Opinion: Why Van den Driessche’s decision to walk away from cycling is a regrettable one

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Monday’s statement that Femke Van den Driessche had decided not to defend herself against the UCI Disciplinary Commission over accusations of motor use appears to have brought her career, and this saga, to an end.

The UCI is yet to announce its findings, stating on Tuesday that it proceeded with the hearing even though Van den Driessche had said that she wouldn’t be present.

However her decision not to turn up will surely result in a finding against her.

To recap, she was linked to the use of a hidden motor when a bike containing such a device was found during the cyclocross world championships on January 30.

She claims that she used to own the bike, but a family friend bought it, installed a motor, rode the cross worlds course on it and it then was mistakenly brought to her pit area.

Never mind that the explanation beggars belief. Under UCI rules, the mere presence of a bike with a hidden motor breaks regulations, and makes the rider culpable.

Van den Driessche released a statement on Monday explaining why she was walking away. She didn’t refer to the requested penalty [her lawyer claims the UCI wants a lifetime ban plus a fine of fine of 50,000 Euros (AU$74,000)].

Neither did she address the question of guilt or innocence. She simply said that she wasn’t in a position to mount a defence.

“The cost of that session in Switzerland will be too high for me. The acquittal is impossible, that bike was in my pit zone.”

But is this the right outcome?

Reactions to Van den Driessche’s statement were varied, but a recurring theme on social media was that justice had been done and that it was correct that a rider who appeared guilty of so-called mechanical doping would no longer continue in the sport.

However this view is over simplistic and unsatisfactory.

While there is a strong argument that anyone involved in technological fraud should be punished heavily, there is a lingering feeling that she is likely a scapegoat or, more correctly, a fall-girl. That’s a sentiment which is hard to disagree with.

Let us clarify that: in using such a term, we aren’t speaking about her lawyer’s claim that a lifetime ban has been requested. Ever since her case became public there have been good arguments raised for and against such a punishment.

These range from those who say that the use of motors is a particularly cynical form of cheating and needs to be immediately stamped out to those who question why EPO cheats and others using powerful substances receive a lesser penalty.

The rider in question: Femke van den Driessche
The rider in question: Femke van den Driessche

[The answer to the latter is obvious: the WADA Code limits the punishments which can be handed down for traditional cheating, but doesn’t cover mechanical doping].

Instead, our suggestion that she may be a fall-girl is based on the decision not to fight on, and concerns the unknown others who may also be involved.

Van den Driessche is a 19 year old who is, according to some reports, an easily-led person. If it is indeed the case that she used, or planned to use, a hidden motor in competition, she did not do so on her own.

It’s frankly implausible that she installed such a device herself and then managed to keep it secret from her family, her mechanics and anyone else who assists her when racing.

Factor in that her brother is currently serving a long doping ban and that her brother and her father have been accused of stealing two expensive parakeets from a Belgian pet shop, and there are certainly grounds for questions about those in her entourage.

However, with Van den Driessche abandoning her defence, it seems unlikely that anyone else will be scrutinised.

Two questions will remain as a result. Firstly, who helped her?

Secondly, was she placed under pressure from others not to fight her case?

As things stand, she will likely be hit with a lifetime ban, while the unknown third parties in the case will escape punishment.

Is that fair? Is that good for the sport? We’d suggest not, and for those reasons the decision not to contest the charges is a very unsatisfactory one.

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