The Black Eye

The Black Eye

Among the many details reported on Femke Van den Driessche’s motor-assisted bike at the cyclocross world championships there was one that was both irrelevant and interesting. Her team bikes were supplied by Wilier.

Before I go any further, I’m going to just say that I give Wilier the benefit of the doubt. Actually, that’s not quite enough. I flat-out don’t think the company had anything to do with the installation of the motor into her bike.

Here’s why: Can you think of anything short of a recall of every bike they made in 2015 that would do more damage to the company’s reputation? Bikes that can be used to cheat won’t be popular.

Right now, I imagine the company’s CEO is in a cardiac unit. Poor guy.

Wilier isn’t the villain in this. They had the misfortune to provide the sister of a currently banned EPO user with the bike into which someone installed a motor to give her the wattage that was supposed to see her win. It’s accurate to call them a victim, rather than view them as an unwitting accomplice.

It’s the little things for which we are grateful.

Wilier has announced it plans action against Van den Driessche. File under unsurprising.

But given the reductionist thinking of the average person, Wilier will unfortunately be marked as a company whose bike was used to cheat. It’s not a reputation they deserve.

The bad press that not just Wilier, but all bike companies, will receive as a result of this will have an affect on future sponsorship. It’s a smear that will be easy, if inaccurate. After all, who wants to be known for making a bike that can be used to cheat?

Were I running the marketing department for a big bike company, the first thing I’d do is have something installed in the seat tube to prevent the installation of the motors, or at least make it more difficult. I’d then ask the engineers to look at changing the lay up of the seat tube to include a rib that would make a motor’s installation not just difficult, but likely to compromise the frame’s integrity.

Next, I’d have our company’s counsel draw up new sponsorship contracts that specified that any change to our frames, including but not limited to installation of a motor, would void the sponsorship contract for the entire team. They would forfeit all bikes, all company-supplied equipment, and all cash. I’d want the contracts drawn up to make team leadership personally liable on these counts in order to incent them to police this themselves.

Wilier is likely to get through this with no lasting damage to its reputation. At least, I hope. But what of other companies? Here, I’m thinking specifically of Specialized, a company that some cyclists really seem to have a vested interest in hating. Were this to happen with an athlete Specialized sponsors, I completely expect the more cynical bike fans out there would charge them with having willingly participated in the motor’s installation, and maybe even coercing riders into using a motor.

The absolute worst thing you could accuse a bike company of doing is what someone would accuse Specialized of doing. And yet, knowing the people there as I do, I anticipate that no other company will put as many resources into preventing this from happening as they will. They simply have more warm bodies to throw at a problem like this.

The moment a big American bike company suffers the indignity of a sponsored racer using a motor, someone will accuse the CEO of going full Lady Macbeth. Obscured will be the fact that compared to doping, this is a far more cynical form of cheating, with the power to turn off much greater numbers of people from watching racing. It will be too easy to dismiss riders as just using motors.

How will the market treat this, and what will the companies do to combat it? It’s a new world, but I’m not sure it’s brave.


Image: Alice Keeler, Flickr Creative Commons

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  1. Craig


    I like your stuff … but I think this is a bit over the top. E-bikes are the future growth platform of cycling – look at the sheer number sold in Europe. No company is going to do this. I would be surprised if anyone took Willier to task for this – you can shove one of those motors in just about any frame … I would think Shimano would have more of a complaint than Willier. In any case this form of cheating seems to me to be more cynical but less destructive. Compare corking a bat to doing steroids …

    Anyway, nice work.


  2. souleur

    I certainly agree, Wilier is the innocent in this mess

    However, the team mechanic, DS and management have alot of explaining to do

  3. Andrew

    I can’t imagine anyone blaming Willier for this.

    I’m also not crazy about the idea of making the builders “motor proof” their bikes. Why is it their responsibility to police the morality of the peloton? Not that I have any interest in adding a motor to my bike, but if I wanted to do it, why shouldn’t I be allowed to buy a compatible frame?

    1. Author

      I’d like to think that wouldn’t happen, but I’ve seen this sort of thing too many times. When David Millar’s chain broke near the finish of a Giro stage (and he threw his bike in frustration) Shimano didn’t catch any heat (not that they should have) but Felt (the bike sponsor) was flamed far and wide.

      I don’t think it’s the duty of the bike makers to police the peloton; the way I see it, motor-proofing (a good term) is just a matter of reputation insurance. They could easily produce other frames that could be retrofitted, but this veers into the subject of what you’d want to retrofit your bike, which in reality is almost certainly not a Vivax.

  4. Craig Peer

    Just make cheating this way a lifetime racing ban offense. Doesn’t seem to me to be the fault of the bicycle manufacturer.

  5. toro toro

    It’s cyclo-cross, though. The “team”, even at a world championships, is much less of a thing than in a road race. That’s one reason it’s unsurprising that when it happened, it happened in CX.

    Another thing, though it probably is more apposite to Padraig’s “I enver thought someone would be so stupid…” post: as soon as the rumours began, this was inevitable. Because that’s the psychology of the doper; “someone/everyone else is doing this, if I don’t I’ll be the chump.”

    Nobody wants to be the chump. So once riders think rivals are doing this, it’s inevitable that they’ll start.

  6. Ron Callahan

    I was wondering a similar thing earlier today. Posted to Facebook: “Wondering what kind of frame modifications are necessary to install these motors and how much risk one would be willing to take to possibly compromise the integrity of a frame for some additional watts.?”

    Based on the cross sections of carbon frames that I’ve seen (admittedly not many, but enough), I would think that at least some frame modification would be required.

    While any wise manufacturer would state that modifications void the warranty (and sponsorship), I agree that taking a proactive stance against installing a motor would be a wise move. Unfortunately, unless there is an industry wide agreement to do it, it won’t happen.

