Red Herring

In movie making, writers of thrillers and mysteries will often use a device to heighten suspense and keep viewers from guessing too much of the plot. That element is called a Red Herring. Formally, a Red Herring is a kind of fallacy. It’s an argument introduced to distract the audience from the topic by inserting irrelevant information.

The “Miss Lonely Hearts” character in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window is one of cinema’s great Red Herrings. Her personal drama of a loveless life that deteriorates into a suicide attempt is completely unrelated to the disappearance (and murder) of Mrs. Thorwald. Similarly, the stolen money, and what ultimately becomes of it, is utterly unrelated to the real plot of Psycho. They are distractions of a grand order.

Cycling now has its own Red Herring. It is being called “motorized doping”—using a bicycle with a tiny motor hidden from view to potentially offer the user an extra 60-100 watts at critical times. It comes at a truly inopportune time. The fight against real doping, that is, the scourge presented by engine-enhancing blood transfusions and EPO has proven to be more than the UCI is equipped to deal with.

Even though this story is really just coming to light now, it has been a topic of discussion, even concern, for months. According to the UCI, some bikes were checked at both Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders. Enrico Carpani, of the UCI’s technical commission, says they found no unusual bikes.

And yet, the story persists. One of the problems is that former pro Davide Cassani, who inadvertently alerted the world to Michael Rasmussen’s Italian training regimen (when he was allegedly training in Mexico), carries great credibility and impact due to the fact that he has the distinction of being a television commentator who unmasked a doper. Cassani demonstrated such a bicycle on TV and then boasted how he could win the Giro with its help, despite being 50 years old.

How is it that Pat McQuaid couldn’t dispatch this rumor—it is, after all, only a rumor at best—with a single knee-slapping guffaw? You know, the melting-into-the-couch, uncontrollable, tears-down-your cheeks laugh you’d do if someone told you straight-faced that Barack Obama wasn’t American or even Kenyan, but an alien and he controlled the drug trade on behalf of other aliens who were preparing for an invasion of Earth.

It is more than my vivid imagination can conjure. I have an easier time believing in something that took place “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away” than I do in the idea of a secret e-bike powering the world’s reigning Olympic and World Champion in the time trial to victory at Flanders and Roubaix. After all, if Cancellara wasn’t strong enough on his own to get the job done at those two monuments, then please, Captain Skeptical, how did he manage a gold medal and rainbow stripes?

Perhaps he’s been on an assisted bike all along? Yeah, that’s it.

And wouldn’t such a bike have required not just complicity, but cooperation on the part of Specialized? Morgan Hill’s favorite employer was ready to sell its Shiv to consumers in the wake of its UCI ban. Joe Cyclist doesn’t have to worry about UCI bans. How many consumers would say ‘yes’ to a road bike equipped with a jet pack? What are the chances that if Specialized actually managed to create a mechanical assist to the crowd-favorite Tarmac that they’d really keep quiet about it? Okay, so they couldn’t really publicize something that offered an illegal advantage. But the cost of developing a frame to handle such an addition (and today’s carbon fiber frames aren’t engineered to have extra stuff crammed in them) would be significant, too significant for most bike companies to do without trying to trickle that technology into other bikes.

So what we have is a Red Herring, a distraction. Perhaps a magician’s sleight of hand. Because certainly the more important question about Cancellara’s performances is whether or not he executed them with no biological doping. All indications are that he was clean, and he’s been tested a fair amount, which is encouraging.

The only question regarding motorized doping worth asking is who started the rumor and what possible motivation they might have to do so.

But instead, we have UCI technicians working to develop a scanner that will tell them whether or not a bicycle is equipped with a motor.

Really? Is that the only way they can dispel this nonsense? How about look for control wires? How about weigh the bikes? How about look for control buttons? Given the current state of e-bikes and the amount of engineering Shimano employed to develop its Di2 group, you are safer assuming there is no motorized doping going on than asking a boy scout to escort you across the street.

Why aren’t we laughing? Why aren’t in tears begging the mongers to stop—that if we laugh any harder or longer, we’ll throw up? This is funnier than Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Every euro the UCI spends developing a motor scanner is a euro that ought to be going to the fight against the real doping.

