Old-School Cheating

Old-School Cheating

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

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  1. DaSy

    You are absolutely on the money Padraig, doping via drugs etc is understandable albeit unwelcome. It is an easy step from taking vitamin supplements and altitude training to pharmaceutical enhancements when your desire is to wring the last ounce of potential from your body. Young riders that move into the elite ranks, who have been used to winning every race they enter, are suddenly behind the curve and can lose their moral compass in the desire to get back to winning ways.

    But to just try to win without ever feeling it was your own endeavour that got you there seems unfathomable. It’s like giving the win to the fat bloke on the dearny in the Kierin.

  2. Geoffrey Knobl

    Thoughts from velonews, which I’ve been avoiding due to a certain number of firings a few years ago, accurately states many of my feelings on the matter. I had to see what they thought of the matter. Now I’m feeling a bit bad that I did. But the article has a good points. I can’t let someone’s cheating force me away from something I love. Check out Cycling’s Self-destruction by John Bradley when you get a chance.

  3. Jan

    I read something that seemed to suggest that the noise wouldn’t be easily detected for a combination of reasons: first, you’d use it only when you really needed it, at THAT moment, because the battery doesn’t actually last that long. And second, that moment is probably when things are fairly noisy, because there’s a crowd, because there’s a peleton speeding in the wind, whatever. I’m not sure the second would always hold true, but I’d guess that most people who’d cheat this way would choose their moment pretty carefully.

  4. Patrick24

    “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.”

    Why is that? Wouldn’t the UCI be just as likely to test whatever bike the riders finished on – I thought that’s what they did in the pro road races. Do the riders switch bikes multiple times on a cross race?


    1. Touriste-Routier

      UCI cross race courses have a pit which can be entered from 2 sections of the course, so riders can pit up to twice per lap.

      It isn’t common, but in very muddy races bikes are switched back and forth frequently, washed and then put back into service. Each rider has at least 2 bikes in a high level UCI event; top riders often have 3 or more.

      To be robust, checks need to be performed in the pits, as well as the S/F line.

    2. Author

      On really muddy courses, some riders will change every lap. I’d also make sure to go back to my start bike before crossing the line if I were pulling that crap.

  5. Miles Archer

    Caveats, I’m an engineer and casual cyclist. I don’t race and I don’t follow racing beyond watching the TdF.

    The way to approach this is think about what you’re want for a mechanical assistance. Think about what you’d design and then go look for that. I mean, there’s very little point in an engine that will help you ride along with the peleton all day. You’d want an engine that would help you go up a hill, or make a long breakaway, or win a sprint. What are the power requirements of each, what’s the weight penalty, does noise matter.

    Once you have that idea, go looking for it in the peleton.

    Personally, I’d focus on finding the heavy stuff. Batteries, capacitors, flywheels, whatever energy storage is used. The logical place to put these would be in containers that simulate water bottles.

    Once you start doing this, my evil arch nemesis will be researching remote charging systems that can operate at a distance of hundreds of meters. A microwave energy transmission system from the team car?

    1. Author

      Those are good points, but let’s try to keep in mind that cycling is a blue collar sport in Europe. These riders/teams don’t have the resources to develop products that would give them the assist you’re talking about. Also, I need to reference the assessment I’ve heard from numerous pro team liaisons: the Belgian mechanics are the least sophisticated technically on the pro circuit. They aren’t inventing motors to put in bikes. If you want to find the cheats, look for the products on the market.

    2. Bacon

      A blue collar sport where all the stars are fashion icons with fancy clothes and multithousand dollar watches? Try again.

    3. Author

      By blue collar, I mean that the vast majority of the sport’s participants and fans are not rich people. Stars will be stars.

  6. brian ledford

    The thing I remain puzzled by is why isn’t the vivax system more common as a legit e-bike. or at least something like it? Every commercial e-bike is a massive very obvious thing. If you can fit something down a seat tube and not add much weight why hasn’t shimano jumped on this? Additionally, I have a vague idea about the kind of battery life I get out of a cordless drill when it’s being used continuously (15-20 minutes), and I know what it weighs. I don’t understand how this is going to be viable for a multi hour stage. It also seems like it would be insanely complicated for cyclocross with dismounts and remounts, and all the torque changes.

