Explainer: A closer look at the UCI’s new plans to combat hidden motors
A little over two years after Femke Van Den Driesshe made regrettable history when she was the first rider to be caught using a hidden motor in competition, the UCI announced a vastly-expanded plan to combat the threat. Unveiling its new and planned measures in recent days in Geneva, Switzerland, president David Lappartient and others said they were fully committed to fighting technological fraud.
That means adding new methods to three previously in existence. Those already employed by the UCI are customised iPads scanning for magnetic fields, infrequent use of thermal imaging cameras and also occasional dismantling of bikes to peer inside the tubing.
Lappartient, Jean-Christophe Peraud and Bob Stapleton announced four new measures that they believe will help ensure hidden motors cannot be used in the sport. The first of those, X-ray imaging, will swing into action this weekend. The other three will be announced at some point in the future, and also are very significant.
“During the [presidential] election campaign I expressed myself on this point,” said Lappartient, referring to the need to bring in new methods. “I had always said the tablets were necessary, but not sufficient. That meant that it might be possible to escape control when we are using tablets. So the tablets will just be one tool amongst several others.
“What we wanted to achieve was there should be no way of escaping detection. That is why we are developing these technologies – thermal imaging cameras, x-rays and the other new generation equipment. The old tablets had their limits, we knew this, and that is why we wanted to present new technologies to you today.”
But what are these new methods, and what will their use mean for the sport of cycling? Read on for a breakdown of what exactly is planned.
Method one: Getting to the heart of the matter – the UCI’s new X-ray approach:
Of all the measures announced by the UCI at the press conference, the only addition currently ready to go is X-ray scanning.
This was detailed by Peraud, a former professional who finished second in the 2014 Tour de France, and also a qualified engineer. He is the UCI’s Manager of Equipment and the Fight against Technological Fraud.
He said that the governing body worked on the X-ray system for the past three months and now, following the collaboration with the company VJ Technologies, it will begin usage this weekend.
“It is an undeniable solution,” Peraud explained. “It has also been chosen because it avoids the need to disassemble bikes. An x-ray source radiates the bike that is going to be checked, then a receiver makes it possible to visualise an image in order to see if there is a motor inside.”
The white trailer containing the X-ray setup was located immediately outside the venue where the conference was taking place. At first glanced it appeared nondescript, but the open doors to the rear exposed a slightly smaller structure inside. This featured a multi-coloured set of warning lights, plus a visible radiation sticker attached to its door.
Both visual alerts are of importance: a major consideration when developing the system was that of safety. X-ray machines generate radiation and so the UCI, VJ Technologies and others worked to contain the risk. The custom-built unit is shielded with lead, and weighs 1.4 tons as a result. It will only operate when the door is fully locked.
Including such measures was vital, both for the safety of the operator, the public and anyone else nearby. It was also vital in order to comply with the law. “There are specific regulations in some countries,” Peraud explained.
“We ensured beforehand that we will be able to use this technology in all the big countries where we have the biggest races.”
In the past triple Tour de France winner Greg LeMond called for the X-rays of multiple bikes. Ideally, he said he would like every bike in a race to be screened.
However Peraud doesn’t envisage this happening. That’s perhaps because the system takes time to work.
“To do the checks, we just need a few minutes,” he said. “But the intention is not to make a big number of checks. It is only to examine the bikes of the best riders during the competitions. It is to validate performance.”
In terms of how such checks will be carried out, riders whose machines are set to be X-rayed will be given a maximum of 30 minutes to present the bike at the finish. According to the UCI, one possibility is that those down to do doping control – be it the stage winner, the race leader or random checks – will have their machines scanned at the same time as they themselves are being scrutinised.
“The technical commissaire will do the checking,” said Peraud. “After the control, the bike will be given back to the rider. In the case of detection, the commissaire will notify it as a fraud. If we can’t see a motor, the result is validated.”
Lappartient said that the significant investment made by the UCI showed how seriously the governing body was treating the matter. “It is crucial for the credibility of our sport,” he stated. “With this method, I want all cycling’s stakeholders and fans to be reassured about riders’ performances. It is our responsibility to protect riders’ reputations, and I am fully committed to do that.”