Image: John Pierce, Photosport International

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  1. Touriste-Routier

    Thus it will come as no surprise, when UCI special investigator Holmes solves the case, he will proclaim that, “the butler did it”. Butler being the code name given to the Specialized Bicycles engineering team who made a custom BB & crank system to interface with the normally incompatible motor.

    1. Author

      Maybe what we need is a cycling-themed edition of Clue. Anyone have a friend at Milton Bradley? Or was it Parker Bros? I don’t have a clue.

  2. Souleur

    The sad reality is our station in it all has led us to such unconventional reactions to such situations. Your absolutely right, in that if Eddy had been insulted like this, the Belgians and all around would have laughed this ass clown out of the house. And the laughter wouldn’t have stopped there, they would have been drinking beers for weeks in laughter. The happy hour would have started belly up to the bar and ‘Remember when….’!

    Another reaction that would be appropriate is anger. Anger at such and insult. A mans reputation is worth something and given cyclings hierarchy and earnings, sometimes there is nothing more in a man that his reputation and his word. Remember Cancellara’s take on this was a whopping 40k Euro. To take a mans reputation and accomplishment and trampel on it is insulting and appropriately met with anger, perhaps even a fist in the face and a promise that it will end….now. Not here…not now…not ever.

    But now in our culture of ‘dope’ we have no laughter. For pete sake, we have no anger. We are without an emotion whatsoever, rather we look to a bean-counter engineer and nod him over to look at the bike and expect that he will logically find a remedy to screen for ‘a possibility’.

    In someways its shameful on all parties.

  3. MCH

    The motor in the seat tube is a silly distraction… meant to hide the perpetual motion device hidden inside Power Tap rear hubs.

  4. Jon

    “The only question regarding motorized doping worth asking is who started the rumor and what possible motivation they might have to do so.”

    –Well the folks who make the Gruber Assist have certainly gotten more than their fair share of free advertising. Other than that the notion of it being put into play as a grand distraction from the reality that efforts to combat “conventional” doping have not been entirely successful.

    I agree that the $ spend developing and deploying a frame scanner is surely better spent on refining existing doping tests & procedures.

  5. Doug P

    I see this as a more a metaphor for doping than a realistic scenario. And I agree, where is the laughter and derision this story deserves? My take on Fabian is that he’s a great guy and arguably the best cyclist in the world. Too bad he doesn’t have an army of brownshirts to defend him like LA does.

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  7. Souleur

    Plus, from the one’s I have seen, you could hear the motor 100 yds away….buuzzzzz. Unmistakable.

    I saw a fair bit of cancellara’s TT like effort beyond the Muur and it was more of a hissssss as he cut the wind poetically.

    2 different sounds;-)

  8. bradyja

    It is also telling that this comes out right around the same time that Landis spills his guts and the Feds announce they’re taking his claims seriously.

    AMCH- I knew I should have gone with the Powertap over the SRM 😉

  9. ring_offire

    the real reason he won Paris-Roubaix and Flanders?? – He’s Fabian Freakin’ Cancellara! To get the kind of power they’re talking about, the battery, even by today’s standards, would be so large as to give any rider the heebie jeebies at the mere thought of lugging it all over Belgium.

  10. JZ

    If we are going to go all in on the conspiracy theories, then I would have to suggest this is all a very clever distraction campaign orchestrated by LA’s PR people to take the focus away from crazy Floyd’s allegations and I think it has worked brilliantly. I mean here is a problem we can get our arms around, motors in bikes, much easier to control/understand than blood doping.

    For what is worth, I think the allegation against FC are truly a joke. Could it be a problem in the future, maybe. Cozy Beehive has a good analysis from a science standpoint. I also think the now-famous video about the issue is sped up a little bit to make it look he is going faster.

    1. Author

      All: Thanks for your comments. It’s always nice to know I’m not the only one scratching my head.

      Souleur: Anger is really just a mask for fear. A wise man I know told me the guy who makes me mad owns me. It’s true when you think about it. We shouldn’t fear this. We should treat this just as you would if some six-year-old on a BMX bike said, “I can ride faster than you.” Laugh, pat him on his head and send him on his way. And it’s only shameless for the person who put forward this ridiculous charge.

