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by Shane Stokes
May 3, 2016
Photography by Cor Vos
Addressing suggestions that its current checks for hidden motors could be sidestepped by unscrupulous teams or riders, the UCI has explained why it believes the current course of prevention is the correct one.
It has also highlighted shortfalls with alternative methods which have been suggested.
The governing body recently handed down a six year ban to the Belgian rider Femke Van den Driessche. She was redflagged at the cyclocross world championships and has become the first rider to be sanctioned over so-called mechanical doping.
However, according to a recent joint investigation by the Stade 2 TV programme and the Corriere della Sera newspaper claimed that other riders could be evading detection. They said that thermal imaging cameras were a much better way of stamping down on the problem.
Furthermore, they said that heat signatures from the Strade Bianche and Coppi e Bartali races in March may have indicated the use of motors.
Responding to that, the UCI has rejected calls that thermal imaging should be used.
“This was trialled at the beginning of the UCI’s research, as it was believed that it had the potential to be the most useful method,” it said in a statement. “In certain circumstances thermal imaging can indeed detect a motor, however, only when the motor is in use or just been used and is still warm. This makes pre- or post-race checks ineffective.
“Thermal imaging will also pick up heat signals from other sources, including the rider’s body, heat generated from friction in bearings and heat from warm tyres. The heat patterns shown on a recent documentary which deployed thermal imaging at a bike race are consistent with normal heat from moving parts.”
The governing body suggests that such attempts could be fruitless.
“The UCI also found that it is simple and cheap to install effective thermal screening devices which render this kind of testing ineffective.
“Thermal imaging also only works on line of site [sic] and the scan must be alongside a moving bike during the scanning process. For these reasons, thermal imaging was not pursued.”
It added that the Van den Driessche motor would not have been detected by such a test as the bike was stationary when tested.
Despite this, it seems possible – or even probable – that some media outlets may decide to bring thermal imaging devices to the Tour de France. If so, stories similar to the Stade 2/Corriere della Sera reports could emerge.
The UCI has not indicated if it could consider using such cameras alongside the current tests.
Femke Van den Driessche tops the podium in the European youth championships, November 2015. She became the first rider sanctioned in relation to hidden motors in April 2016.
The issue of hidden motors became a public topic of discussion in 2010 when allegations were first made about their use. Although the UCI introduced some scans – carried out by removing the bottom bracket and inserting a tiny camera – such checking was sporadic.
However, with the president Brian Cookson stating that he believed motors were a real danger and may have been used in the past, the number of tests carried out was increased.
At last year’s Tour de France three time race winner Greg LeMond demonstrated a bike with a hidden motor to CyclingTips and also spoke of his concerns that not enough testing was being carried out. This claim was shown to be true by a quick analysis of the numbers concerned.
Since then the UCI has stepped up the checks. The Van den Driessche case gave further impetus to the need to be proactive.
The governing body has issued some details about the number of tests this year. These include:
– 274 at the UCI Track Cycling World Championships in London
– 164 at the women’s Trofeo Alfredo Binda
– 216 at the Tour of Flanders
– 232 at Paris-Roubaix
– 173 at the U23 Liège-Bastogne-Liège
– 507 at the Tour de Romandie
Further testing will be carried out at other events including, presumably, the Tour de France.
“The new scanning method uses a tablet, case, adapter and custom-made software which enable an operator to test a complete bike, wheels, frame, groupset and other components in less than a minute,” explained the UCI.
“The software utilised was created in partnership with a company of specialist developers and electrical engineers. If the scan picks up anything unusual, the bike or component is then dismantled for inspection.”
LeMond was one of those who called for further methods to be used. He made six proposals earlier this year, including serious limitations on bike changes within races, the tagging of bikes and their sequestering after the finish line and a focus on all possible areas of mechanical fraud, including electromagnets in wheels.
He also called for thermal detectors and the use of X-ray.
The UCI has commented on the latter, saying that it was considered but considered impractical.
“This technology was also trialled but proved to be ineffective due to the complex logistics inherent in its deployment,” it said.
“Although effective in the right conditions, the equipment is cumbersome, expensive, relatively slow and in many jurisdictions subject to regulations which would constrain or prevent its use. Considerable space is required to install x-ray equipment at an event and using radiation in a public environment means that a large surrounding area must be fenced off. A power supply sufficient to run the x-ray equipment is also required.
“Tests take around three minutes for each bike which must be taken to the specific area where a qualified and authorised operator must be present.”
It also explains why it considers ultrasonic testing to also be without value.
It said that it was ‘theoretically promising’ but, despite its wide use in industry to test the density of materials, was not suitable.
“[It] proved ineffective because of the widely differing thicknesses and density of bike frames and other components. This created calibration issues which would make the method impossible to use in an environment where bikes from many different manufacturers are used and whose methods of fabrication are constantly evolving.”
What looks certain is that the current electromagnetic field scanning will continue. Whether or not that will be joined by occasional thermal image testing remains to be seen but, right now at least, the UCI insists it sees neither a need nor a benefit.