The UCI has significantly stepped up its testing for hidden motors this season, with 500 bikes examined during the opening stages of the Giro d’Italia. However, according to the governing body, this scale of scrutiny will be exceeded at the Tour de France, with a massive effort planned for the race.
“We are planning testing on a regular and rigorous basis,” the UCI’s technical manager Mark Barfield told CyclingTips. “I am sure you can see the parallels between anti-doping here: we are not going to announce which stages we arrive at. We are not going to announce before, after or both.
“But we have the most comprehensive programme for technological fraud at the Tour de France this year that the UCI has ever run.”
Publically rumoured to be an issue since 2010, the year allegations first surfaced, so-called mechanical doping was thrust front and centre earlier this year when a bike containing a hidden motor was discovered during the world cyclocross championships.
The machine was in the pit area of the European under 23 champion Femke Van den Driessche. Although she protested her innocence, she was handed a six year ban last month as well as a fine of 20,000 Swiss francs.
The Van den Driessche case led to calls earlier this year from Tour organisers ASO for a bigger effort to stamp out the issue. Indeed testing by the UCI during last year’s Tour was sporadic, with many of the most important stages missing any sort of checks.
Talking to Barfield, it seems that things could be very different this year.
“We are cooperating with ASO and we are cooperating with French police as well,” he said. “It will be the most comprehensive programme of testing that we have ever done. There will be more testing at this year’s race, both in terms of the number of occasions [testing will be done] but certainly in terms of the number of bikes as well.”
Unconfirmed rumours from last year’s Tour suggested that the French police were frustrated with the control the UCI had over the testing process. One source told CyclingTips that the police wanted to also be involved in checks.
Barfield states that he is unaware of such claims. “It’s not something I have heard,’ he said. “We worked with the Gendarmes last year. We had a good constructive meeting. We allowed them to see the tests that we were doing. We will be doing that again this year.
“In fact, we are meeting with them later on this month to talk about our methods. At this stage they haven’t said that they want to do their own tests.
“Indeed the technology is UCI technology and we would licence it to international federations. We are happy to work with the police, though, and we are very keen to cooperate with them fully.”
Will media outlets try to do their own testing?
In terms of testing, Barfield recently defended the type of checks the UCI does. It relies on equipment and software which measures magnetic resistance, something he says is more practical than thermal imaging.
The latter was featured in a recent investigation by the Stade 2 TV programme and the Corriere della Sera newspaper, who claimed that such cameras would be a much better way of detecting motors.
They said that images taken at the Strade Bianche and Coppi e Bartali races suggested that some riders may have been using such equipment. Barfield dismissed the veracity of that, but knows that other media may use similar equipment and make similar claims during the Tour.
Accurate or not, the potential for big headlines is clear.
“I think that has been a concern for some time,” he said. “Thermal imaging cameras are readily available…you can get an adaptor for your iPhone. We are well aware that people have done this in the past, having sat by the side of the road trying to find a motor this way.
“However they have come up with nothing and the reason they have come up with nothing is that it is not effective in that environment.
“In some ways people reaching the same conclusion that it [magnetic resistance] is the right technology to use is not a bad thing for us, really.”