However, he acknowledged that the UCI has just one X-ray system at present. This will mean that overlapping events cannot both be tested at the same time, causing gaps.
He said that this may change in the future. “We will see whether we can deploy others. Obviously it has a cost. Credibility is priceless, but this [system] comes at a cost. We are prepared to pay this cost.
“For some racing programmes we are not going to announce exactly which races we are going to be at. Obviously we will be at the big Classics, the mountain bike world championships. The aim is that the machine should be taken out and used as much as possible, and then we will see what the needs are when it comes to deciding whether or not we are going to build a second unit.”
Method 2: Stamp of approval – using RFID technology
One problem with the testing previously in use was that it was difficult to tell if equipment had been changed during the race. Bikes and wheels scanned at the start were not necessarily those in use at the finish, and vice-versa.
It meant that a rider could theoretically switch bikes after the morning checks, or before those carried out after the race concluded.
This will no longer be the case. Radio-frequency identification (RFID) utilises electromagnetic fields to identify and track tags attached to objects. While the tags don’t themselves contain an energy source, the electronically-stored information they contain is read by RFID readers.
“This technology is present in many stores to tag all the items that there,” said Peraud. “The idea is to have tag solutions, to track a bicycle and the wheels before, during and after the race, including the frames.”
Stapleton has been involved in cycling for many years, acting as manager to the women’s T-Mobile squad and then moving across to run the men’s team. It became the Highroad and HTC squads. He is a member of the UCI management committee and also the president of the commission for the fight against technological fraud.
He told CyclingTips that the UCI could potentially start deploying RFID tags immediately, and that it would help verify if a bike has been checked, where it is and if it has been changed for another.
“It has a limited coverage area, unlike GPS, but it is something we are looking at for now. It would allow us to do pre-checks before the race. We could tag the bike. If that bike is put on the car, if you are riding a different bike, we would know that. That could even be detected during the race.
“With a hand-held reader, they have a range of 25 metres or so. You could see directly if there had been a bike change that you are unware of. It is a pretty capable technology. And it is so widely deployed, every industry uses this technology.”
Method 3: Hi-tech tablets – improving on the iPad
When the UCI unveiled its iPad-based system under then-president Brian Cookson, it said that the scans for magnetic fields would stamp out the use of hidden motors. Sights of officials at certain races became common, although their use was scarce during the 2015 Tour, particularly in the all-important mountain stages.
Since then the number of checks at the Tour was considerably ramped up: information about other races was hit and miss, though. For example, there was a lack of data available about the number of tests at last year’s Vuelta. Still, the UCI said that if there was a hidden motor, the tablets would find it.
A Stade 2 programme broadcast last September cast doubt on the checks, though. Those behind the report obtained two of the UCI’s tablets used for testing, and claimed that the method generated misleading false positives when working with the most basic type of motors, as well as potentially missing detection.
More seriously, the engineers consulted by the programme said that the devices struggled to detect motors hidden in the hubs of modified wheels, becoming confused with the ferromagnetic signals given off by the freewheel. They said the tablets were completely ineffective at red-flagging an electromagnetic system built into wheel rims.
At Wednesday’s conference, Peraud said that the iPad system is not perfect. “It enables you to carry out a large number of checks, although it does also have defects which we have tried to remedy by providing training to all our technical commissaires in February. Also by giving a preference to the quality of the checks rather than the quantity.”
However he, Lappartient and Stapleton recognise that this is not sufficient. Because of that, the UCI is seeking to use better devices in the future. “There will be new, more precise and more powerful magnetometry tablets developed,” said the president, saying that they should be available by the end of the year.
These will use include multiple magnetometers to better identify possible motors and to avoid false positives.
“The aim is to differentiate between the various signals which may be given by an electric derailleur or a screw from the signal emitted by a motor,” said Peraud. “Both the intensity and the volume of the signal will be detected in order to be able to conduct more fine-tuned analysis.”
