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