Bob Stapleton Q&A: Former HTC manager details fight against hidden motors

by Shane Stokes


As the president of the UCI’s commission for the fight against technological fraud, Bob Stapleton has a vital role in providing credibility about results.

However it’s not the first time he has been in such a position: following the 2006 Operacion Puerto scandal and the implication of riders such as Jan Ullrich and Oscar Sevilla, Stapleton took over the running of the men’s T-Mobile team.

The American introduced an internal anti-doping programme, a more open approach to cycling plus other measures which significantly changed the image and reputation of the team between then and its eventual dissolution at the end of 2011.

Without Stapleton, it is likely that the T-Mobile riders, staff and structure would have stopped twelve years ago. Instead, it evolved into the Highroad, Colombia and HTC incarnations, a respected team which nurtured the careers of Mark Cavendish, Tony Martin and others and clocked up a staggering amount of victories.

Now, over a decade later, Stapelton is using that same attention to detail as part of the UCI’s initiative to prevent riders using hidden motors.

In a conference last week in Geneva, Switzerland, several key additions to the UCI’s technological fraud programme were unveiled.

UCI President David Lappartient said that Stapleton had been persistent on the matter, pushing hard to ensure that the governing body did everything needed to regain confidence. Just as he did with the T-Mobile/HTC Highroad squad, Stapleton’s demand for high standards appeared to bear fruit.

The UCI’s new X-ray scanner is an important addition to the measures in place to expose hidden motors, and other encouraging measures are on the way.

“I think many of you have a cycling background, and are aware of power outputs and the fact that even modest amounts of additional power can be decisive in the outcome of a race,” Stapleton explained at the launch. “In a sprint where maybe 1000 watts are produced by the winner, an additional 200 watts for 30 seconds could clearly decide the outcome of that finish.

“Similarly, very small amounts of additional power, say 30 watts over the course of a 5 hour race, could also dramatically affect the outcome of the race.”

Stapleton noted that the growth of e-bikes in cycling and drones in videography/photography have led to big evolutions in both motor efficiency and battery life. He said that this raised the threat of what motors could do in cycling. “This is a problem that could grow over time, and our solutions must address not only today but also be forward looking, so that we address potential future mechanical advantages that could be deployed.”

Responding to a series of questions asked by CyclingTips, Stapleton explained some of the new and planned measures spoken about at the conference. What follows is a transcript of that conversation, edited for clarity; for a separate explainer of what exactly the new and planned measures involve, click here.

CyclingTips: Bob, can you summarise what has been unveiled by the UCI in relation to the fight against technological fraud?

Bob Stapleton: Well, I think one of the most exciting solutions is x-ray technology. This is well proven in industry and security applications and, obviously, medical applications.

This is a solution that is available today. It will be deployed this weekend, and it is a definitive test. If there is something in a bike, any kind of mechanical apparatus, it will be identified with certainty. So we have a definitive solution for today.

The UCI’s new X-ray system, pictured at its launch of the new methods to combat technological fraud, or hidden motor use, in Geneva, Switzerland, on March 21 2018.

The more broadly applicable technologies involve magnetometry, usually in connection with RFID [Radio-Frequency Identification tags] or location-based technologies like GPS. What those will do is they will identify any electronic signature from a motor, alert us that has happened, and show us where that device is in the field of play. So that is a powerful step forward.

[Note: the UCI’s future term plans include a system where each bike will include a magnetic field detector, with continuous scanning being carried out during races. If an alarm is triggered, a warning would be sent to the UCI. The GPS location of the bike in question will also be continuously recorded and transmitted.]

It is existing technology, but it has got to be adopted to our environment, so that we can detect a motor in a bike versus the motor in a vehicle or on a moto. So that is some fieldwork that has to be done. But these are all existing technologies that we want to bring to bear on this problem.

There have been rumours of possible motors in wheels. So even if you are testing bikes, the wheels could in theory be changed before those tests are done. What is your thinking on that?

Well, the same technologies would apply. The on-bike system will detect any electronic signatures that would come from a wheel or a motor. The x-ray technology would clearly work.

You could also tag wheels, there is no magic around that. You could put RFID tags on wheels.

