Cyclocross Motor Doping: What We Know
On Saturday, the bicycle of Belgian cyclocross rider Femke Van den Driessche was inspected in the pits during the Women’s Under 23 Cyclocross World Championships in Heusden-Zolder, Belgium. The bike was subsequently confiscated and taken for further inspection by UCI officials.
On Sunday morning, during a press conference that was scheduled earlier in the week, UCI president Brian Cookson confirmed the discovery of an internal motor in the bike of Van den Driessche.
While Cookson explained that the UCI has the technology to discover such motorized fraud, he stopped short of describing anything about how such technology is used or how it works.
In fact, Cookson was tight-lipped about most of the investigation and its process. However, he was quite clear in his warning to other riders and teams that they will be caught if they are using a motor, and they will be dealt with accordingly.
Details are scarce on this matter, but here’s a summary of what we’ve learned in the last 48 hours.
What is it?
For starters, UCI officials cringe at the terms ‘motor doping’ or ‘technological doping.’ According to one UCI official who asked to remain anonymous, any phrase containing the term ‘doping’ implies such cheating is done on a more personal level. Instead the official term ‘technological fraud’ implies that more than just a lone athlete is complicit in the cheating. Meaning, it’s a pretty fair assumption that the athlete probably doesn’t have the engineering background or know exactly how to use a CNC machine or have an electrical degree required to build the parts needed for a concealed motor. It takes several people and lots of planning and work to attain this level of cheating.
Officially, Section 12.1.013 (PDF) of the UCI Cycling Regulations defines the violation as:
Technological fraud is materialised by:
The presence, within or on the margins of a cycling competition, of a bicycle that does not comply with the provisions of article 1.3.010.
The use by a rider, within or on the margins of a cycling competition, of a bicycle that does not comply with the provisions of article 1.3.010.
Article 1.3.10 (PDF) is an important one here:
The bicycle shall be propelled solely, through a chainset, by the legs (inferior muscular chain) moving in a circular movement, without electric or other assistance.
How does it work?
The UCI won’t say, but we did get a good look at how it probably works when the technology was on display at the Eurobike trade show. Singletrack has this video (at :24 seconds in) to show you how it might work in practical terms:
And here’s a photo of similar technology from Vivax Assist.
How was it discovered?
Again, the UCI wouldn’t elaborate too much on how it discovered the fraud. However, an unnamed source who was in the pits at the time of the discovery (who was working in the pits for a competing team/athlete) tells grit.cx that UCI officials were seen in the pits during the U23 women’s race with a tablet-like device in a blue enclosure. The officials appeared to be carefully passing the tablet around the tubes of the bicycle frame, before the bike was seized and taken away for further investigation.
grit.cx talked with someone with direct knowledge of the investigation, who asked we not use his name because he is not authorized to discuss the investigation. While this source would not elaborate on the details of the discovery technology, he did say it was similar to a sort of electromagnetic-based technology. (We previously incorrectly reported that this testing was similar to x-ray or MRI, but readers pointed out that would be impossible for several reasons, and that it is much more likely to be EM-based technology. – Ed.)
It must also be noted that the technology used is non-invasive, meaning that the bike does not have to be disassembled to at least see if further investigation (disassembly) is warranted. If the magical technology allows officials to see any metal gears or wires hidden inside the carbon fiber tubes of a bicycle, the bicycle can be quickly scanned and immediately returned to competition without having to put the seat post back in the seat tube and bottom bracket back together if no derelict components are found within the bike.
While this is the first time an internal motor has been discovered in a bicycle during competition, there have been rumors about such technological cheating in the past. Notably, Fabian Cancellara was accused of having some sort of motorized propulsion during this 2010 win of the Tour of Flanders. More recently, Alberto Contador had his Specialized seized by authorities after the 18th stage of the 2015 Giro d’Italia. His bike was subsequently disassembled and checked for a motor.
Neither of the aforementioned cases resulted in the discovery of any mechanical fraud.
Who is she?
Born in Asse, Belgium, 19-year old Femke Van den Driessche races for the Kleur Op Maat NODRUGS ladies cyclocross team. She was the 2013 Belgian women’s youth mountain bike champion, as well as the 2011 women’s youth cyclocross champion.
Van den Driessch was a favorite to win the U23 women’s championship on Saturday, but…aside from one of her bikes being confiscated…she was forced to abandon the race after a mechanical forced her to walk most of a lap before she pulled out of competition. It’s unclear what, exactly, broke on her bike during the race.
Appearing in an interview on Belgian television together with her father, Van den Driessche tearfully denied knowing a motor was in her bike. “I knew absolutely nothing. The bike is [from] a friend, who trained with me.” She went onto explain that one of the mechanics must have inadvertently put the motorized bike in her trailer. No word on who’s bike it might be.
She was riding a Wilier bike, and the company has made statements to Belgian media that it was blindsided by the news, denying any knowledge of the technological fraud.
Assuming that Van den Driessche truly didn’t know one of her bikes contained a motor on Saturday, it won’t matter. According to UCI Cycling Regulations:
All riders must ensure that any bicycle that they use is in compliance with the provisions of article 1.3.010. Any use by a rider of a bicycle that does not comply with the provisions of article 1.3.010, within or on the margins of a cycling competition, constitutes a technological fraud by the team and the rider.
The sanctions for Technological Fraud, according to UCI Cycling Regulations:
- Rider: disqualification, suspension of a minimum of six months and a fine of between CHF 20,000 and CHF 200,000
- Team: disqualification, suspension of a minimum of six months and a fine of between CHF 100,000 and CHF 1,000,000
We’ll learning in the coming days and weeks what, exactly, the final punishments will be for Van den Driessche and her team – which in this instance, since she was racing for her country, is the Belgian cycling federation.
Why now? And some speculation.
It’s difficult to say, but one reason why the UCI went looking for technological fraud this weekend might be that the technology used to discover such nefarious activity is finally (obviously) to the point where it can be confidently used with a high degree of accuracy.
It could be argued that if a 19-year old girl who’s not yet racing at Elite-level competition can be popped for ‘technological fraud’ then such cheating is likely happening at the more lucrative and highly visible levels of the sport…and not just in cyclocross. As we mentioned, riders in pro road racing are already being suspected of such cheating.
Along with Cookson’s stern warning, Saturday’s drama can be seen as a shot across the bow of the highest levels of the sport, letting all parties know that, well, the party is over.
The Women’s U23 category is relatively new on the UCI World Cup circuit, and it’s not necessarily a huge revenue draw in that it doesn’t receive lucrative television coverage in Belgium or the Netherlands. The races are earlier in the day, before the elite races, when most spectators are busy driving to the events, or getting their beer- and jenever-buzz on in the party tents. Thus, instead of knocking over the whole house of cards by popping an elite men’s racer, catching someone at a lower level of the sport will clearly send a very sobering and direct message to everyone that the UCI is onto them.
Or it’s just simply that Femke Van den Driessche and her team got caught.
Whatever the reason, there is little doubt that this case will go down in history as changing the sport and giving it yet another blemish.