    1. Author

      You’re right, Ron, some frames will be very hard to retrofit. I wonder about the seat tubes of the various aero road frames and some of the standard road frames, like the Cervelos. The good news is that there doesn’t need to be widespread industry agreement to do it. Cannondale could simply elect to do it as a means to protect their brand.

  7. Arnie

    Seems to me that if Trek, after being associated with the Patron of the Peloton for so many years, has had no problems with its image, Willier won’t either.

    1. Author

      Trek is a private company and as a result their sales figures aren’t reported. That said, I know several retailers who told me that sales of high-end Trek models fell in the wake of the Reasoned Decision. It’s also true that the bigger the company, the more Teflon the reputation. Momentum, yo.

  8. AC

    If it were specialized, we’d just assume the e-bike engineers had spent some time with the real bike engineers. One more reason to say no to ebikes and the companies pushing them.

  9. dave

    I’ve read a few reports concerning the incident in the cycling press and have yet to even see Willier’s name mentioned. Non-cycling and cycling fans alike that I’ve talked to about this aren’t asking about the bike….they are – rightly so, asking about the laughable integrity of professional bicycle racers.

    The black eye was inflicted on the sport in general, not on Willier.

  10. Jason Lee

    I like this line of thinking for any UCI approved frameset.
    This rule would not affect the e-bike market at all.
    Consumers buying UCI approved race bikes should not want a hidden motor
    and e-bike buyers won’t care to buy a UCI approved race bike.

  11. GT

    Wilier have some work to do in saving their name.

    Anyone can go buy one of their bikes with a motor in it.



    And who’d worry about motors in a frame? It’s so old hat, wheels are where its at.

  12. Pat O'Brien

    It is the UCI, and the national federations, who are responsible for policing the riders participating in their sanctioned events. Detecting a motor in a bike and observing the race to select potential riders for technical inspection is not rocket science. Let the UCI earn their keep.

  13. bacon

    This is remarkable. First, you couldn’t fathom that any professional cyclist would stoop to the low of using a mechanical device to cheat, despite the fact that every piece of evidence points to the fact that they will literally risk death, chronic illness, etc. for a performance boost (which is perhaps non-existent or very marginal in the case of new designer compounds).

    Now, you think no bike company could possibly be complicit because it would hurt their sales? Realize that the vast vast vast majority of the world will never even consider buying a bike like the ones wilier makes for myriad reasons, ranging from the extreme expense (to eyes accustomed to $100 department store bikes) to an aversion towards an effete sport involving skin-tight spandex and packs of men that aggressively shame each other into shaving their legs. Most of the world is out as customers, and nothing will change that.

    So who’s left? Well, there is the competitive cyclist contingent. You know, the ones that put motors in their bikes. This affair serves as advertising for that crowd. And there are the cyclists that couldn’t give less of a shit about the pro-wrestling on wheels you all get so butt-hurt over. They don’t know, and more importantly, wouldn’t care what an bunch of Belgian children do to their bodies or their bikes in their spare time. So no impact on their purchasing decision. Changing to an ugly frame color would have more of an impact on sales than a bike company’s proven complicity in mechanized cheating.

    There’s no way that being involved in this sort of thing, or even being caught, does anything to hurt a bike company’s sales. They make a huge amount of money by fetishizing pro cycling gear. Motors are pro cycling gear. You might not want to admit it yet, but it is the case. And in a few years time you’ll be reviewing them on this site and raving about their smoothness and silence and the Cancellara-like attacks you can make, just as you now rave about ride quality of a vintage steel bike.

    Mark my words.

  14. David Feldman

    This stuff still sounds like the doubts about President Obama’s birth certificate–show me something that, as a mechanic who has worked full time for 40+ years on about ten generations of bikes, removes all doubt that a motor can be fitted to a frame that isn’t made for it. For instance–what kind of 50cm long drill bit or mill do you use to hog that big hole that would be needed in the “roof” of the bottom bracket shell? Most if not all carbon bikes have a BB that’s an unbroken cylinder–matter of fact, most TIG aluminum and ti frames are similar. Show me how this fits together without unacceptable weight increase in the bike or suspicious noises audible to other riders! Conversely, what a great Ebike idea for riders who are too vain to be uncloseted about wanting motor assistance.

    1. Author

      In my original post I made the point that these things aren’t quiet, so it’s not like cheating with them will be easy. I also agree that installing a system like the Vivax won’t be easy in many bikes. That said, Wilier does offer production models using the Vivax. It certainly circumvents your installation concerns, something I share. I wonder if someone within the team got their hands on one and wanted to see if they could get away with letting her run the bike.

  15. JohnnyD.


    You said ” Wilier does offer production models using the Vivax.”

    No, they don’t.
    There are shops that offer converted Wilier bikes but that is something completely different.

  16. souleur


    are you kidding me…..
    well, you don’t know what you don’t know….and that I didn’t know

    So, let me rephrase my original statement because I was clearly mistaken assuming Wilier had no capacity for the motor and that something was tampered with, but that appears NOT to be the case

    In fact, its pretty bothersome to me how complicit they were willing to be in this regard….innocence assumed!

    Wilier IS NOT innocent in this necessarily
    and I still implicate the mechanic and DS/managment of the team

    and ADD….The UCI should be implicated in this as well for neglect of duty

    finding this kind of offense today, with the technologies available, should make their job easy

  17. Jay

    This incident in no way leads me to think any differently about Wilier. It would not have enough crossed my mind to think otherwise until I read this piece. In reality, once it leaves the factory, the manufacturer has no control over what the end user does with their product.

    1. porkisking

      Sure. The question is: was the motor in the bike when it left the factory? Be prepared to not like the answer.

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