So it happened. Someone was caught with a motor in their bike. At the women’s U23 cyclocross world championships, Femke Van den Driesshe’s spare bike had a little extra somethin’-somethin’.
This would be where I eat my words. Which words? These, written back in 2010. Am I relieved that we went nearly six years without someone being caught using a motor? Nope. I’m deeply disappointed. I’m disheartened in a way that can’t be easily summed.
Here’s the thing: Normal doping, as in ‘better living through chemistry,’ is understandable on a certain level. To pursue fitness and to pursue racing as an expression of fitness is to chase the question of just what your potential is. It is the answer to the question, “How good can I be?” Sure, doping is a perversion of that question, but it is also true that doping is simply an extension of it as well. It follows the same basic logic, just without the aid of the moral compass and social contract.
Put another way, doping is a first cousin to eugenics, which was a similar pursuit in response to the question of the physical perfection of mankind. There’s a logic to it, just not one you’d want to admit to your parents.
But mechanical assistance dismisses the hard work of training and the utter monasticism of the athlete’s life for the more base, “Fuck it; I just want to be fast.”
This takes Vincenzo Nibali’s tow at the Vuelta and simply places it at the last 200 meters of the stage, with the team director throwing the one-armed V out the window of the team car.
I gave the peloton enough credit that I didn’t think they’d ever go this route. And while I initially thought the UCI was silly for inspecting bikes, it did occur to me a couple of years ago that part of the reason the EPO problem became so bad was because by the time they attempted to close the barn door, not only were the horses gone, but they’d been auctioned off to the highest bidder. By beginning inspections back in 2010, I realized that most riders would conclude that it would be career suicide to even try to use one.
Oh, and that oft-shared Ryder Hesjedal video? All it takes is a tight freehub seal to keep pedals spinning as the rear wheel turns. None of the systems I’ve encountered offer a switch that would just keep the motor running. The point being, no matter what the Interwebs might suggest, this hasn’t been an issue; at least, not until now.
Van den Driessche told the media that the bike wasn’t hers, natch. She’d sold it to someone she rode with, and that someone just happened to show up as the team was loading for the race and his bike was loaded onto the van. And somehow it found its way into the pits, but without her knowledge at all.
Oh, and her dog ate her homework and it wasn’t her stuff and she definitely did not have sex with that woman.
Suppose for a moment—this will be a stretch, but work with me people—suppose that you were a pinhead. And suppose that as a pinhead with exceptional physical talent you went to the cyclocross world championships in a category that was brand new. And suppose you were willing to go to any length to win. But suppose that you were also at least vaguely careful. By that, I mean, you figured you didn’t want to go to the line with a bike that had a motor in it.
If I were that flavor of pinhead, I’d put the motor in my spare bike, thinking that the UCI would be far more likely to check the bike I took to the start line.
In other words, I’d do exactly what Van den Driessche did.
This isn’t a new form of cheating. It’s the same class of cheating as getting on the train with your bike. But it’s a class of cheating that just wasn’t practical for more than 100 years. How strange that it should make a return. And how sad. How desperate must a rider be to win, how fragile must their ego be to think that crossing the line by that method will shore up whatever unhinged psyche reigns in their life?
For all the criticism the UCI receives, they deserve credit for seeing ahead of the curve and addressing the issue before it became an epidemic. The way forward is obvious: Each team should present each bike they take to a race prior to the start for an inspection. And the inspection will need to be done the morning of the race. Using the tablet that detected radio signals being emitted by Van den Driessche’s would at least allow them to quickly flag suspicious bikes.
I can’t help but wonder if this will usher a new form of omerta. Units like the Vivax Assist aren’t quiet. Even in a peloton at race pace, you’d hear that thing going. Would the peloton really turn a blind eye to its use? I’d like to think that any rider who showed up with a motor would be ostracized for it, hip-checked out of the pack. But maybe not. Maybe they really don’t have the spine for self-policing. We’re likely to have a sense of whether or not that’s the case in the next year or two, and if they don’t, then as a group, they don’t deserve the sponsorship on which their careers are built.
In my previous piece, I suggested that we laugh—long, hard—to show just how ridiculous the idea was.
I’m not laughing any more.
Images: Vivax Assist