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Although 2010 is the year when the rumours about hidden motors first surfaced, Philippe Gilbert’s agent has said that he believes the machines may have been in use much longer than that.
“A very long time ago, Stefano Varjas [the Hungarian engineer believed to have been behind the most sophisticated motors] approached one of the riders that I am very close to,” said Vincent Wathelet to RTBF.be. “[He was] saying he had lost many races compared to competitors who used electric bikes.
“What we see in the report [the Stade 2 TV programme broadcast on Sunday – ed.], he had already shown him three years ago. I then contacted the engineer. I asked him for an explanation. I fitted out a bike with all these prohibited things in order to demonstrate to the UCI that it exists and that it is used.”
Wathelet said that the bike has been used in numerous youth races but also amongst the professionals. “We speak a lot of 2010, but I have evidence that it was in the peloton for much longer than that.”
Wathelet represents Gilbert as well as others such as Arnaud Démare and Boris Vallée He is also a TV producer of cycling races. He said that he has been trying to alert the UCI to the problem for a long time, both in relation to road racing and also to cyclocross.
The first ever confirmed case of a motorised bike being at a top level competition occurred in January when a spare machine in the pit area of the Belgian rider Femke Van den Driessche was found at the world cyclo cross championships. A verdict is expected soon in that case.
Wathelet said that he had made reports on the motorised doping issue to Umberto Langellotti, the president of the cycling federation in Monaco. He said that Langellotti was instrumental in getting the UCI to raise the sanctioning penalty in relation to the issue.
“At the time, a rider who was caught with a mechanical or electrical assistance risked a fine of 100 Swiss francs. It was so absurd. Fortunately, in 2014, the UCI regulations evolved.”
He gives a little more detail about what happened six years ago. “I hope that this case [the Stade 2 report] will make the cheaters think and that we will have the means to fight effectively. When you see that in 2010 some very famous riders carried their bikes in their hotel room and slept next to them, you ask a lot of questions because it is neither the purpose, nor the practice, in our profession.”
New detection methods needed
The UCI has said that it is tackling the issue as well as it could but Wathelet is not convinced. “I complained many times to the leadership [in previously years]. I said that controls were inadequate, that the UCI scanner was a toy, that it really does not allow them to effectively control.
“Remember these scanners that we saw happen in 2011 and 2012. They did not have the ability to check additional sources of heat and energy.”
The Stade 2 investigation used the kind of thermal imaging cameras that Greg LeMond has been calling for. Speaking to CyclingTips earlier this year, LeMond said that he believed the UCI’s method of measuring magnetic resistance was not enough to detect every type of hidden motor.
Wathelet urges the governing body to expand the systems used. “Thermal imaging cameras are the only way to demonstrate that indeed a bike delivers a source of abnormal energy, which is not a friction that comes from use of batteries.
“The current control system, finally arrived in cyclocross at the initiative of a Belgian officer [Walloon cycling federation president Thierry Marshal – ed.] allowed the catching of Femke Van den Driessche at the world cyclocross championship in Zolder. But I must say she used the first generation of engines.”
He said that such a system costs 7,500 euro and that 1350 were sold in 2015. However he believes that far more sophisticated motors are now available. [According to Stade 2, one such system uses electromagnets hidden in wheels – ed.]
“Basically, they are used in aerospace to open the shutters of a satellite when it is launched into orbit, so you can imagine how these engines are durable and powerful,” he said. “It also means that these type of materials that cost a lot of money are not easily recognizable in a scanner.”
Watching out for suspicious finger movement, as was red-flagged in the past as one possible sign of turning on a motor, is something he says is no longer relevant.
“This material can be triggered by your heart beats when you exceed a certain heart rate. In general, the limit is 160 beats which allows you to recover while your engine compensates. But like everything which is miniaturized, it is very difficult to detect.”
Asked how to pinpoint those who are cheating, he said that both performances and physical parameters must be considered. “When you find an incredible pedalling pace in a slope at high altitude with low heartbeat, in my opinion, it is clear that there is cheating.
“It is a rule of three [factors]…the heart beat, the rhythm of pedalling and the slope. But as I said, it’s not sufficient [to form conclusions in this way – ed.] it is also necessary, in this case, that all legal mechanisms are put in place that the bike is seized, that the spare bikes are seized, and that mechanics don’t have the chance to approach the bikes.
“It is also necessary that in the future we forbid changing bikes except for serious mechanical reasons.”