      MCH: Well now we know how Tyler Farrar and Dave Zabriskie got their wins. They should have done that two seasons ago. Are those units available aftermarket yet?

      Jon: I suppose the folks at Gruber Assist are dancing from all the attention they are getting. I’m just not sure I’d want the publicity in quite this form, but then I’m not P.T. Barnum.

      Doug P: I like your idea, but I think the people at the bottom of this nonsense don’t really understand metaphors. But meaning is up to us, isn’t it?

      Souleur: Yes, if there were a motor powerful enough to help, it would make a heckuva sound.

      BradyJA: Bear in mind the charge has been out there; it’s just now getting traction.

      Ring of Fire: Exactly.

      JZ: I love Cozy Beehive, but a serious scientific analysis to this is positively the wrong response. If someone asked you what it’s like to walk with three legs would you explain to them that you don’t, in fact, have three legs and offer to take off your pants? No, you’d laugh. We laugh at what’s ridiculous.

  11. SinglespeedJarv

    The whole “motor-doping” story may seem ridiculous, but I heard the rumours through what I consider to be reliable sources. The same source I heard the first rumour through, now thinks that even if it did happen (unlikely), there is no chance it will happen again.

    The last word I’ve paid attention to was a couple of days ago, when Chris Boardman commented on the story. I like to think that Boardman is a credible commentator on this issue, especially when he says he gave a presentation to the UCI last August as to how “motor-doping” could be easily done – if you have no morals – even how it is possible to produce one kilowatt of power from a AAA battery. In effect he has explained how all the accusations flying around “motor-doping” are perfectly possible. He also says he doesn’t think it has happened, mainly due to the huge moral line you would have to cross and the consequences of discovery.

  12. sophrosune

    Okay, it seems to be the consensus here that a motorized bike is so outlandish an idea that it hardly deserves serious consideration. So, why then are people in the sport, who I dare say know as much if not more than anyone on this blog, taking it seriously? You can understand why Lefevere would take it seriously since his boy Boonen lost the two monuments in question. But what axe does Chris Boardman have to grind?

    There are a couple of errors in your argument, Padraig, such as how easy it would be detect: “How about weigh the bikes?” Well we already know that every pro bike is well under the UCI weight limit so weight is added often by weights in the seat tube.

    Another point is that the charges against Cancellara and the video of Davide Cassani are unrelated. Cassani wasn’t trying to do an expose on mechanical doping in the Pro peloton. He was just demonstrating a bike equipped with the motor. BTW: Did you hear a noise? Did you see wires? Didn’t you see how the button was in the brake hood?

    What do they say about the devil? His greatest achievement was convincing everyone that he doesn’t exist. Think about it. What a perfect crime: something so outlandish that no one could even believe it never mind prosecute it. But I am open minded and it may indeed be a red herring, but at this point I don’t think we’ve been given enough to dismiss it so readily.

  13. Big Mikey

    I think the motivation for the video and announcement could be found by seeing what Cassani does next. A board appointment for Gruber, a large sum of money paid, etc. Then we’ll know why the video was put together. It seems spurious and a little random.

    Someone recently wondered whether Cassani’s claim would have been made had an Italian won those races this year….

  14. Alex Torres

    I totally agree with Padraig: for this to work on Cancellara´s SL3 bikes it would have to involve higher levels of money and corporate machiavelism. That has been my line of argumentation in every discussion about this crazy subject. It would be way too difficult to keep the secret in a closed circle. Poor Cancellara!

    But from a technical point of view, the motor assisted performance looks like a reality, or at least a real possibility. When you somehow “introduce” that in a sport that has seen riders, teams and sponsors doing pretty much anything to get an edge over competition – from taking trains to fill bottles with lead, from bribing heli pilots to give a back wind on a ITT, from blood transfusions to all kinds of syringes and pills – I would assume there ARE some characters willing to try a gizmo like this in competition!

