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by Shane Stokes
March 3, 2016
Photography by Kristof Ramon, Cor Vos
Six years after they were the first to speak out about the possible use of illegal motors in competition, two Italians who highlighted the issue have revisited the theme and said they believe that the UCI should test all the bikes used in races.
Former professional Davide Cassani and Italian journalist Michele Bufalino separately highlighted the issue in 2010. Cassani was then a journalist with Italian channel RAI and, during a Giro d’Italia analysis programme, demonstrated a hidden motor.
Bufalino then followed this up with a video analysis pointing to what he said may have been suspicious behaviour by Fabian Cancellara while winning both that year’s Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
Cancellara has repeatedly denied ever using so-called mechanical doping.
This season marked the first time a hidden motor was found in connection to a race. On January 30, bike tests in the pit area at the world cyclocross championships determined that a spare bike, set to be used by the Belgian under 23 rider Femke Van den Driessche, contained such a device.
The case is currently the subject of a UCI disciplinary commission action. A decision is expected in the near future.
“I was very surprised at the Femke situation because I never imagined that anyone would use a motorised bike at a race,” said Cassani, who is currently the Italian national team director.
“I think we should control bikes more and more, because with technology improving, there’s a problem that needs addressing. This problem could potentially become dangerous for the whole of cycling.
“The UCI has the technology at hand to tackle this problem, so I believe that every bike should be checked before each race.”
Bufalino was also contacted by CyclingTips and gave his thoughts on the matter.
“I had two reactions to it,” he said, referring to the cyclocross discovery. “On the human side I was very saddened for this so promising, beautiful and talented girl. My second reaction was of disgust, because with motors in bikes this is not cycling anymore. It’s another sport.
“No one knows exactly how widespread this problem is, but it is very serious. The words of ASO director Christian Prudhomme are important. He said that greater efforts must be made to tackle this problem.”
Prudhomme, the Tour de France director, has said that ASO will not engage in negotiations with the UCI over disputed WorldTour reforms until it is satisfied that the motor situation is being properly addressed.
Bufalino says any possibility of subterfuge needs to be stamped out.
“The UCI should create some kind of closed park as with Formula 1 [to control equipment to be used in competition]. Especially for the biggest races, they need to test all bicycles including spare bikes.
“I believe the UCI must develop an efficient and fast system respecting all teams.”
When Cassani spoke about the motors issue on camera at the Giro d’Italia, it created a stir. Many rejected the notion that hidden motors in bikes were possible, but his motivation was to show that the technology was there.
“Back in 2010, I only said it was possible to use motors in bikes, so doing the video back then was only to show the world that it was possible,” he explains now.
“I just wanted to shed light on the fact that it was now possible to do that. My goal was just to show it was possible and also the potential dangers. I love cycling and the world of cycling, this is why I chose to make the video.”
Bufalino followed up with his own video analysis. He was more sceptical, he says, based on what he was hearing from others.
“In my first video in 2010 and in my book The Doped Bike in 2011, I was afraid it could happen with no controls in the future. I spoke with many insiders and we believe this new doping had been used in recent years.
“Another big problem was amateur races, especially in Italy. In this particular little world the situation is completely out of control. Unfortunately this [the Van Driessche situation] is the evidence that I was right.”
Bufalino said that because he was just 22 years of age at the time and didn’t have much experience, he found the situation tough.
“I had much pressure, especially from Switzerland,” he says. “A Swiss journalist and a Dutch journalist tried unsuccessfully to discredit me. In addition, the Varjas entourage [the inventor of one form of hidden motors] tried to block publication of my book in 2011.
“In 2012, the RadioShack team asked me for a copy of the book. I think it was to see if they could start legal actions, but they found nothing that could hurt me. And despite Cancellara saying that he wanted to meet me, they only wanted the book, and I never [was asked to] met him.
“I did a good job. I always had courage.”
Asked if he believes that motors had been used, Cassani says he ‘hasn’t a clue’ if this was the case. “The video was purely to show that it was possible. I really don’t know if anyone used them in the past.”
What are his thoughts on the suggestions made about Cancellara six years ago? “I have always believed he is an extraordinary rider,” he responds. “He performed very well throughout his entire career, so I have no doubts about his performance back in 2010.”
Bufalino won’t be drawn on that issue. “I have already said a lot about this topic,” he says now. “I hope that he continues to prove to be a great rider, despite the problems and the bad luck that has had in recent years.”
Italian journalist Michele Bufalino with Francesco Chicchi.
Cyclingtips has spoken to mechanics in the pro peloton about the subject. Like Bufalino, several of them have said they believe that motors may have been used long before the Van den Driessche case.
One mechanic spoke about a situation he saw in a major spring race and while it is not proof of wrongdoing, he questions what happened and wonders what it might mean.
“With somewhere around 70 or 80 kilometres remaining the rider dropped back to his team car. From our car, which wasn’t far away, I watched as he and the directeur sportif chatted. The car stopped, the rider changed bikes and off he went.
“Nothing odd so far. It was what happened next that had me pondering what was going on.
“As one bike was swapped out for the other, the team mechanic stood by the road side holding the used bike. He was unflustered and calm as his car drove off. This is something I’ve never seen before. Sometimes in the madness and chaos of a pile up you see mechanics momentarily forgotten about as the directeur sportif tries to catch right up to a team leader or breakaway.
“This always results in a frenzy of shouts and a rapid slapping on the side of the team car. The directeur sportif realises his error a few seconds and the mechanic is back in the car with the broken bike on the roof.”
Instead, he said that the mechanic calmly crossed the road and joined up with a team soigneur. “Fifteen minutes later the same mechanic is spotted in a [different] sector jumping up and down, waiting for his team to pick him and a bike up.”
He said that the bike didn’t appear to have a flat or any mechanical issues, and that he saw the same thing happen again in a different race.
“In all my years as a mechanic, this is the only time I’ve seen such behaviour,” he said. “Is it something to worry about? Am I being paranoid? Who knows, but that season saw a few odd happenings from the same team.
“Some of the team’s riders also rode in certain races as if the pedals were turning easier than ever. They were renewed in form, competitors and blowing fields away in outlandish style.”
Triple Tour de France winner Greg LeMond has warned about the possible use of motors for some time. Believing the problem wasn’t being taken seriously enough, he brought such a bike to last year’s Tour in order to demonstrate the machine. Like Cassani five years earlier, he believed showing such a motor in action was the best way to prove that the technology was available and thus the threat was real.
Speaking recently to CyclingTips, LeMond called on the UCI to introduce a number of measures in order to ensure the problem was addressed. Like Cassani and Bufalino, he believes that testing every bike in a race is necessary in order to be sure that nobody is resorting to such devices.
While LeMond has questions about how seriously the issue has been treated, Bufalino has more faith.
“I had the feeling at the time [in 2010] that the UCI presidency did not care so much for this situation,” he said, expressing misgivings about how it was being treated under Pat McQuaid. “In contrast, Cookson today is proving very efficient.
“I think in studying the biological passport and the threshold values UCI scientists might discover something,” he continues. “I cannot say much, no one can, they can only suspect. The bikes must be found.
“But cycling does not deserve new scandals. Today I believe in the deterrent power of the UCI’s actions to discourage the use of a doped bike.”