Opinion: Technological fraud in cycling should bring automatic lifetime ban

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In the Discipline and Procedures section of the UCI rulebook, article 12.1.013 states, in the event of “technological fraud,” a rider faces disqualification, a minimum six-month suspension, and a fine of up to 200,000 Swiss francs (180,000 euros, or $195,000).

The same penalties are applicable to a rider’s team — disqualification, a minimum six-month suspension — but with a maximum fine of 1 million Swiss francs (900,000 euros, or $975,000).

Though there is no maximum suspension specified, these penalties appear far too lenient.

A line must be drawn. Any rider — man or woman, elite or junior — caught using, or intending to use, a mechanical motor should be banned from the sport for life.

As an athletic endeavor, cycling is fairly unique in its union of man and machine. In this scenario, the body is the engine, providing power and control to the vehicle. Maintaining velocity while handling the machine at or above aerobic threshold is the very essence of the sport. (A few other examples include rowing and cross-country skiing.)

Once a motor is introduced into this scenario, it’s no longer a competition between man and machine; the very essence of the sport has been compromised, robbing fans and competitors of their faith, and therefore, their passion.

Upon hearing the news that 19-year-old Belgian rider Femke Van den Driessche had been caught with a motorised race bike at the world under-23 cyclocross championship in Zolder, Belgium, Etixx-QuickStep team manager Patrick Lefevere was among many who called for a lifetime suspension.

Another was Global Cycling Network presenter Simon Richardson, a former professional road racer, who wrote on Twitter, “I didn’t think anyone would actually bring a moped to a bike race but it seems they have. Lifetime ban please for this chump.”

Veteran American racer Steve Tilford called for the same, back in April 2015. Critical of the UCI’s disciplinary guidelines, Tilford wrote, “Personally, I don’t ever want to see a guy that would attempt to use a motor on his bike to ever be seen again. Use an electric motor, then you should be suspended for life.”

At CyclingTips, we agree.

Once proven guilty, any athlete implicated in this form of cheating must be banned, forever. And because this level of cheating does not occur in a vacuum, this should also apply to any mechanics, management, and support staff involved.

Some may question why punishment for technological fraud should be different than that for using a blood booster, such as EPO, which currently brings a mandatory four-year suspension. While both are cheating, there are differences — in terms of both evidence and execution.

With a concealed motor, there is no questioning sample collection process, or lab protocol; no courtroom arguments between scientists and attorneys.

With a concealed motor, there is very little chance an athlete has “gone rogue” and operated on his or her own, without help. Any professional team mechanic would notice the difference in frame weight, and performance, associated with a motor. The degree of conspiracy would be profound, and defenseless.

With a concealed motor, the relationship between man and machine is indelibly altered. The body is no longer the engine. That line has been crossed.

As John Bradley, Editor in Chief of VeloNews, posted on Twitter Sunday, “With drugs, people saw cycling as a dirty sport. With a motor in a bike, they won’t even see it as a sport.”

When synthetic EPO first hit the peloton, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was no test available, and there wouldn’t be for over a decade. These were the days before the World Anti-Doping Agency existed, and because EPO is a naturally occurring hormone, the UCI was powerless to combat the problem, instead instituting a “50% hematocrit” rule as a band-aid. EPO abuse became rampant, and permanently changed the face of the sport. Gradually, riders assumed everyone else was using it, and justified their own use, to the point that few inside the sport even viewed it as cheating at all.

If there had been an EPO test from the outset, and the punishment for its use had been a lifetime ban for all involved — riders, directors, team doctors — pro cycling would likely be in a very different position today.

In the case of Van den Driessche, if she is found guilty, exactly who else should be punished is, at present, unclear.

At Zolder, she was representing the Belgian national federation, which is predictably distancing itself from the rider and her bike. And this may be true; elite-level riders often work more closely with their trade team management than national team, particularly when it comes to equipment.

Van den Driessche’s Kleur Op Maat team manager, Davy Fonteyn, has said that the team knew nothing, and has been damaged.

The team’s bike sponsor, Wilier Triestina, issued a statement condemning the situation and threatening legal action against “the athlete and any responsible for this very serious matter.”

Van den Driessche claims the bike in question once belonged to her, but she’s since sold it to a friend and training partner, and that a Belgian national team mechanic had cleaned and prepared the bike for her race, without her knowledge. Supporting her claim, she did not start the race on the motorised bike.

It’s a dubious story, and while it’s unfair to claim guilt by association, her credibility is not helped by the fact that her brother Niels, also a cyclist, is currently serving a suspension for EPO.

Also putting Van den Driessche’s credibility into question was her performance at the Koppenberg Cross event, in November, when she rode away from top elite women such as Nikki Harris, Helen Wyman, and Sanne Cant. On that day she rode the steep Koppenberg climb almost 10 seconds faster than Wyman, and 15 seconds faster than Cant. Many have speculated that performance likely led to her equipment being targeted, though that occurred almost three months before Saturday’s U23 world championship.

https://youtu.be/kv3CiyrRTMg

In 2016, international sport is in a state of despair. Recent investigations into the IAAF have found deep-seated corruption, both financially and performance based. Professional tennis faces nagging, unsubstantiated allegations of match-fixing. Nearly two-dozen officials from FIFA have been charged with misconduct. As this January 27 column in The Spectator posits, this could be the year that sport dies of corruption.

And now pro cycling — still healing from the long, sordid era between the Festina Affair (1998) and USADA’s Reasoned Decision (2012) — faces a new, potentially lethal controversy.

Yet with technological fraud, the UCI has the opportunity to stamp out this new scourge.

Enforcement need not follow WADA Code, as this issue does not relate to a performance-enhancing substance. The standard applied to performance-enhancing drugs need not apply to technological fraud. Things are not as they were at the beginning of the EPO era; an effective test, based on magnetic resistance, exists.

This is an issue where the UCI must take firm action. A lifetime ban will both remove cheaters and serve as a deterrent to others. Riders, mechanics, and team management must all be responsible to prevent it from happening, and be held accountable if it occurs.

On Sunday, in Zolder, UCI president Brian Cookson said the UCI is “committed to protecting the riders who do not want to cheat, in whatever form, and to make sure that the right riders win the race.”

If, after due process, Van den Driessche is proven guilty, Cookson should back up his words with actions and put this issue to rest, before cycling fans lose what faith is left, and before the general public fails to see professional cycling as a sport at all.

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