Wheels are a special case, though. It is not just the wheels, [having a motor there] involves a bike also. They have to create the field, and that is usually involving the bike frame too. So we actually think that is a relatively simple thing to detect.

Other may disagree, but what we have seen and looked at so far is not as challenging as a small motor that might be hidden in the bike itself.

So you don’t feel that it is possible to just swop out the wheel and have a ‘clean’ bike?

Well, the bike itself would be different. And that would be a red flag. And if we really felt there was this risk, we would simply tag the wheels too. We would know if that wheel was on the bike, it is now on the car or in a truck someplace.

In theory, be it with tablets, with the more advanced tablet system or whatever, could it be possible to screen all the equipment that a team uses, to tag it and to know that every wheel is clean?

I think that is the intention. And we want to make sure we cover amateur races too. That is important for our national federations. We also want to make sure we cover all disciplines. We want to be anywhere, any time.

The tablets that we are talking about…it is an industrial product. [Note: the UCI’s plans also include the introduction of more sophisticated tablets than the UCI’s current system.] It is not an iPad. It is a much more sophisticated device. It is made for test equipment, so it is a whole different standard of quality and sensitivity. We think that is going to be a good solution.

Again, we have to do the field test to make sure it is going to work right, and get the units that are being produced for a different use now adapted for this use.

What’s coming next?

The talk about using RFID tags is something that is separate from the onboard sensor, correct? So they could be in a lot sooner…

Yes. In terms of RFID, we could start deploying it immediately. It has a limited coverage area, if you will, while GPS would be pretty much everywhere. But that is something we are looking at now. Because that would allow us to do prechecks on a bike. We could check before the race. We could tag the bike.

If that bike is now on the car, if you are riding a different bike, we would know that. You could even detect that on course [during the races].

Hand-held readers have a range of 25 metres or so. You could see directly if there had been a bike change that you are unware of.

So that is a pretty capable technology too. And it is so widely deployed – every industry uses this technology.

There have been media reports suggesting that it might be possible to analyse TV images and detect motors that way. That hasn’t been mentioned at this launch. What is the situation with that method?

I think the focus has been to adopt proven technologies now to give us a definitive answer. So, x-ray is immutable. If a bike is checked, it is going to be detected if there is something there. We can combine what with some of the other technologies we mentioned. RFID, for example.

So we could, if we can handle the volume, we could recheck bikes. Or, if there is a suspicious bike, regardless of how we might learn about it, we can clearly identify that bike, take it and test it.

I feel like we have got, even just using x-ray, very powerful tools at our disposal. The on-bike solution is going to be extremely difficult to defeat. That is going to track a bike everywhere in the field of play. It will generate a signal if there is any motor detected. And that bike is not going anywhere that we won’t see, because it will have a tracker on it. So these combinations of the various technologies are really effective.

Procedurally, how we best use them is something that we are going to have to experiment with, but we are very optimistic that we can cover most scenarios that you can construct on technological fraud.

In terms of timescale for these various methods, are you talking this year, one year or two years before these will all be introduced?

Well, I don’t think we can give you an estimate right now. These are existing technologies. The entire concept is based on adapting technologies that exist today, that are in wide use today.

GPS is obviously already in existence, and that is a big part of the solution. I think the next step is to field test a sensor and to determine how best that can work in the field of play. That is the near term focus. If that goes well, that could be deployed quicker.

In terms of the magnetometry solution that was also mentioned [the high-tech tablets], there are two scenarios there. One is adapting an existing device, which could be done very quickly. The other is developing a separate device. That’s something which needs more work.

So even in these cases, we are largely looking at technologies that CEA [the UCI’s technical partner in this area] really understands, and applications that are not rocket science for us to adapt for our use.

What is your personal feeling about technological fraud? Do you believe that motors may have been used in the past?

You know, I personally don’t. I do think this is a growing threat, though. I mentioned the capability of ebikes and even drones. Drones have very small, very high performing motors. Those could be adapted to produce the type of wattage that we are talking about here.

Those things do worry me, but I think we are ahead of the curve. It is nice to be there with effective deterrents and penalties before you really have a big problem on your hands.

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