Given the continued coverage of cyclists and the use of drugs, legal and sanctioned by TUE (therapeutic use exemptions) or not, it is only fair to point out that illicit assistance to top sportspeople can be administered by several other ways than through pills, potions and prescription drugs.
In the world of cycling, ‘mechanical doping’, or ‘mechanical fraud’ is also a concern. This is where a professional rider uses a hidden motor secreted inside their bike frame to offer an unfair advantage against competitors relying on muscle power alone.
Cycling fans and current affairs followers will already be familiar with the problems cycling has gone through in the last few years, after Lance Armstrong’s cover was blown and both Floyd Landis (2006) and Alberto Contador (2010) were stripped of their Tour de France titles after testing positive for drugs of various sorts. Top road and track cyclist Sir Bradley Wiggins is currently in the spotlight over his use of therapeutic use exemption drugs, ostensibly legal under supervision, but seemingly open to abuse according to other reports.
Mechanical doping cannot be physically tested for, but can still be detected using state of the art scanning technology. But what makes mechanical doping happen? It is not yet widely used in major races, with only one incident currently recorded. And how can it be detected?
How does mechanical doping happen?
For most in-bike motors, a small battery-driven motor is used to add power to the rider’s pedalling. This is usually hidden in the seat post, or even in a false water bottle (bidon), and controlled by the rider using a switch somewhere within easy reach. The battery can be a standard AAA size, widely available and already in use in many handheld devices. The extra power goes to the pedals via a gear attached to the bottom bracket of the bike.
An alternative method involves the use of magnets on the rear wheel. This is relatively new and expensive technology. However, electromagnetic wheels are considered more advanced than hidden motors.
What are the authorities doing to detect it?
Heat detectors and a form of magnetic resonance imaging are both being deployed in the search for motors. In this year’s Tour de France, the testers were shown drawing up alongside Steve Cummings on a lone breakaway and aiming heat detecting equipment at his bike.
The commissaries also announced post-race testing across the whole Grand Tour schedule on hundreds of bicycles, involving dismantling them completely to probe the innards as well as taking outside thermal-style shots of the bikes in motion to easily detect a motor in action. When magnetic resonance is applied outside of the medical field that most people know it for, it is a powerful tool for a variety of industries. Aside from testing for mechanical doping in cycling, it is also used in chemistry and biology, but its use in sport is new and different. It may also be the necessary deterrent for those tempted to employ it, as MR images are widely recognised as accurate.
As cycling enters its autumn-winter race hiatus, the spotlight may, like the sunlight, be temporarily dimmed. But come next spring, the watts will be turned back up, and those suspected of employing mechanical fraud may find themselves feeling rather uncomfortable.