    1. Rod

      I disagree. You’re thinking of the limitations of the equipment, not of its potential.

      Sure, you can make your grandma keep up with Sanne Cant or PFP. But you can make a second or third-row starter keep up on some crucial bits. Heck, you can just use it during a 1 minute climb up the Koppenberg to post the best time – by 10 seconds – over world class riders.

      You hardly need 15-20 minutes of 400 W. assistance. For all the talk of marginal gains, 150 W for 1 minute is enough to take you up a berg in Flanders, get to the front in the Poggio, or put you at the lead in a CX race. You have a crunch-time boost, then simply disengage it or even better leave it in the pit for your mechanic to “clean”.

      The Vivax system is not optimized for legitimate e-bike use simply because it’s purpose is different. I have a couple of coworkers with e-assist bikes – they do 40 minute commutes and arrive with no sweat to work. Big, heavy batteries that give them a lot of autonomy (heavy) and ease of charging (i.e. no need of concealment).

    2. Author

      Range. That’s why. You need a big battery to give people the assist they are looking for. The Vivax system isn’t as powerful as people want and it lasts a fraction of the time they want. The Vivax will just give a bit of help when you really need it. Most people don’t want just a little bit of help for a few minutes. They want the hand of God for the whole ride.

  7. Jon

    If this happened in the U23 women’s field, I’ve got to think it was fairly common elsewhere too. I suspect Femke was a test of the UCI’s detection system set up by the Belgian national team. It’s not hard to imagine they would rather sacrifice a rider in the new U23 women’s category than lose their riders in higher-profile categories.

    What if Femke really didn’t know there was a motor in the bike? What if the Belgian team put it there, effectively sacrificing her in a test of the detection system? When she got popped, they could pull the illegal bikes from their higher-profile riders because they would know the risk was too high.

    Not a really pleasant thought and no evidence to back it up, but it seems to fit and it wouldn’t surprise me at all.

    1. Author

      The thing is, the Vivax isn’t a pedal-assist like what Bosch and Yamaha make. It operates via a throttle (a button) that you have to push. If they put it on her bike and didn’t tell her, then the only answer is they wanted her DQ’d because she wouldn’t have used the thing if she didn’t know about the button. That would be crazy in a flavor we don’t see much. While I can’t say the UCI checked every single bike, they checked a bunch. It seems to have been the only bike there with it. Also, you have to assume that once they found hers, they must have increased their effort to check other bikes in subsequent races.

  8. Quentin

    I also am in the group of people who 2 days ago thought it preposterous that anyone would do this. I assume that it’s probably much easier technically to do this now than it would have been 5 years ago. I was not familiar with the Vivax system previously. I’d like to know more about the bike in question. Was there a switch, and where was it? How loud is the motor? How much weight does it add? How much resistance does it add when the motor is off? It might be enough to make it undesirable in a 200 km road race, which is why it first showed up in a discipline where races are short and bike changes are common. In this era when mechanics have to add weight to bikes to reach the UCI weight limit, it’s possible to make a pretty light bike with a motor in it. Maybe this is another reason to reduce the weight limit, and look for anomalously heavy bikes when targeting tests.

    1. Author

      The Vivax was on the market in 2010. Back then it was called the Gruber Assist, and it may be that we haven’t seen this product around much simply because the company was/is undercapitalized. It’s important to keep in mind that range is directly proportional to battery weight. So the lighter the unit, the less useful it is. And it’s loud; not chainsaw loud, but, “What the hell are you riding?” loud. And the better the frame, which is to say the higher ton carbon frames will resonate more if one of those motors is installed.

  9. Patrick24

    Touriste-Routier – thanks. I was under the impression that they switched bikes multiple times during the race. From what I’ve read, the woman was suspiciously faster than her competition going up hills in an earlier race.

