Hidden motors: Seven things to know about the UCI’s battle against technological fraud
The furore over the first-discovered use of a hidden motor in competition has shown the threat facing the sport of cycling. Doping has been a challenge for many years. Now, safeguarding against so-called technological fraud is also a huge concern.
The UCI has the task of ensuring that Femke Van den Driessche is both the first and the last rider found to be using a motor in competition. With that aim in mind, it rolled out an iPad-based system of detection this year.
It has carried out a large number of examinations with this device. However it has also had to fend off claims that gaps exist with this system and that other methods should be used.
On Wednesday CyclingTips spoke at length to the UCI’s technical manager Mark Barfield about this subject. Barfield covered a range of topics in the interview, including thermal imaging of riders, electromagnets in wheels, static checkpoints in races and assertions that the current system is flawed.
Here are seven standout points from that interview.
1. Despite calls for a change, the UCI doesn’t agree with the need for alternative methods of motor detection
Why has the UCI opted for an app measuring magnetic resistance? Why not, for example, use thermal image cameras picking up the heat signature that motors give out?
According to Barfield, the UCI worked with a UK-based company called Endoscope-I in order to determine the best approach to use.
“We narrowed it down to four potential methods – ultrasonic, X-ray, thermal imaging and magnetic resistance,” he explains.
“There are a number of issues with the first three. Ultrasonic was impossible to calibrate as you need to know the thickness of the material that you are dealing with.
“With X-ray, it is just phenomenally complicated in terms of moving the equipment around. It is heavy, it is cumbersome. It has radiation in it. It requires qualified people to operate it, therefore it is very expensive. And there are certain parts of the world where we simply wouldn’t be allowed to use X-ray in public spaces. So that was dismissed.”
Thermal imaging became a big topic of conversation recently when the Stade 2 TV programme and the Corriere della Sera newspaper claimed that such cameras would be a much better way of detecting motors.
Barfield acknowledges a theoretical benefit. However he also argues that the real world practical application doesn’t add up.
“Thermal imaging was fairly promising, but it is difficult to deploy,” he says. “It will identify a motor, there is no doubts about that. I’m sure you have seen images where it is has been shown that it works. However it only works in certain circumstances.
“If you imagine a group of riders, it would be very difficult to identify a motor with all those legs moving around, different heat sources, mechanical friction. Apart from that, to run tests of that nature you would need to put a motorcycle alongside those riders. Not in front, not behind, but directly alongside.
“That is a reasonably close proximity as well and so, given everything that has gone on with motorbikes in the peloton of late, that simply wouldn’t be tolerated and simply wouldn’t be safe.”
Barfield is referring to collisions between motorbikes and riders, including one which led to the tragic death of the Belgian rider Antoine Demoitié.
2. The UCI insists that the current option is the correct one
For Barfield, the current magnetic resistance checks are the best option. These can be carried out before and after races. They have also been the method used in thousands of tests this year and will, for the time being at least, be the main thrust behind the UCI’s checks.
“It can identify a motor even if the motor is not being used,” says Barfield. “It can identify a motor that is not even connected to a battery. We can scan a bike in about 30 seconds. The science behind it is pretty sound.”
So what is that science?
The current system uses an iPad mini twinned with a special case and adaptor which work together to create a structured magnetic field. “Anything that disturbs that magnetic field gives an indication,” Barfield says.
Small disruptions to that field can be caused by materials within bike frames. However, much bigger spikes are seen when motors are hidden. The main feature image above shows such a situation.
Barfield is convinced that the UCI is on the right path, and points to the Femke Van den Driessche example earlier this year as proof of that.
“The first time we used the device in the field was at the end of January at the cyclocross championships. That first time out, we identified a bike that gave us some suspicious readings. We examined the bike further, which would be the normal procedure, and obviously we found the motor that has now been well documented.
“Since then we have delivered around about 2,500 tests, which we have done using a number of protocols, both at the beginning and end of races. We are 100 percent confident behind the method that we are using.”
3. The UCI is potentially open to tagging all tested bikes
Speaking to CyclingTips in the wake of the Van den Driessche case, triple Tour de France winner Greg LeMond made a number of suggestions as to what he felt the UCI should do.
One of those was sequestering all bikes before and after races for checks. Another was using some sort of tagging system to indicate which machines had been tested.
The thinking behind this was to prevent teams or riders being able to switch to non-tested bikes or wheels during a race.
Barfield sees a positive to the tagging suggestion, as does the UCI.
“We are considering that,” he reveals. “We are discussing it internally at this stage.
“I think what is important for me to point out is we don’t dismiss anything. When ideas like this come up, we do consider them. I think that is an important point.”
However there are hurdles.
“There are some issues with it. First of all, in finding something that enables you to tag but which either can’t be removed if you don’t want it removed or which can be removed when you do want it removed. So there are a couple of instant challenges there. Also, it obviously needs to be weather proof. It must stand up to the environment in which it is in.
