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The alleged use of hidden motors, so-called mechanical doping, remains a hot topic in cycling. It was first claimed in 2010, was ridiculed by some but then proven to be a possibility when a rider was caught in the 2016 World Cyclocross Championships.
Since then countless checks have been carried out but no rider has been shown to be using such a device. However the debate rages, with the UCI saying its checks are enough to stamp out the problem while others say that more needs to be done.
CyclingTips has put together a timeline of the hidden motor story. Read on for the key moments in relation to this subject.
May 2010: Concerns are raised by former pro Davide Cassani about the possibility of hidden motors in the sport. During the RAI channel’s coverage of the Giro d’Italia, the Italian shows such a device in action. An Italian journalist, Michele Bufalino, uploads a video which highlights what some believe are suspicious actions by Fabian Cancellara in the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
June 1 2010: Cancellara denies the claims. “In fact, it’s pretty funny but it is such a big story that it’s no longer the case. It’s a sad story and really outrageous. Don’t worry, my accomplishments are the result of hard work.” Meanwhile QuickStep team manager Patrick Lefevere calls for a UCI investigation. “Laugh? No, I have not laughed. I’m too serious to laugh,” he states. “ I watched this film with suspicion. Imagine if this is true – then it is pure theft.”
June 18 2010: Responding to the claims about Cancellara and the potential use of hidden motors in the sport, the UCI announces that it will begin carrying out examinations for hidden motors at the Tour de France.
June 2011: Legendary French team manager Cyrille Guimard questions the actions of Alberto Contador in winning that year’s Giro d’Italia. “I ask lots of questions about Contador. First, even before the [subject of] doping, I heard that during the Giro he changed his bike several times in the mountain stages where he was very strong. I don’t make an accusation [but] it would be interesting if someone dissects the images, the causes of these changes of bicycles and the effects. It’s true, do not you find it weird to change bikes so many times? I do not know what to think.”
September 2014: Ryder Hesjedal crashes on a downhill bend during the Vuelta a España. After he clips out his bike pivots 180 degrees, prompting claims that he had a hidden motor. Debate rages back and forth. His former teammate Alex Rasmussen responds with a demonstration which he says disproves the claim.
March 17, 2015: UCI President Brian Cookson tells CyclingTips that the risk of so called technological fraud is a serious one. “Our information is that this is a very real possibility. We don’t have any firm evidence but we are absolutely aware that these products are out there and that it is a possibility. Given that there have been various allegations and rumours and evidence given to the CIRC that this was a potential area of cheating, we have obviously decided that this is something we should check up on on a regular basis.”
April 24, 2015: CyclingTips’ Matt de Neef test rides a motorised bike. “The motor certainly made a difference when riding the bike on a reasonably steep climb. It certainly didn’t feel like the motor was doing all of the work, but the extra power made it noticeably easier to maintain the current pace while providing inspiration to use the power saved to push harder.”
July 24, 2015: CyclingTips highlights a large gap in testing at the Tour de France, with a mere 25 bikes being checked by the end of stage 18. No checks were carried out at all between stages 10 and 17, meaning many of the mountain stages had no controls. “If only a small number of bikes have been checked, that is not what the UCI and Cookson said that they would do,” said triple Tour de France winner Greg LeMond in response.
July 25, 2015: Frustrated by those rubbishing the possibility of concealed motors, LeMond demonstrates such a machine to CyclingTips atop Alpe d’Huez, the penultimate stage of that year’s Tour. He expresses concern about the gaps in testing at the race.
January 30, 2016: Belgian under 23 rider and European champion Femke Van den Driessche becomes the first rider to be officially suspected of using a hidden motor. She was competing at the world cyclocross championships in Heusden-Zolder. Checks on a spare bike in her pit area pinpoint such a device.
February 6, 2016: In the wake of the Van den Driessche case, LeMond outlines six suggestions he feels would completely eliminate the possibility of hidden motors in competition. “I have no reason to feel vindicated. But I am going, ‘what the f*ck?’,” he said, referring to those who dismissed his warnings plus the use of motors.
February 15, 2016: Gianni Bugno, the president of the professional riders’ association says that its members have called for heavy punishments for anyone caught using hidden motors. “The riders are all in favour of this and they are the first ones to show interest to unmask those who act unfairly, whether they are riders, mechanics, or other team members.” Days later, Tour de France race director does likewise, saying the ‘strongest possible’ sanctions should be applied.
March 3, 2016: Former professional Davide Cassani and Italian journalist Michele Bufalino, two Italians who first highlighted the possibility of hidden motors, tell CyclingTips that they want the UCI to eliminate any possibility of motor use. “This problem could potentially become dangerous for the whole of cycling,” states Cassani. “The UCI has the technology at hand to tackle this problem, so I believe that every bike should be checked before each race.”
March 14, 2016: One day before she was due to appear before the UCI’s disciplinary commission, Van den Driessche announces that she will not do so and is retiring from the sport.