  10. chuckster

    apparently you can tell something’s e-powered by the triple chainring 😉

    IMO this is leagues worse than doping, and that’s already morally indefensible. This sort of garbage could make all the difference in the world and there’s no question that an issue like a noisy motor could be minimized over time. If you could add even 100 watts for long stretches to what you’re capable of, any cat2/3 rider could hang in a pro race without much difficulty and any pro with a basic sense of tactics would be near unstoppable. All you’d have to do is have enough power to keep yourself a few percent below threshold for decent stretches of time while everyone else is at or above and physiology will take care of the rest. You wouldn’t even need the motor for the sprint if you had a reasonable sprint to begin with.

  11. Shawn

    I remember your 2010 story. I may have considered your position naive back then (that’s certainly how I will revise my own history, anyway) but what I recall with certainty after reading that story was asking myself, why not scan for motors? The tech is extremely cheap, and scanning bikes is far easier and more accurate than testing for biological cheats. As long as money targeted at bio dopers wasn’t being funneled away, it made perfect sense to me.

    By the way, have you ever seen how much power/torque a tiny engine can deliver? Check out a high-end RC race car sometime. It’s impressive.

  12. Scott

    Putting in the pits makes sense, but so would using it at the start. I read where some of the pro men were using a much larger chainring for the bikes they were starting on, just to make sure they got a great position at the beginning, with the intention of swapping bikes once things had settled in. Gotta wonder if she’d gotten the hole shot by only a meter or so, then switched a lap later, if she might have gotten away with it. OTOH, I’m convinced it wasn’t coincidence they checked her bike.

  13. Chris K

    I generally agree with much of what you say but when i read your 2010 take on mechanical doping, I distinctly remember thinking that is the mindset that allows fraud and corruption to prosper. I work in a fiercely competitive field and while the majority play by the rules, it’s inevitable and a certainty that some small percentage will always try to cheat. And if they are allowed to get away with it, then others are forced to cheat, lose, or quit.

    Vigilance against this dynamic is critical to avoid situations like Lance Armstrong, sub-prime mortgage crisis, insider trading, vote rigging, etc. etc. etc. Especially when the cost to enforce is minimal, there is no need to mock or belittle efforts to keep things clean. I say this not to give you a hard time but to highlight that this is a system / thought process, not an isolated example.

    1. Author

      You’re absolutely right. And if a few riders manage to start getting away with it, their success will implicitly coerce others to do the same.

      It’s hugely disappointing to know that in thinking cyclists would never stoop this low, I was giving them too much credit. Ugh.

  14. RickV

    “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.”

    How do you know it’s not?

    1. chuckster

      My guess is it’s not yet epidemic at the pro level because, as opposed to the potential ease of doping (one individual can do it depending on methods, and keep it secret from others), it would take multiple people involved, mechanics, etc, and more elaborate measures to prepare/conceal/charge/track a motorized bike and many people’s reputations and jobs would be on the line if caught. Plus, it’s just such a more obscene level of cheating that I think even your average doper would have trouble coming to ethical terms with it lol!

  15. Eric

    You need a better editor. I am guess you were in such a hurry to be hurt over the cheater that you forgot what it means to be a good writer.

    his/her errors, punctuation errors. But, I forgive you, after all you had to be the first person officially hurt over the mechanical cheating.

    1. Author

      Nope, no his/her errors. Van den Driessche is a woman and the bike with the motor was allegedly sold to a friend who happens to be male.

  16. Jason Lee

    Vivax is not popular because of several reasons:
    1. It is very expensive for the amount of power it generates.
    2. The trend has been to develop E-Bike specific frames to handle the motor and battery packaging.
    3. E-Bike owners are not interesting in cheating.
    The Vivax was developed to seamlessly CONVERT a bike you already own, which is a great idea.
    However, there are cheaper options that generate 500W-800W to convert a normal bike. For people that are converting, watts per dollar is a primary factor.

    As for VdD, I hope she is banned for 10 years minimum. More importantly, as a teenager, I hope those in her crew that are responsible, are banned for life.
    This is not “doping”, but outright cheating.

