Commenting after the Cycling Independent Reform Commission outlined a real danger that riders are, or could, be using motors in bikes, UCI president Brian Cookson has admitted that this could be the case.
The Briton has said that the UCI is taking the matter extremely seriously and warned any teams or riders tempted by the mode of cheating that the consequences could be ‘devastating’ for them.
“Our information is that this is a very real possibility. We don’t have any firm evidence but we are absolutely aware that these products are out there and that it is a possibility,” Cookson told CyclingTips in an exclusive interview conducted on Thursday.
“Given that there have been various allegations and rumours and evidence given to the CIRC that this was a potential area of cheating, we have obviously decided that this is something we should check up on on a regular basis.”
CIRC conducted a thirteen month investigation into professional cycling. While it dealt primarily with the UCI’s governance of the sport during the Lance Armstrong/US Postal Service era plus a general investigation of doping matters, it also considered other areas including what it termed technical cheating.
CIRC made clear that it considered this to be a big danger.
“The Commission was told of varying efforts to cheat the technical rules, including using motors in frames,” it said in its report. “This particular issue was taken seriously, especially by top riders, and was not dismissed as being isolated.”
The notorious doping doctor Michele Ferrari weighed in on the matter in recent days. He mentioned it in an article on his website which was critical of both CIRC and the UCI.
“On page 85, a fleeting reference to the “Technical Cheating” showed up: frames, saddles, tubes, clothing, while only half a sentence is dedicated to “motors in frames”, when this problem has existed for 10 years, with the UCI never devoting a single comment to well known events,” he wrote.
Allegations of motors in bikes cropped up in 2010 when former professional Davide Cassani appeared in a video and showed a bike featuring what he said was a hidden motor in the seat tube.
That video contained footage of Fabian Cancellara’s victorious performances in Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders, two races he dominated. Cassani appeared to be claiming that the Swiss rider may have used such a motor in his successes.
Cancellara denied this, telling the Belgian newspaper Het Nieuwsblad that the claims were ‘so stupid I’m speechless.’
UCI technical chief Jean Wauthier told the Belgian daily newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws that he didn’t believe Cancellara would use a motor.
“The risk is simply too big. For him, his team and the bike manufacturers. A champion like Cancellara would not take that risk.”
However the UCI started conducting spot checks on bikes in order to determine if this could be the case.
Those checks appeared to have petered out somewhat but, following the publication of the CIRC report, the UCI has moved to ramp them up once again.
One former professional told CyclingTips that he had test-ridden out a bike with a hidden motor, and said that it was both silent and extremely effective.
“We have heard strong rumours”
Last Sunday 36 bikes were tested at Milan-San Remo. La Gazzetta dello Sport stated that six police officers plus an investigating magistrate were also present. Their aim was to investigate possible sporting fraud, which is a criminal offence in Italy.
There were no indications that any of the 36 bikes were found to have motors fitted.
Asked by CyclingTips if he believed such devices may already have been used in races, Cookson paused momentarily before answering.
“We have heard strong rumours, but we have no confirmation that would allow me to point a finger at any individual, any performance, any event or any team,” he stated.
However, even if firm proof is not there, it is clear that he believes it is a possibility and that such manipulation may have taken place.
He said that the UCI was committed to working hard to prevent this cheating from being carried out in the future.
“I think we gave a pretty strong sign at the weekend that we are aware that this is a potential problem, that we are not going to stand idly by and let it damage and destroy our sport in the way that doping did,” he said, referring to the San Remo checks.
“We are going to seek any means necessary, including the support of local police, to check up on this.
“That would not just include bikes at the finish. It could include bikes that were used mid-race and then put on top of team cars, etcetera. We have got a new technical cheating rule in the handbook this year and we intend to make sure that we follow it.
“I think we will try to use an intelligence-led approach. We will try to use discretion so we don’t have police raids all over the place. But again there is a clear message to teams here, which is we are aware this is a possibility.
“‘You really wouldn’t do this, would you, because if you did there is a strong chance that we would catch you,’” he warned.
Part of this detection could come from information gleaned from others, something that will be much more possible once the UCI sets up its new whistleblower system.
“We do get information, intelligence, we do get tip offs from time to time,” he said. “This is something that we are aware of and will seek to absolutely stop.”
“It would be beneath contempt”
While cycling has long had issues with doping – a battle which Cookson accepts is an ongoing one – there has never been a published case of a rider or team using motors in bikes.
The first such case would be massive news, and would be seen as a particularly cynical form of sporting fraud. It is difficult to see how an individual or a team could regain trust after such a situation.
Cookson gave a very strong warning to anyone tempted by this course of action.
“I think riders and teams who might be considering this should take a long pause and just think of the effect upon their career and the team and their livelihood as well,” he said.
“I think it would be devastating if any team was found to have engaged in this. Our sport will survive, but if a team or an individual is found with an electric motor in the bike…that would be beneath contempt.”
So what would the punishment be for such a matter?
“We have got the potential in the rules to give sanctions that are as serious as those for doping,” he answered. “I wouldn’t want to have a scale of cheating, a comparison of one and the other – they are both pretty serious.
“But I have to say putting an electric motor in a bike in a sport that is about athletic physical performance is a kind of different order of cheating altogether.”
While teams can and do regularly deny involvement in doping cases concerning individual riders, it would be far more difficult to plead ignorance if a rider’s bike – which is, after all, serviced by team mechanics – was found to have an electronic power system.
Indeed, given that the use of motors in bikes is something that would likely have to be coordinated with the team, it is likely that the UCI’s Licence Commission would view any such incident as extremely serious when assessing which licences to grant.
It’s not inconceivable that a team’s application could be blocked.
Right now such discussion is theoretical. That might not always be the case, however.
“If the technology is out there then we have to take it seriously as a threat,” Cookson concluded.