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by Shane Stokes
December 17, 2016
Photography by Cor Vos, Shane Stokes
The inventor of the hidden motor, Istvan Varjas, has claimed that the UCI’s current methods of detection cannot pick up certain forms of mechanical doping.
Speaking to French newspaper Le Monde, Varjas described a motor hidden in a hub of a wheel and costing 50,000 euro. He said that for a sum four times greater than this, more sophisticated electromagnetic motors are available.
The Hungarian engineer suggested that the UCI’s current detection machines are incapable of picking up such devices, and that the governing body is unwilling to conduct much simpler examinations that would reveal such systems.
“It is enough to weigh the rear wheel. If there is a motor, the wheel weighs at least 800 grams more than the public weight. If a wheel weighs two kilograms, it must be disassembled.”
A senior French source told CyclingTips earlier this year that requests by the French police to the UCI to weigh wheels at the 2015 Tour de France were refused.
In response to Varjas’s claim of an undetectable system, the UCI has said that their current magnetic resistance tablets are sufficient to detect all clandestine systems.
“We know that different technologies are available on the market and we are convinced that the detection method adopted makes it possible to effectively fight against any attempt at technological fraud,” it told Le Monde.
While Varjas showed the newspaper a motor fitted inside a Specialized Roubaix bike, he declined requests to show it a demonstration model of a modified wheel. He explained his stance by saying that if a clearer idea of the wheel became known, it would be more difficult to sell.
However he gave details about its method of activation and said that riders using it might not even be aware such a device was fitted.
“You activate it remotely via Bluetooth, a remote control or a watch,” he said. “This can be triggered from the team car and the rider may not be aware that he is equipped with a motor because he does not feel the assistance. It just feels like a very good day. This model is designed for high speeds, for time-trials.”
He also said that motors can be triggered by the rider’s own physiological data.
“You relate it to the heart rate monitor and you program it so that when you reach your lactic threshold, the motor activates for ten or fifteen seconds. Simply doing that, you gain 50 seconds of respite before returning to the threshold. This is an advantage that no doping can compensate for.”
Varjas said that he doesn’t deal directly with pro teams, but that he knows that a top team takes delivery of the bikes in Monaco.
He adds that sales make him suspicious due to the clients who are purchasing the machines.
He told Le Monde that he enjoys having “small-sized customers who order bikes from me in XL size, without paint.”
Two months ago Varjas spoke to the Irish radio presenter Ger Gilroy during his Off The Ball show, and made claims about the Tour.
“This summer we had a very strange experience in the Tour de France,” he said then. “I was there with the LeMonds, with Kathy and Greg. They came, the Gendarmerie, to interrogate me. I asked them if they really wanted to grab the people using the motors. They said ‘yes, we are ready to fight against it. We want to grab the people who use it.’
“So I just told them what they need to do. They said they would do it. They went to make this kind of check, but the UCI refused to allow them to check the bikes.”
At the time the UCI made a statement strongly rejecting the claims.
“The Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) condemns the accusations being made in some news reports concerning the UCI’s commitment to tackle technological fraud and the tests made at this year’s Tour de France,” it told CyclingTips.
“The UCI carried out extensive bike checks using various detection methods in close collaboration with race organiser, French authorities and French law enforcement.”
Varjas told Gilroy that he found the Tour scenario to be troubling.
“If the organisation is not allowing to check the bikes…you can say every bad thing about me, but I have nothing to do with these cheaters. If you really want to get those using these motors, you can very easily grab them. I explained them how it is possible.
“The police tried to do this, but from the UCI they were not allowed to do it. They said it was not necessary.”
Le Monde quoted a police source which spoke about the Tour. As confirmed by CyclingTips at the time, the newspaper said this week that the French OCLAESP [Office Central de la Lutte contre les Atteintes à l’Environnement et à la Santé Publique] section of the force didn’t itself conduct the tests, but collaborated with the UCI and let the governing body carry out the examinations.
The agreement meant that the police force was unable to carry out its own examinations, although the source appeared to indicate that it didn’t see a need to do so.
“On this Tour, it went very well,” stated the source. “Anyway, we could not officially intervene … and the guys at the UCI were sure there would be nothing.”
Varjas claims the UCI knows more than it is indicating. “They manipulate you. If you ask me who uses engines, I answer you: go to the UCI. They know.”
He also claims that the checks are done an hour before the start of races, giving time for mechanics to change either the bike or the wheels prior to the drop of the flag.
In October Varjas also told Gilroy that such motors had been in existence far longer than many suspected. The first mention of them came in 2011 when some claimed that Fabian Cancellara used the devices in winning the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. It is a claim that Cancellara has repeatedly denied.
True or not, Varjas states motor usage went back much further than that.
He told Gilroy that he sold one of the devices to an unnamed person in 1998 and then obeyed an exclusivity agreement for ten years.
“It was the end of ‘98 and I had to stay quiet until 2009, for ten years. It was time for sleeping, ten years,” Varjas told Gilroy.
“In 1998 I just sold one prototype. To my friend. I got big money, I just go to sleep for ten years and I don’t do anything.”
In the more recent interview with Le Monde, he summarised the agreement thus: “I was not paid to make it, I was paid not to make it for others.”
He said there are tell-tale signs of such devices. “To know who uses a motor, you have to look at the cadence of pedalling. These small engines work better with a high cadence of pedalling, on a small gear.”
According to Le Monde, this implicates Lance Armstrong. The Texan denied any use of such motors to the newspaper, and likewise did so to Gilroy in October.
As was stated then, a TV programme giving details of a big name rider and team who used such devices is pending. It was initially expected to run several weeks ago, but now looks more likely to appear after Christmas.
Once that programme appears, debate is certain to rage. Le Monde suggests the resulting scandal could be the biggest since the Festina Affair.
However it also raises questions about Varjas’ personality, quoting an unnamed riders’ agent as advising caution. “[He is] an ingenious man whose system was unreliable, who is technically outdated and who makes noise to continue selling his products. Be careful.”
Le Monde also states that he has spent seven months in jail in Monaco and is facing six months in prison in Hungary due to tax evasion. Varjas counters by saying it is a judicial error and that he will receive financial compensation because of this.
Le Monde also quotes the president of the Monegasque Federation of Cycling in Monaco, Umberto Langellotti, who contradicts Varjas’ claim that he doesn’t sell products to competitive riders. Instead he states that, “several riders affiliated to the federation have told me that they have been approached by Mr. Varjas. I contacted him and asked him to stop.”
The questions about Varjas are worrying, but don’t necessarily invalidate his claims about the motors. Much will depend on the level of proof he offers when the pending TV programme is finally screened.