Sitting here watching a rerun of the Tour de France riders toiling uphill in the Pyrenees earlier this week, it’s tempting to think how much easier those ascents are in a car. However, any professional bike rider worth their salt knows that ‘mechanical doping’ is strictly forbidden. The Tour coverage this year has already shown the mechanical doping testers draw up alongside Steve Cummings as he shot away from the main field to win stage 7 by just over a minute. They were using thermal cameras to make sure he wasn’t benefiting from motorised assistance. On this year’s Tour, there are also cameras using a form of magnetic resonance (MR) technology to scan bikes for anything unusual. The organisers and the UCI governing body are hoping to conduct around 3,000 tests during the course of the race, according to a recent piece from the ITV4 television crew covering the action.
For recreational riders, mechanical doping, also known as motorised doping or mechanical fraud, is a godsend. It allows weaker riders to keep up with stronger ones using a small motor attached to either the pedals or the wheel. That gives them the advantage of being able to use less effort for more progress, and keeps a large, mixed ability group together. Commuters also like the technology, because it allows them a longer ride, which they can then build up to performing manually as they become fitter, should they so wish.
Obviously, for professional riders, this type of assistance is seen as cheating, as Belgian competitor Femke van den Driessche found out in the cyclo-cross World Championships in January 2016. She had her bike confiscated for checks after a mechanical failure and a motor was found hidden in the seat tube – the connector between the seat and the pedal crank. The 19-year-old had been forced to walk the bike, her spare, round the final circuit of the race because of the failure. She was given a six year suspension from competitive cycling, fined 20,000 Swiss Francs (£14,000) plus costs and had to return all the medals she had won in previous races. She subsequently announced her retirement from cycling.
Yes, using motorised assistance can cost a professional rider their career, just as substance doping can.
The motor is activated by a small switch, either hidden under the saddle or under the handlebar tape. The most popular models of motor are located in the seat post, with the battery variously being carried in a saddle bag for the recreational riders, or hidden elsewhere in the bike frame and accessories for the more aerodynamically aware. Such ‘invisible performance’ kits are what the UCI, cycling’s governing body, are scanning to detect.
The first recorded case of a device being added to a bike to make the rider’s life easier was in 1992, when Mavic introduced a gear change mechanism that automatically changed the bike’s gears. Mechanical doping, however, is a much greater advantage, offering an average of 50% more power thanks to the motor. Given the shadow that drug doping has cast over the sport in recent years, it’s not hard to see why the UCI is making sure that everyone knows they are testing for these devices.