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The testing of six bikes for motors on stage 18 of the Tour de France appears at a glance to be a prudent measure, particularly in light of the UCI’s own admission that mechanical doping is potentially a very big problem in the sport.
However an examination by CyclingTips suggests that only a limited number of checks have been carried out; drawing on ASO information, it appears a mere 25 bikes have been examined by inspectors since stage one of the Tour in Utrecht.
These were carried out on just four days, meaning that 14 other stages had no such controls.
The first examinations during the race took place on stage two, with five machines being assessed (see below for details). Another five bikes were scrutinised on stage eight, with a further nine – those of the Sky team – being checked the following day when the squad was second in the team time trial.
A large gap in testing appears then to have happened. This means that the bikes used on stage 10 to La Pierre Saint Martin were not scrutinised, despite it being the first mountain stage and a key influence on the general classification.
Also missing were stages 11 through to 17, with Thursday’s eighteenth stage being the only other time checks were carried out.
The bikes controlled in Saint Jean de Maurienne were those of stage winner Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale), runner-up Pierre Rolland (Europcar), race leader Chris Froome (Sky), his closest challenger Nairo Quintana (Movistar), green jersey Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo) and mountains leader Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha).
Asked in the post-stage press conference about the examination, Froome confirmed his bike was indeed examined. He was then asked if he had heard any rumours in the peloton about the use of motors.
“I think most of the suspicions are all in social media and online,” he said. “But surely they don’t come from nowhere. The technology exists. So yes, my bike was one of those bikes checked today. I am happy they are doing those checks. It is probably needed, given all the rumours out there.”
Initial scepticism develops into recognition of potential problem
While some fans of the sport rubbish the notion of so-called mechanical doping, there are clear signs that the technology is possible. Former pro Davide Cassani first drew attention to it in 2010, the same year that Fabian Cancellara faced allegations that he had used such assistance when winning the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
Cancellara dismissed the claims, as did his team.
While some rubbished Cassani, more and more indications that form of cheating was at least theoretically possible came when the Cycling Independent Reform Commission released its audit of pro cycling in March. It was clear about the threat.
“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.”
Soon after that the notorious doping doctor Michele Ferrari weighed in on the matter. 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 ten years, with the UCI never devoting a single comment to well known events,” he wrote.
The claims of Cassani and Ferrari plus the CIRC report’s conclusions gained considerable weight through real world tests of the technology.
In April CyclingTips’ editor Matt de Neef rode a motor-assisted bike and detailed his experience here. His conclusion was that the technology worked and a modified version of the setup he used could both be hugely effective and also undetectable enough to be used in the pro peloton.
An earlier test was carried out by triple Tour de France winner Greg LeMond, who rode another motorised bike in June of 2013. “The bike I tested had a motor that had no significant weight penalty and was also essentially silent,” he told CyclingTips on Thursday.
“All I can say is that the motor I tried out adds 250 watts for 20 minutes and between 100 and 150 watts for over an hour. But you don’t need that much; if you add must 50 watts at certain tactically-important periods, it could win you a Tour de France. It’s that significant.
“The technology is there and that’s why testing is so important at the Tour. However it seems that very little is being done.”
Why the numbers don’t add up
The fact that the UCI has tested just 25 bikes since the Tour de France has begun is surprising for two reasons.
Firstly, in a single day alone, 36 bikes were examined at Milan-Sanremo in March. The Tour de France is a much more important and lucrative race yet, over 18 days, fewer than the Sanremo number have been examined.
Secondly, UCI President Brian Cookson spoke at length to CyclingTips in March, saying that he and the UCI considered the issue a very real one and vowing to be thorough in stamping out the issue.
“I think our information is that this is a very real possibility,” he said then. “We don’t have any firm evidence but we are absolutely aware that these products are out there and that it is a possibility.
“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.”
Asked if there were grounds to believe that such products may have already been used in races, he paused before responding.
“We have heard strong rumours,” he answered, “but we have no confirmation that would allow me to point a finger at any individual, any performance, any event or any team.”
— Philippe Maertens (@philmaertens) July 23, 2015
When Cookson took over from Pat McQuaid as UCI president, he said that fighting cheating in the sport was one of his most important priorities. He said that UCI would ramp up its anti-doping testing and also work to give greater independence to the Cycling Anti Doping Foundation.
Speaking in March, he made clear that he considered motors in bikes to be every bit as serious. In fact, in some ways, he said it was even more cynical than doping.
“I have to say that 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. If the technology is out there then we have to take it seriously as a threat.”
He pointed to the Milan-Sanremo checks as an indication that the UCI was taking the matter seriously.
“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, and that 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 change that we would catch you.”
Months on from that interview, the numbers coming out from the Tour are concerning. With the exception of stage 18, none of the mountain stages appear to have been controlled, even though that is the terrain where motors would have greatest effect.
CyclingTips contacted the UCI for comment.
“The UCI takes extremely seriously the issue of technological fraud such as concealed electric motors in bikes, and has therefore added far-reaching sanctions in its regulations,” it stated in response.
“We have been carrying out controls for many years and although those controls have never found any evidence of such fraud, we know we must be vigilant. We have carried out several unannounced checks on this year’s Tour de France. The Tour de France is the latest UCI WorldTour event where bikes have been controlled this season, checks have also been made at other races including Milan-San Remo and the Giro d’Italia.
“These are extensive controls and nothing was found. We plan further controls throughout the season.”
However LeMond states the low number of examinations at the Tour is concerning.
“If only a small number of bikes have been checked, that is not what the UCI and Cookson said that they would do,” he said.
“It is a big risk for the sport. Everybody goes, ‘we better not talk about it as the Tour de France,’ but that is precisely why we should talk about it. It is such a big deal if this is used at the Tour.”
The checks carried out to date:
Stage two (5): Jean-Christophe Peraud (Ag2r-La Mondiale), Michael Rogers (Tinkoff-Saxo), Adriano Malori (Movistar), Marcel Sieberg (Lotto-Soudal) and Mark Cavendish (Etixx-QuickStep).
Stage eight (5): Jakob Fuglsang and Tanel Kangert (Astana), Daniele Bennati and Michael Rogers (Tinkoff Saxo) plus Damiano Caruso (BMC Racing Team).
Stage nine (9): Team Sky’s bikes, namely those of Chris Froome, Peter Kennaugh, Leopold Konig, Wout Poels, Richie Porte, Nicolas Roche, Ian Stannard and Geraint Thomas.
Stage 18 (6): Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale), Pierre Rolland (Europcar), Chris Froome (Sky), Nairo Quintana (Movistar), Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha).