Responding to a joint investigation by the Stade 2 programme and the Corriere della Sera newspaper, Italian rider Vincenzo Nibali has blasted the use of hidden motors and said that the UCI needs to introduce stringent penalties.
The Stade 2/Corriere della Sera investigation used thermal detectors (heat cameras) to detect what it said were signs of hidden motor use during the Strade Bianche and Coppi e Bartali races in March.
Until now, there has been only one confirmed case involving hidden motors, also called mechanical doping. This was linked to the Belgian rider Femke Van den Driessche at the world cyclocross championships in January. A spare bike with a hidden motor was found in her pit area.
She denied plans to use it, saying that it belonged to a friend, but declined to attend a disciplinary commission hearing on the basis of cost. The UCI is yet to announce her sanction.
Speaking to the Corriere della Sera, Nibali blasted anyone considering using a hidden motor.
“For me it is tantamount to stealing,” he said. He added that he considered it worse than traditional doping. “Stealing is always stealing. But the so-called technological doping I find more subtle. An athlete, even doped – and in the past there have been cases – can always have a bad day. It’s different here. Push a button and go stronger, crush him again and go slowly. The rider has nothing to do with it anymore.”
Nibali said that he wasn’t surprised by the latest claims, saying that hidden motors had been rumoured for many years and that there is always someone looking to break the rules for their advantage. “As happens in everyday life, someone is willing to cheat. I repeat: in sport as in everyday life.”
Asked why someone would take such extreme steps, he suggested that the perception of being disadvantaged could play a part.
“I want to say [they do it] in order to win. But perhaps I should say, to be able to at least compete with the strongest.”
He added that he had never had suspicions in races. That said, though, he wants the UCI to fight the issue as strongly as possible.
“[They need to] always keep their guard up and punish those responsible. The fight against doping has certainly given results, but there is always someone who still wrong. And unfortunately, as in other sports, I think there will always be someone who will try to circumvent the rules. Exemplary punishment is needed.”
Call for lifetime bans
Meanwhile Gianni Bugno has also called on the UCI to step up the fight against the problem.
The former world road race champion is president of the CPA, the professional riders’ association, and demands that more be done to stamp out the threat.
Bugno was also speaking to the Corriere della Sera and said that a quick and severe reaction is needed.
“The CPA is asking for the UCI to impose exemplary and severe sanctions such as life bans for the riders who commit offences because they throw mud all over the honest cycling of the majority.”
On Sunday evening the UCI defended its use of magnetic resistance scanners. It disagreed with the Stade 2/ Corriere della Sera’s assertions that their use were insufficient to detect all hidden motors, including new electromagnetic wheel motor systems.
“The UCI has been testing for technological fraud for many years and with the objective of increasing the efficiency of these tests, we have been trialling new methods of detection over the last year,” it said in a statement sent to CyclingTips.
“We have looked at thermal imaging, x-ray and ultrasonic testing but by far the most cost effective, reliable and accurate method has proved to be magnetic resonance testing using software we have created in partnership with a company of specialist developers. The scanning is done with a tablet and enables an operator to test the frame and wheels of a bike in less than a minute.
“It is with this scanning method that we detected a hidden motor at the UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships in Heusden Zolder in January 2016 where we tested over 100 bikes. We have tested bikes at many races this year (for example 216 at Tour of Flanders, 224 at Paris-Roubaix) and will continue to test heavily in all disciplines throughout the year.
“Co-operation from teams and riders as we have deployed these extensive tests has been excellent. We are confident that we now have a method of detection that is extremely efficient and easy to deploy.”
It added that the sanctions for anyone caught cheating ranged from a fine between 20,000 and 200,000 Swiss francs plus sanctions extending up to a possible lifetime ban.
Bugno doesn’t agree that the current checks are enough. He said that he was amazed the UCI hasn’t already used thermal cameras.
He works as a helicopter pilot and said that he uses them every day in that role in order to identify problems with high voltage power cables. “They are very efficient, very precise. It’s a mystery why they haven’t been used to look for hidden motors in bikes.”
Bugno suggested that the UCI’s reliance on magnetic field detectors was less efficient, and advocated using thermal cameras during competition and then carrying out further checks on suspect bikes.
Meanwhile the CPA has echoed his calls for a lifetime ban and also said that it could take legal action.
“The association of riders will retain the right to sue against unknown [people] for such crimes because it is unthinkable that certain devices are used by individual riders without complicity.
“The CPA is also ready to cooperate with the UCI for the improvement of the controls during the races to find those who commit these shameful and unsportsmanlike crimes.”
Note: Triple Tour de France winner Greg LeMond recently outlined to CyclingTips a range of measures he believes are necessary to stamp out any possibility of hidden motors. These steps include the use of thermal imaging cameras, but also include several other proposals. The article can be seen here.