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Three time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond has a reputation for speaking his mind, for calling things as they are. When he was a professional he drew attention to the doping within the sport, and after his retirement he questioned the achievements of Lance Armstrong.
His scepticism about the latter led to claims that he was bitter and jealous, but time proved that he was completely correct.
More recently, he’s turned his focus to the illicit use of motors in bikes or, as it has become known, mechanical doping.
LeMond has been warning about the problem for some time. Frustrated that it was not been taken seriously enough, he had a frame built up with a motor in it and brought it to last year’s Tour de France. He unveiled that bike to CyclingTips atop Alpe d’Huez, resulting in this video. It proved clearly that the technology existed.
Last Saturday his warnings were once again proven correct. A bike connected to the 19 year old Belgian rider Femke Van den Driessche was seized by the UCI, found to contain a motor and disciplinary proceedings were opened up.
Now, in the days since, LeMond has reacted to that first confirmed case and called on the UCI and others to step up their fight.
“I knew you kind of had to catch somebody for people to believe it,” he told CyclingTips, speaking from New Zealand where he is currently staying with his wife, Kathy.
“But come on. It is like doping – you hear it, and you know it is true. Everybody wanted to deny it exists because they didn’t want to face reality and disappointment.
“It is actually still an omerta-type deal, a case of ‘let’s not talk about it, let’s pretend it doesn’t exit.’ Even though, deep down, people know it is true.”
Given his previous warnings, it’s easy to imagine LeMond feeling a sense of vindication. Yet, ask him about that and he dismisses the notion.
“I have no reason to feel vindicated. But I am going, ‘what the f*ck?’,” he said.
“I only really became truly convinced about the problem in 2013, but that is probably because I wasn’t really tracking things like I should have been. I didn’t really watch cycling again until about 2013, but Kathy [his wife] was convinced of it.
“I watched Eurosport’s version of the [Cancellara] allegations and I was going, okay, there is definitely something there.”
Several years on, he has pinpointed six ways to eradicate the problem. Here they are:
1. First of all, take it seriously:
“All the signs are right there for so many things. When you become aware of it, you say ‘I see this happening, I see that happening.’ You go, what the hell, why aren’t these guys figuring it out?” he asks.
“All people have to do is open their eyes and ears and take this seriously. Nobody wants to believe in this stuff. The worst part is that people who are in the know know about it, but don’t do anything about it. That is the worst part.
“The UCI has known about it for many, many years and they still haven’t really done anything to change. Brian Cookson was aware of the motors since 2013 when we talked to him. I contacted him before the Tour de France, basically trying to tell him what to do if he wanted to tackle the problem.
“Okay, now one rider has been caught; for me, that’s a token gesture. There were things that they could have done last year that they never did.
“For example, in the Tour they tested very few bikes. Why was more testing not being done? It wasn’t being taken seriously.”
LeMond is referring to a scarcity of testing at last year’s Tour, as detailed in this article. By the end of stage 18, only 25 bikes had been examined since the start of the race, and many of the mountain stages saw no checks at all.
“What I would say is they need to do whatever they can to really fight it. I think when it gets down to it, the governing body, the IOC and that whole crowd of people have too much baggage there,” he says.
“Testing needs to be removed to an independent group like WADA. And the Tour de France and the teams need to work together too.”
2. Ban bike changes:
“This is not complicated,” he says. “The fact that we allow bike racers and teams to dictate when they can change bikes is bullshit. Just the fact of the changing of the bikes is outrageous.
“Look, I raced for 14 years and you only changed the bike in the worst case scenario. Nowadays, people are changing bikes like underwear…that is, if you want to have clean underwear every hour. And there is no reason for that. There is something there. When riders are changing bikes like that, it is something suspicious.
“In racing right now, riders and teams should not be allowed to freely change bikes during a race.”
3. Tag bikes and sequester them after the finish line:
Related to the notion that changing bikes could further the use and concealment of banned equipment, LeMond wants the same sort of controls introduced as are seen in Formula One. Cars are carefully monitored there and any violations of rules are punishable.
At the moment the UCI operates a random system, taking some bikes and running checks. As the article about testing in last year’s Tour indicates, the number of bikes examined was extremely small and several important stages saw no tests carried out at all.
If the same approach had been taken to anti-doping there would have been uproar about it.
LeMond argues that each and every bike needs to be examined. While this sounds impractical, he said that this is possible with the right system in place and the best equipment to do it.
“They need to tag the bikes. And any bike that is changed during the race needs to go straight to inspection. And every rider when they cross the finish line needs to go in and have their bike sequestered. They cannot leave the finish line with their bikes.”
4. Use specialist scanners and equipment:
In order to make this mass screening possible and practical, LeMond calls on a rethink about the testing equipment used.
When such examinations were first carried out, the UCI used tiny cameras which were inserted into the bottom bracket and seat tube areas in order to visually check if motors were present. The method was both cumbersome and slow.
More recently the UCI has indicated they are using tests based on magnetic resistance, but LeMond believes this is not enough.
“To me, the UCI are not testing properly. If they are, they need to put their money where their mouth is and buy the equipment that can really test the bikes.
“They need to have thermal imaging guns [to pick up the heat motors generate – ed.] That will help. They also need to use an x-ray scanner. After last year’s Tour I researched this myself and contacted a company.
“Through that contact, I have located a portable machine that costs about a million and a half dollars. All you have to do is pass every bike through it. It will detect everything – it will find things hidden in frames, rims, everywhere.
“That scanning should be carried out on all the Grand Tours and in other major events.”
LeMond sent CyclingTips a link to the company in question. Its products are used to scan cars and trucks, but it also offer a mobile device which is easier to move around and which generates only minimal amounts of radiation.
While the cost seems high, the UCI’s annual anti-doping budget – which is mostly funded by the teams – is multiples of this amount.
5. Focus on all possible areas of mechanical fraud:
At last year’s Tour LeMond spoke about the need to not only test bikes, but also to screen wheels. Some doubted the technology to cheat that way existed, but this week La Gazzetta dello Sport detailed the problem and suggested it was very real.
CyclingTips’ James Huang spoke to experts and concluded that the technology is likely indeed there.
“Now the pressure needs to be on the wheels,” said LeMond, who said he had real reasons for believing that this method of cheating had been used in professional competition.
He declined to elaborate further at this point in time, but is convinced of the issue.
“The best way to look for this is with the x-ray scanner. There is technology out there that can detect these things. If you really want to fight these people who are cheating, you have to fight them with technology.”
6. Have clear and stringent penalties:
“Right now the UCI talks about a six month minimum penalty, but that isn’t have a definitive sanction. It should be black and white,” LeMond argues. Without that, the deterrent effect is minimised.
He believes that there should also be stringent financial penalties too. Under the UCI’s listened penalties, riders caught with motorised bikes are liable to pay fines of between 20,000 and 200,000 Swiss francs. As for teams, the penalty ranges from 100,000 to one million Swiss francs.
According to LeMond, this isn’t enough.
“What I would like to see is a bond posted by every team for doping, a bond that equates to the damage they do to the sport. Let’s say a team has a 30 million dollar budget. They need to post a bond that will pay out very large sums to the UCI or to the sport if they have riders involved in mechanical doping or positive tests.
“Teams want part of the TV revenue, they want to be part of the revenue stream. They have got to ensure that no more scandals are going to happen. They shouldn’t be just handed a financial penalty, they should be paying actual damages to the sport. And there should be automatic lifetime ban. Teams out, boom.”