  17. Brian

    I just hope the UCI publishes pictures of what was found in the bike.. And 6 months is silly… Lifetime would be more suitable…

  18. JohnK

    I ride a steel bike with low section aluminum rims, because with my gran fondo results (I am often in the top 1,500 — of my age group) and my position on Strava, which hovers somewhere around the middle of some segments (if age AND weight are factored in) would definitely raise some suspicions about mechanical doping.
    But seriously, this episode is really depressing because it casts yet another long shadow. I’m a grownup and I know there is cheating in all sport, but it doesn’t make it any more fun to be a fan and now even a participant, especially to those of us whose sporting morality was formed by the rousing Voice Over introducing ABC’s Wide World of Sports.

  19. Roman

    My opinion of the motor-assist controversy since I first heard of it was that it was a crazy, conspiracy-theory lunacy that no serious athlete would attempt. Now that we have one accused of it, I can’t help but wonder if it was a self-fulfilling controversy?

    1. Author

      This kind of echoes what Toro Toro wrote. You’ve hit on a fundamental truth of human nature I suppose.

  20. Jake Morgan

    I see mechanical doping on par with PED’s. No worse. The goal of both is to go fast, illegally. I actually had to laugh when I heard Simon on GCN and guys like Eddy Merckx, Etixx team manager Patrick Lefevere and many others in the sport call for a lifetime ban/suspension.

    What? Really? So that’s the line in the sand for our sports insiders?

    It’s actually a sad commentary on our sport as a whole. An electric motor should be a lifetime ban, but yet; blood transfusions, experimental drugs, the abuse of prescription drugs, and untested cocktails of drugs all deserve a two year slap on the wrist (which may get knocked back to a year if you come up with a legitimate sounding… but still lame excuse)

    Seriously? The motor is over the top, but the rest is a lesser crime? Our idea of what deserves a lifetime ban and what gets a hand slap is so screwed up that it’s embarrassing. It shows on how pervasive PED’s are in our sport, and how quick we are to “overlook” them even in this supposed post-PED/post-Lance era.

    Don’t get me wrong, an electric motor is bad, but it’s so stupid that it destroys the credibility of the individual, the mechanic (there is no credible bike mechanic in the world that wouldn’t notice either a) wires/buttons b) the added weight/odd balance of the bike. c) the non-team issue parts on the bike.). It may also reflect on the team since their either have the dumbest mechanic in the world, or the team is in on the cheating. It’s isolated stupidity that doesn’t reflect poorly on the sport as a whole.

    PED’s destroy the credibility of the sport as a whole. It gives the appearance from the outside that everyone is a drug cheat but only some get caught. It gives casual and hardcore fans the mental picture of some botched blood transfusion from a bad bag of blood that wasn’t stored at the proper temperature in some shady back room refrigerator. It gives the mental picture of some guy tapping his arm for a vein like a heroin addict looking for a fix.

    So which type of cheating looks worse to the general public? Which one will have a longer-term impact on the image of our sport? Which one will have a longer-term impact on our athletes? Which one has a greater potential to kill our athletes?

    So I’ll ask again which hurts our sports image more; someone sticking a bastardized cordless drill in their seattube, or someone with a needle in the arm in some shady motel/RV?

    Let’s also look at the policing either type of doping:

    Mechanical doping – Motors, either: electromagnetic motors in wheels or brushless motors in seattubes can be easily detected. Some can be policed with some pretty simple tools (an allen wrench and a flash light can find a motor in a seattube or bottom bracket in minutes). A simple metal detector or even a stud scanner with the ability to find copper pipes could easily find motor windings in carbon frames or deep carbon wheels. Portable X-ray equipment would probably be the most extensive the sport would ever need to go.

    Drug doping – well, we still haven’t come up with a comprehensive plan since drug cocktails and masking techniques are amazingly complex and constantly changing. How the body processes the drugs is as well. We’re seem to act like the biologic passport will solve things, and it will probably help, but it’s isn’t the end all solution.

    I’m not arguing for a lesser penalty for mechanical cheats, but rather identical penalties for cheats.

    Let’s get rid of the two year slap on the wrist and make it five years, then lifetime on the second offense. Many Pro’s can ride out the no-income storm for two years, but five is a complete different story for a rider that may not even have a highschool education. Let be fair an even-handed when it comes to doping… of any type.