April 20, 2016: Philippe Gilbert’s agent Vincent Wathelet tells RTBF.be that he believes motors were first used in the peloton years ago. “We speak a lot of 2010, but I have evidence that it was in the peloton for much longer than that,” he claimed. He also said that the UCI’s tablet detectors were not adequate to catch all motors. “Thermal imaging cameras are the only way to demonstrate that indeed a bike delivers a source of abnormal energy, which is not a friction that comes from use of batteries.”
April 16, 2016: Van den Driessche is handed a six year ban plus a fine. Interestingly, the suspension starts on October 11 2015, far in advance of the world cyclocross championships where her violation was detected. She is stripped of her results in a number of races, including the European championships, and ordered to return medals and prize money.
April 19, 2016: The 2014 Tour de France winner Vincenzo Nibali calls for stringent penalties against anyone found to be using a motor. This follows a Stade 2/Corriere della Sera investigation which used thermal detectors to detect what it said were signs of hidden motor use during the Strade Bianche and Coppi e Bartali races in March. The UCI defends its testing policy, while riders’ association president Gianni Bugno says thermal detectors should be added to the methods employed.
June 12, 2016: French TV programme Stade 2 reports that UCI official Mark Barfield frustrated a police manoeuvre at the 2015 Tour de France. Barfield is the UCI’s technical manager and thus the person in charge of testing for hidden motors. Police had informed him that they understood the motors’ inventor Istvan ‘Stefano’ Varjas was at the Tour. Barfield subsequently sent a message to Harry Gibbings, the director of the ebike company which employed Varjas at the time. Gibbings in turn contacted Varjas, who quickly left the country and thus avoided questioning. The UCI responded by saying it had faith in Barfield, but would study the claims.
June 19, 2016: The Stade 2 TV programme raises questions about Primoz Roglic on the basis of images from a thermal camera in the Strade Bianche race. It also claims that a last minute change of bikes on the day he won the Giro d’Italia stage nine time trial meant the machine was not tested for a motor. Days later, his LottoNL-Jumbo team demands an apology and a retraction of accusations. It states the wheel in Strade Bianche was from the neutral service car, and that his change of bike in the Giro was due to UCI commissaires claiming the setup was not within its measurement rules.
June 27, 2016: The UCI announces that it will massively ramp up testing at the Tour. “For the forthcoming Tour de France, the UCI will have resources in place to conduct between 3,000 and 4,000 tests.” Meanwhile French Secretary for State for Sport Thierry Braillard says that thermal cameras would be used at the Tour de France to tackle motor use.
July 5, 2016: The UCI states it is happy to collaborate with others in trying to detect anyone using motors. “Obviously our role is to be the governing body,” said UCI President Brian Cookson at the Tour de France. “We do the checks, but we are happy to collaborate with ASO and the French authorities to do anything necessary.” Asked about the previous claims about Barfield, Cookson said that he had complete faith in UCI staff. He also said that inquiries were ongoing in relation to those who may have helped Van den Driessche cheat.
July 27, 2016: The UCI announces that it carried out a total of 3,773 magnetic resistance tests for motors over the course of the Tour de France, and that no evidence of technological fraud was found. It also said that it had carried out a total of 10,000 magnetic resistance tests since the start of the year, and that the Van den Driessche case was the only positive. “This demonstrates our absolute commitment to leave no stone unturned in a matter that if not tackled properly, could seriously damage the renewed reputation of cycling,” said Cookson.
October 12, 2016: Speaking to the Off The Ball radio show, Varjas claims that he told the French police at the 2016 Tour how to detect hidden motors but, when they tried to carry out the advised checks, were blocked by the UCI. The UCI responds by saying it condemned the accusations. Varjas also claims a ‘big story’ was coming in relation to a motor he had supplied under an exclusivity agreement in 1998.
December 17, 2016: Varjas claims that the UCI’s testing method does not safeguard against all types of hidden motors. Speaking to French newspaper Le Monde, he 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 UCI replies by saying it is confident that its methods can pick up all attempts at fraud.
January 27, 2017: In a promo for a CBS 60 Minutes programme on motors, Varjas reiterates claims that he designed a motor in 1998 and was offered nearly $2 million for a 10-year exclusivity deal. He absolves himself of any moral blame if riders cheated. “If a grandfather came and buy a bike and after it’s go to…his grandson who is racing, it’s not my problem,” he says. Asked if he would sell the machine to someone who said to him they were going to use it to cheat, he answers: “if the money is big, why not?”
January 29, 2016: The 60 Minutes programme raises questions about Team Sky and the UCI, although it didn’t offer any firm proof of wrongdoing by either. Claims include that Team Sky’s time trial bikes were suspiciously heavier than those of their rivals during the 2015 Tour, and that the UCI refused requests to weigh the wheels in order to check if motors may have been hidden within them. Both the UCI and Sky denied any wrongdoing. In addition, a French former anti-doping official states that a number of whistleblowers expressed concerns to him that hidden motors were being used, including by a dozen riders in 2015.