However the UCI doesn’t envisage this tablet only being used at the professional level. “We also want to deploy a new instrument aimed at the national federations,” said Lappartient. “In amateur sports we have seen in some countries, unfortunately, that this phenomenon [hidden motor use] existed. The presidents of the national federations asked the UCI to deploy tools which are more affordable than those we will introduce at the top level.
“By the end of the year, we will be deploying this new tool based on tablets to combat technological fraud.”
Method 4: Scanning on the go
Looking at the above methods unveiled by the UCI, they all have strengths and weaknesses. The X-ray system should in theory pick up everything in a frame or wheels, but the time needed for scanning will make it impossible to test more than a certain number of bikes.
The RFID technology will be useful in determining whether or not a given bike or set of wheels has been tested before, but isn’t a motor-detecting system in itself. As for the planned higher-tech tablets, these should be a step above the iPad system, but will only be able to be used at the start or the finish of races.
By far the most ambitious – and potentially effective – method spoken about at the conference was one where detection would be possible on every bike and at every moment.
Because of the complexity of setting up such a system, this will take the most time to introduce. But if things work out as planned, the power of the system could completely eliminate hidden motor use.
In order to achieve this goal, the UCI is working with a department of the Commissariat à l’Énergie Atomique et aux Énergies Alternatives (CEA). The CEA is, essentially, the French commission for atomic and alternative energy, has an annual budget of 4.1 billion Euro and 16,000 permanent employees.
CEA Tech is a sub-section which is responsible for technology for industry. It employs 4,500 people and works in fields such as artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and autonomous vehicles.
Gabriele Fioni is the deputy director of CEA Tech and explained the nature of its collaboration with the UCI.
“The basic idea is to have a magnetometer tracker. If a rider has a motor somewhere, either in the wheel hub, in the wheel itself, or a crank motor, this will create a magnetic field. This field will be detectable when the motor is turning.
“The idea is that we are trying to look for real-time detection. You could make a scan every second, and this information could be sent to the cloud. It would be provided to the commissaires saying, ‘be careful, detector number 125 detected a [magnetic] field.’”
Fioni said that the information would also be recorded for playback later. He added that the second component of the system will be a GPS tracker, which will beam the location of the bike in real time and enable the UCI and its commissaires to determine where exactly the machine is.
“We need to develop something that is not very expensive, and which has a limited dimension [size]. You cannot imagine having a shoebox on the bike. You need something that is compatible, and at a reasonable price.”
Asked as to how long it would take to introduce such a system, Stapleton said that it was not possible to give an estimate at this point in time. “These are existing technologies,” he said. “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, then it all could be deployed quicker.”
Conclusion: How do the plans stack up?
The use of the X-ray systems at key events this weekend will mark the debut of the new technology the UCI will rely on to combat technological fraud. They do indeed seem to considerably increase the chance of anyone using a hidden motor to be detected; according to Lappartient, tip-offs, suspicious performances and unusual bike changes will all trigger a closer look by the commissaires.
X-rays and a more sophisticated tablet system should overcome the weaknesses of the iPad-based system. RFID tags will help keep track of what exactly has been tested, and eliminate the possibility that riders could simply swop out any equipment containing illegal propulsion.
If achieved, the mobile monitoring system appears to be a best of all worlds. It would provide real-time assessment and also pinpoint the location of each machine.
Providing these systems are all implemented, their introduction would seem to fulfil Lappartient’s promise to make the fight against hidden motors a much more effective one.
Asked if he believed motors were used in the past, he said he wasn’t sure. His said that his aim is to safeguard the present and the future.
“I consider that cycling is a magnificent sport. I believe that cycling is one of the most beautiful sports and the spectators really warm to the results achieved by riders,” he said. “But they must be able to believe in the results.
“What we want to avoid is all the videos which circulate on social media, and which sometimes cast doubts in the fans’ minds.
“We would like the spectators to be able to support and encourage their champions, and to be able to believe the results that are attained.”
Watch a video of the new X-ray setup here: