016

Tour de France targets a new kind of cheating: mechanical doping

19-year-old Belgian cyclist Femke Van Den Driessche was caught concealing a motor in her bike at the cyclo-cross world championships.

19-year-old Belgian cyclist Femke Van Den Driessche was caught concealing a motor in her bike at the cyclo-cross world championships. (Yorick Jansens/AFP/Getty Images)

Listen 7:45

In the years since Lance Armstrong's 2012 doping scandal, cyclists and officials alike have been on high alert for cheaters. And when the 2016 Tour de France kicks off July 2, they'll be on the lookout for a whole new form of fraud.

It's called mechanical doping: the use of hidden motors and other mechanical devices to help cyclists get ahead.

Earlier this year, the International Cycling Union (UCI) announced that it will use thermal imaging technology at this year's race in an effort to crack down on cyclists who rig their bikes.

The crackdown comes just months after 19-year-old Belgian cyclist Femke Van den Driessche was caught with an electric motor hidden in her bike at the Cyclocross World Championship in January. Van den Driessche was stripped of all her medals and handed a six-year suspension in April.

Bicycle Chainwheel

The motor sits in the lower portion of the seat tube and connects to the crank arm via perpendicular gears. (AFP/Getty Images)

How it works

It's unclear just how many different devices might be out there. But Matthew Pioro, editor-in-chief of Canadian Cycling Magazine, says electric motors like the one Van den Driessche was caught with are the most common.

"[It's] a cylindrical motor that goes in the seat tube of the bike," he tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury. "It sits in the frame close to the axle where the crank-arms are that will turn the pedals."

"From there you need a battery, of course. And that either sits in the frame, or there's even versions where there's a dummy waterbottle."

"These guys are such a high level. So sometimes it's the littlest thing that can make a difference."
- Matthew Pioro, editor-in-chief of Canadian Cycling Magazine

Pioro estimates that the motors can provide an athlete with about 200 extra watts of power over an hour-long period. And for pro cyclists, who are often racing within fractions of seconds of each other, that little boost can make all the difference.

"That's 200 watts or more that you have later when it comes to a crucial part in the stage," Pioro says."Or it helps you tap out a constant rhythm on a really long climb, and it's that little bit of an edge that helps you do better than the others."

"These guys are such a high level. So sometimes it's the littlest thing that can make a difference."

Still, developing a device capable of providing a boost to a powerful professional athlete while remaining undetectable is no easy task.

"It's pretty high-tech stuff," Pioro says.

Mechanical Doping Test

A staff member of the International Cycling Union (UCI) holds a tablet to scan a bicycle during a demonstration detecting the presence of a motor inside the frame. (AFP/Getty Images)

A growing storm

It's not known just how many athletes might be involved in this sort of technological fraud. But it's doubtful that Van den Driessche is the only one.

"It's pretty high-tech stuff." - Matthew Pioro, editor-in-chief of Canadian Cycling Magazine

"Since we have one quote-on-quote 'smoking gun,' statistics I think would point to [there being] more than one out there," Pioro says.

While no other cyclists have been caught red-handed, concern about mechanical doping has been growing among cyclists in recent years. In 2015, the UCI responded by adding a clause on "technological doping" to its rulebook.

"It created such a little bit of a storm that even the UCI had to take this seriously," Pioro says.

Cycling Technology

A bicycle is inspected after the 11th stage of the Giro d'Italia cycling race in May 2016. (The Associated Press)

At the 2016 Tour de France, they'll be taking it very seriously indeed. Officials have announced plans to combine magnetic resonance and thermal imaging technologies, which will be employed at various points along the route to test for suspicious hotspots on the bikes.

Pioro believes the rigorous testing will be enough to deter most cyclists from mechanical doping at this year's race. But you never know.

"The thing is, the cheaters are always a very creative bunch. You saw it with drugs and chemicals. Once they know how they're being inspected or detected, then they look for ways to beat it."