Cyclingnews.com, in a posting dated 1 February 2016, highlighted the fact that “Cyclocross racer Femke van den Driessche has become famous, and put bike racing in the news, for all the wrong reasons. The Belgian athlete has the dubious distinction of being the first rider accused of ‘technological fraud,’ or mechanical doping, after a hidden motor was discovered in one of her spare bikes at the 2016 UCI Cyclocross World Championships.”
What is mechanical doping?
Mechanical doping in cycling involves the use of a motor with a battery system inserted into the bicycle. The system adds power to the cycle and by extension to the performance of the cyclist.
Apparently there are different variations of the power system aimed at making the impact on the performance of the cycle even greater than at first and secondly, producing smaller versions in order to facilitate their concealment in the make up of the cycle.
Cyclingnews.com notes, “The hidden versions are far more subtle. The most popular and widely known is from German company Vivax Assist; it’s small enough to go unnoticed on a normal road bike, but powerful enough to change a race… Vivax claims its stock system provides 200 watts of additional power to the crankshaft, but due to efficiency losses, actual power at the wheel is anywhere from 40 to 100 additional watts depending on the rider’s own cadence.”
In the recent past the matter of mechanical doping in cycling has attained new heights with Claudio Ghisalberti of Gazzetta dello Sport saying, “A motor hidden in the seat tube is old stuff, almost artisan. It’s been overtaken, it’s a poor man’s doping…The new frontier is far more technologically advanced and ten times as expensive. It’s in the rear wheel, it costs 200,000 Euros, and there’s a waiting list of six months. The first type uses a motor to turn the cranks; the second is electromagnetic.”
Former multiple Tour de France winner, Eddy Merckx is quoted by Cyclingnews.com as stating, “For me it’s more than doping, it’s more than doping. It gives you 50 watts more, or even 100, it depends…That’s nothing to do with cycling anymore. That’s motorcycling. They have to go riding with [Valentino] Rossi.”
Another previous Tour de France champion, Greg LeMond, is quoted as advising, Greg LeMond believed the rumors, and gave some practical advice to the UCI: “I know that motors exist, I’ve ridden a bike with one and I’ve met the inventor and talked about it. If people think they don’t exist, they’re fooling themselves, so I think it’s a justified suspicion. I believe it’s also been used in the peloton. It seems too incredible that someone would do it, but I know it’s real. It’s simple to check for, much easier than doping, but not by looking down the tube. You need a thermal heat gun, you can use it in the race. It can see from metres away if there a difference in the heat in the bottom bracket. I’d recommend that to the UCI.”
Many seem to believe that motors have been used in the sport of cycling for several years. Some argue that it dates back to as far as 2006. It does appear that rumours have been circulating about mechanical doping.
To some experts in the sport it appears that they are concerned about the frequency with which some cyclists change bicycles during their races. They argue that the powered systems allow for significant boosts at critical stages in a race. The retort of those who change their equipment frequently during a race is that different segments of a race may well require different equipment if the cyclist is to master the event.
Of course it has become commonplace in cricket to witness batsmen changing their bats frequently during an innings, seemingly to respond to the variations in the bowling attack of the opposing team.
The international governing body for cycling, UCI, has for many years been plagued by doping scandals, the most notable of which is the systematic blood doping apparently masterminded by Lance Armstrong.
It must be remembered that the UCI often came under attack as being perceived as having turned a blind eye to the Lance Armstrong case.
The UCI has been hard at work seeking to rein in the perpetrators of doping in general. To now have added responsibility of screening for hidden motors in bicycles is going to be an expensive undertaking.
Since 2010 UCI has been hearing of mechanical doping in its sport and has started the pro cess of screening. However many are still very concerned that the organisation is well behind the cheaters. They argue that the technology being used by the UCI is dated and cannot catch the most modern devices being applied to assist cyclists in competition.
As is the case with doping and enhanced performance techniques being applied the cheaters seem to have a huge lead on the authorities.
What makes people want to cheat?
What is their primary motivation?
What could possibly have led Lance Armstrong to expend so much b y way of resources to facilitate the orchestrated cheating in which he and other cyclists were engaged?
Why have so many athletes risked even death by using performance enhancing substances and techniques?
We have always indicated here in this Column that cheating is as old as sport itself. The desire to receive the adulation of others and the fame and glory associated with winning appears to have led even the ancient Greeks to cheat in competitions.
It is amazing that over the years we have witnessed thousands of athletes engaging themselves in cheating in order to emerge champions.
Over the years the methods of cheating have become increasingly sophisticated. It is not just taking drugs. It has also been about developing techniques that would offer athletes an advantage over those who do not have access.
We have seen the changes in competition uniforms in swimming, for example.
In cricket we have know of bowlers engaging in the practice of sledging in an effort to get the ball to do more when bowling at their opponents.
Weightlifting has had one of the most chequered existence as a sport so much so that the international federation as once forced to change the weight categories so that world records can start afresh.
Athletes and their entourages appear unwilling to give up the fight to prove that they can be the best in the world by any means necessary.
There is little doubt that the financial cost to the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) and to international sports federations have been near prohibitive. Resources that should otherwise be channelled in developing the sport and delivering better remuneration to the athletes are diverted in the fight against drugs and performance-enhancing techniques.
It may well be that an increasing number of sports practitioners want to see the best at all cost. Some may look at the Formula 1 competition and the same with the motor cycle races across the world where the sport is as driven by the manufacturer of engines for better overall performance as much as by the skill of the athletes using the awesome machines.
Indeed, in some sports the question has been raised as to why we are not seeking the overall best performances by human beings regardless of substances and techniques used.
The challenges going forward with sport being a major international economic enterprise suggest that the fight would continue by both groupings – those whose desire to win determines the means used in competition and those who are committed to eradicating performance-enhancing substances and techniques in sport.
This appears to be a fight that may not end any time soon.
The desire to promote values through sport sounds good but is extremely difficult to render effective enough to guarantee a level playing field for our sportspeople around the world.
We can also add to the mix the continuing challenges posed by the critical features that have always ensured significant discrimination amongst athletes from different countries – size, economic status, global influence.