    IMHO, therein lies the problem: the level of credibility – or lack of – cycling has reached as a sport, forged in decades of perfectioning all kinds of cheating (and lies to hide it all), has made this absurd into a possibility. I was discussing that with my associate, and being a surfer he doesn´t understand how cycling can be such a competitive sport and make way for this kind of dishonest behaviour to prosperate.

    For this kind of ridiculous Red Herring to cause such a wave, to implicate a rider like Cancellara, we might have come to a point where it is at least plausible. Maybe that´s why no one´s laughing.

  15. Lachlan

    totally possible, and reasonable to introduce basic, low cost checks for (random seatpost pull-out to glance down the seat tube would do!)

    But highly unlikely , as you say a waste of resource to invest against and for sure nonsense for FC… as if he also made the unit tear drop shaped for his TT and old cervelo s3 road bikes. total BS!

    1. Author

      Sophrosune: my thinking on the weight is that a unit to offer enough power to be worthwhile is going to weigh at least a kilo, if not more. Add that to a bike and try to keep the bike at the UCI limit and the build starts including nonstandard (nonsponsor) parts. Any bike with a motor is going to have unusual weight distribution as well; just pick it up and you’d notice something amiss. It would also very likely handle differently, maybe enough for others to notice. Regardless, you’d have to be deaf not to hear the motor. The idea that this is happening now is laughable.

      Traditional doping involves a very slippery slope. Many riders who have raced in Europe and returned to the States have talked about the difference in mindset. Mechanical doping involves no such slippery slope. I wonder how many guys who backed into doping at some point in their careers would consider a motor. I don’t think some riders would really consider it.

  16. randomactsofcycling

    On a recent trip to Madrid I thought I saw some cyclist-type-guys exiting an Auto Electricians garage, looking about to see if they had been spotted. Later that week there was a small article in a local paper about a local ‘person involved in the motor trade’ being questioned by the Guardia Civil about the discovery of dozens of electric motors and battery packs in a refridgerator at the local 7-Eleven. Some had code names like “EvaReady” and “Contergizer” and “Fabacell”.
    I expect to hear much more about this when the Italian Olympic Committee re-convenes on April 1st…..

  17. MCH

    Is anyone looking into psychokinetic or telepathic doping??? This is the future and its scary! A friend of a friend who knows a guy swears that the recent Mavic wheel failures were caused by a psychokinetic attack by another competitor. Remember Uri Geller, the guy that could bend spoons? Same thing, but applied to bicycle wheels. Its also recently come to light that the cyber attacks over the years on the Pentagon and DOD were not aimed at uncovering nuclear or weapons secrets. Rather they were after, and obtained, all of the military data on mind control. Johan Bruyneel’s focus on total preparation? Another tool in LA’s doping arsenal. Remember, “the look”? Be afraid.

  18. Bob Cesca

    Whoever’s responsible for starting this meme, they’re counting on slight of hand for it to work. It’s a magic trick. They’re assuming we’ll look solely at this year’s Paris-Roubaix and Flanders and see those examples alone as being freak outliers.

    Remarkable attacks are FC’s trademark. How many times have we seen Cancellara ride off the front in the final kilometers of a race? Was he motor-doping at Paris-Roubaix 2006 when he pulled almost the exact same move? What about the Olympic road race when he tried to pull it off again (didn’t quite work)? At Compiegne in 2007? The Tour de Suisse 2008? Those are a lot of races in which he’d be ostensibly praying for loud crowd noise to muffle the high-pitch whirring of the motor.

    Pay no attention to the long list of other Cancellara late-race attacks.

  19. Natextr

    Lachlan touches on my point exactly. Even if you could get a motor down the seat tube of a SL3 or R3-SL, it would be impossible to do this with the Shiv, Transition or P3. Given that FC is acknowledged as the finest time-trialist in the world, it should stand to reason that a hard effort over 20, 30, 40 or 50K wouldn’t be out of the ordinary. The man is used to riding by himself. Hard. A lot.

  20. brian ledford

    Why not ask Cassani to ride the etape de tour on the motorized bike? If he can’t “win” that with an out in the open motorized bike, then it’s fantasy. Alternatively, put someone on a track with the bike and a power meter and heartrate monitor. It shouldn’t be necessary to speculate about a motor.

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