“The other minor concern is the fact that when you start to identify bikes that you have tested, you instantly identify bikes that haven’t been tested. And be clear, we don’t test all the bikes all the time.”
“The whole tagging of bikes is something that continue to consider, but we haven’t found the right solution for it yet.”
4. He’s sceptical about claims that hidden motors in wheels are being used
LeMond told CyclingTips he believed electromagnets in wheels were a possible problem for the sport. This was echoed more recently by La Gazzetta dello Sport, which claimed they were available to buy and potentially in use. The Stade 2 thermal imaging programme showed what it claimed could be signs of motorized hubs.
Barfield is sceptical at this point in time.
“We know that technology moves on, but we have yet to see any working models of any wheels that can produce any kind of power,” he says. “We have seen theoretical models of electromagnetic wheels, but we have seen no working models of these to date.”
“That being said, we still check wheels because we know that technology can move on. But certainly checking wheels on their own, at this stage we are not seeing that as super-necessary as it wouldn’t be possible to have a wheel that operated independently. A wheel that had any power source in it would require some sort of connection to other components in the frame.
“So the fact that we check frames and spare bikes gives us a strong belief that we are doing as much as we possibly can there.”
Some, including LeMond, have questioned if the current magnetic resistance tests could pick up electromagnets in wheels. Is he saying they can?
“Absolutely. Any kind of magnet, electromagnet or non-electromagnet,” he says. “Any type of electromagnet, and the electromagnet doesn’t even have to be charged. It can be unpowered as well. So the very presence of it allows us to detect it anyway.”
4. He believes Stade 2 and the Corriere della Sera newspaper got it wrong
The Stade 2/ Corriere della Sera programme broadcast images raising doubts about some riders in the Strade Bianche and Coppi e Bartali races. Does Barfield see anything potentially indicative of a motor in those clips?
“Not in the ones from races,” he says. “With the ones that they took from Strade Bianche, we spoke to the expert that we have been working with. We are fairly convinced that what they are showing is mechanical friction, given both the location of the heat source, the distribution of the heat source and the intensity.
“It doesn’t look anything like the signature that they were getting from the motor that they have actually got installed [on a bike ridden by an amateur – ed.]
“So mechanical friction was our conclusion in that case.”
Asked if Stade 2 had passed on the names of the riders it had suggested were using motors in pro races, he said the station did not.
6. At this point in time, the UCI doesn’t see static in-race scanners as an option
Under the current system of checks, only tests done before and after races are possible. In the absence of controls on all bikes, including spares, and given the potential for bike changes within races, this creates a gap.
Riders could in theory use illegal machines during races, saving energy, but change to standard machines before the finish.
While this may seem an unlikely scenario, having in-competition scans is the only way to be absolutely sure. However it seems that this is some time away.
Barfield plays down the notion that some thermal imaging tests could be run in conjunction with the magnetic resistance examinations.
“We need to be very clear that we don’t rule anything out. But the experiments that we have done with thermal imaging lead us to believe that it wouldn’t help,” he says. “In short, it creates an awful lot of confusion. There is a lot of thermal mess out there in a bike race.
“Then if you combine that with the issue of putting a motorcycle alongside the peloton…
“If there was another way of deploying it, it is a possibility. We don’t rule it out. And we don’t rule any other methods out either. We have to consider anything that might work.”
So what about having a stationary scanner positioned on a steep section of a climb?
“They would need to be moving very slowly,” he says. “To be really clear, thermal imaging works, but it only works in certain circumstances. And those circumstances are so limited as to make it almost pointless in doing it.
“From the side of the road it is very difficult, even at very slow speeds, because of the other thermal mess that you get from the riders. If you look at some of the images from the TV programme in France, the brightest glow in those photographs is the rider’s leg. And that obscures anything else.”
He believes in-competition magnetic field detection is even less of an option.
“There no technology that exists that would be able to do that at this moment. If or when it becomes available, we would be very interested. One of the issues you would have if that was the case is identifying which bike it came from.
“At this moment, though, there isn’t any technology that could do it.”
7. The UCI won’t yet explain why Van den Driessche’s sanction has been backdated to last October
The recent verdict passed down on Femke Van den Driessche saw the Belgian given a six-year ban. Interestingly, the suspension was backdated to October 11 2015, the day of the Bpost bank trofee in Ronse, Belgium.
Van den Driessche finished eighth there. She was stripped of that result, of her European and Belgian under 23 championship titles and her runner-up slot in Koppenbergcross. All of these races took place in the months prior to the event where the hidden motor was detected, January’s world cyclocross championships.
Does Barfield know why the UCI’s disciplinary commission concluded she had cheated before?
“I do,” he answers. “But it is an ongoing case and so therefore I can’t go into detail.”
The UCI has said that more details will be communicated when the reasoned decision relating to the case is released. It is currently uncertain when that will be. Barfield states that more information will become available in time, but
“As with any case, she has time to appeal. We might be able to discuss it a bit more widely once that period has passed. But at this stage I can’t go into any more detail.”