Matt Brammeier, the fiancé of British cyclocross champion Nikki Harris, has spoken about his doubts in relation to the rider accused of having a motor hidden in her bike at last weekend’s cyclocross world championships.
On Saturday Belgian rider Femke Van den Driessche was identified as the rider linked to so-called mechanical doping. The following day UCI President Brian Cookson confirmed that a hidden motor was found in one of her bikes at the race.
A disciplinary procedure has been opened up and, depending on the outcome, both she and her entourage could be hit with strong penalties.
Brammeier has accompanied Harris to many of her races and while the latter didn’t wish to speak publicly at this point in time, she made her suspicions clear in recent tweets.
. @daniellloyd1 I would defo place a bet she had this in Koppenberg earlier this year… What a joke ?
— Nikki Harris (@Nikkiharris86) January 30, 2016
Yep that will be the one ? https://t.co/diqazgRpJi
— Nikki Harris (@Nikkiharris86) January 30, 2016
She finished third in Koppenbergcross in November, being beaten to the line by Van den Driessche.
During the race the latter was outclimbing her older, more experienced competitors on the Koppenberg and her impressive times on that ascent, plus the jump in her performance in the race have raised questions about whether she might have been using a motor there. The video below is a clip from that race.
Brammeier commented on the situation to CyclingTips, and also on the two year ban that her brother is serving for doping matters.
“To be honest, I’d never heard of her before the race at Koppenberg,” he said. “I heard a few people talking about her brother’s case during the race but never quite worked out if it was true. You hear this type of stuff a lot so generally I just try to ignore it.”
However he found it more difficult to shrug off what he saw at the race, something that took on a potential new meaning with last weekend’s developments.
“There are two pit zones at Koppenberg, one at the bottom and one at the top of the climb,” he explained. “So you need four mechanics. I of course offered to help out.
“I was stood in the pit next to Femke’s entourage. I don’t quite know what it was, but something seemed a bit weird there. The whole team had walkie talkie radios, ear pieces and seemed pretty anxious and, overall, just a bit odd. I’d never seen that before and it kind of stuck in my head.”
Brammeier said that the race frustrated Harris, who was surprised at the 19 year old beating her due to her comparatively quiet past results.
“Every lap Nikki and Femke were yo-yoing from second to third place. Nikki would gain ten to 20 seconds on the flat and downhill and Femke would pull away again on the climb. She was visibly riding at a higher speed up the climbs.
“She had never been so close to Nikki before and after hearing the rumour about her brother, of course you put two and two together and you have doubts in your head. It didn’t really bother Nikki at the time; of course it’s out of your control if someone wants to cheat and unless you have hard evidence, there’s nothing you can do. So it’s better to put it out of your head and get on with it.”
He pointed out that some of those racing against Harris are likely not part of the whereabouts system, thus making it possible for cheating to happen. “Going from the last few years, usually when something is too good to be true in the sport, it generally is.”
The Bike Pure anti-doping organisation told CyclingTips after Saturday’s motor revelation that there had been some suspicions about Van der Driessche in the run up to the cyclocross worlds. These were most likely centred around the Koppenbergcross performance, although she also won the youth category in the European championships.
“Bike Pure is sometimes provided with information from other riders, coaches etc,” co-founder Andy Layhe explained. “I contact relevant anti doping authorities about such tip offs in the hope they can do additional testing on said riders.
“The info I received was that her performances were untoward in recent months. It wasn’t strictly [about] mechanical fraud, but nonetheless it is intelligent-led information. Others may have also provided their own suspicions.”
CyclingTips understands that those who were sceptical about her performance presumed that a jump in form could be linked to substances rather than a motor, with that second possibility only coming to mind after Saturday’s big news.
“This scandal is just too close to home”
For her part, Van der Driessche claims that the bike in question used to be hers but was sold to a family friend, who she said must have put the motor in it. She also claimed that it was mistakenly taken to the race but was never going to be used by her in the event.
Riders often have spare machines so that they can swap bikes when one becomes clogged with mud. Her contention is that her mechanics mistakenly thought the bike was hers and brought it to the pit area.
If it is ultimately shown that she did intend to cheat, others will also have been involved. Unlike doping, which can be done alone, using a hidden motor requires others to conceal the secret.
In fact, given that she is just 19 years of age, many believe that others must have been involved and may have encouraged her to use the device.
In this case, they too could and should be sanctioned. Brammeier is clear that if a guilty verdict is reached, those others must be held to account.
“I’ve been in the sport quite a long time now and experienced numerous scandals of varying nature. But this one is just too close to home,” he said.
“It’s so close that it really got to me and made me pretty bloody angry. It just takes away the whole essence of sport. I really can’t work out the logic behind putting a 19 year old kid in this situation. The only possible reason I can think of is money.
“It totally disgusts me to the stomach and I feel like as a family we have been robbed and the sport has been robbed.”
Currently, UCI rules state a minimum ban of six months plus a financial penalty of between 20,000 and 200,000 Swiss francs. For any teams shown to be involved, they too face a minimum ban of six months (likely longer in reality) and fines of between 100,000 and one million Swiss francs.
Despite his stated disgust at what may have happened, Brammeier said that he doesn’t think draconian sanctions will stand up to legal challenge. That said, he emphasises the need for a strong deterrent.
“I think life time bans are not realistic and human rights lawyers will have a field day if you try to implement them. However I think Brian Cookson and the UCI need to think hard about serious and extreme punishment while this is such an isolated incident.
“If it is proven beyond doubt that someone has raced in competition, at whatever level, with a motor in their bike they should be out of the sport for at least ten years, in my eyes. If you can stoop that low you obviously have no conscience and no care for the sport. So, in my eyes, you deserve not to be part of it for a very long time.
“There’s no chance for a B sample, no contamination and essentially no excuses.”
As for teams, he is wary about the thoughts of the UCI automatically following through with its stated sanctions.
“I think in this case it would be unfair to punish such a small organisation with huge fines, etc. Unless of course you can prove beyond doubt that the whole of the team were in on what happened,” he said.
“Of course, each individual that is proven to be linked to a case of mechanical doping should be treated with exactly the same punishment and suspension as the rider and should not be welcome at a bike race for a long time.”
Aside from supporting Harris – and being engaged to her – Brammeier is a strong rider in his own right, being a multiple Irish champion and a member of Team Dimension Data.
Motors were rumoured to have been used in the past on the road, and the discovery of such a device at the cyclocross worlds will inevitably raise questions about whether their use might be elsewhere too.
He said he’s undecided about this.
“As far as any wider use of this in any men’s races, I have no idea. I’m the same as the rest of us: at the moment it’s only rumours,” he said.
“Of course this latest find is going to raise suspicion but hopefully it will also raise the nerves of anyone thinking about doing it themselves in the future.”