  21. David

    Reminds me a bit of Rosie Ruiz. She was the first woman finisher in the Boston Marathon back in 1980. The problem was that she was so fast because she never ran the middle of the race, and just jumped in towards the end. In the NYC Marathon in which she qualified for Boston she apparently took the subway to the final miles.

  22. Timbo

    With cable/wire routing openings near the bb becoming nearly ubiquitous, it seems that it’d be pretty easy for the UCI to go ahead and mandate an easy way to check for this particular type of motor. They could require every UCI-approved frame to have an opening of a certain minimum size with a clear cover positioned such that it provided a view straight to the crank spindle (bottom of the downtube, probably). Then, they could also mandate a certain type of fastener to hold the cover in place so that the officials could always get a closer look with one tool and without fiddling with drivetrain components right before the start of a race. If the consumer market needs something more durable or aesthetically pleasing then there’s nothing stopping the manufacturers from making the clear cover just an option.

    I fear that if the UCI relies on electro-magnetic fields for detection it could set up an arms race of cheats always figuring out how to build less detectable motors. And x-rays seem impractical for all but the highest profile races.

    1. Timbo

      Very true. That’s why I specified “this particular type of motor.” If every frame had a window into the bb area, then at least one possibility of mechanical cheating would be largely eliminated.

      A big caveat is the potential for rapid rise in wireless drive train usage in the coming years. Manufacturers may move entirely away from routing anything through the bb shells of pro-level frames soon, removing any practical use for an opening down there.

  23. brian ledford

    re:PED’s vs motors, I can imagine a train of thought that makes PED use at least understandable – athlete gets himself into best shape of his/her life, and then is injured/gets sick and can’t train and loses the fitness they worked hard for and achieved and don’t have time to repeak for whatever the event is. So they use whatever to get back the fitness that was taken away. Obviously, still wrong but I can see the train of thought. A bicycle with a electric motor just isn’t a bicycle anymore. The feeling it prompts is more puzzlement than anger. A “why would you bother to do that?” reaction. Obviously, the reason is money, but still the lack of foresight is baffling – you know you’re going to get caught by a VO2 max test or a sponsor change so why?

    1. chuckster

      How would you get caught by a VO2 test? If you were already at a high level – similar to your peers – you’re potentially just looking for a burst of power at a few key moments and that’s the difference between a win and a loss. You really can’t measure that sort of effort in a test.

  24. Mike C

    Mechanical doping? Call a spade a spade. It’s cheating. No two ways about it. Why try to soften the way it sounds?

    PED’s, doping, that’s cheating too.

    One of the huge things most everyone around here forgets is that many of our former Champions were caught doping or using illegal substances. The problem back then is detection and testing methods.
    Some of these guys even went so far as to sabotage the bikes of their rivals. All of it was and still is cheating.
    Some have made the distinction of us being past the Lance era. Granted the guy maybe was an a-hole, but the only real difference in his cheating vs the old guys was, … He was better at it! ;^)
    Now, when do you think they will put motors in the rear deraillures and make them chain pushers?

  25. Hoshie99

    Cheating is cheating. And in degrees, this one was pretty stupid and base.

    No need for a lot of philosophizing imho.


  26. Jeff

    As a performance driving instructor when a student asked what a fast time was I would respond with “it’s whatever you make it”. Meaning you’re racing the clock, it’s “your” personal best. Sure we get into competitions where there are multiple competitors and the first across the line is the winner but that doesn’t mean that in that race you didn’t improve, it just means someone raised the bar. If as much energy was put towards looking inwards as a performer as opposed to looking outward for performance enhancements a person may just make bigger strides in their competitive field.

  27. Max

    I really don’t understand the distinction that you try to draw between mechanical cheating and blood doping. Both are a means to an end – winning a race that an athlete would be unable to win without special assistance. Professional bike racers and aspiring pros will naturally do anything in their power to win. Just like aspiring bankers, lawyers, used car salesmen, etc. It is human nature to seek the greatest possible advantage in any pursuit, to strive to win, and to achieve fame and wealth. The best that we can hope for is for the governing bodies in sport to enforce to the best of their ability the rules that we’ve established for competition, and in this case the UCI was successful.

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