Tiny Motors Rev Up Cycling Controversy

April 19th, 2016

When is a bicycle not a bicycle? When it is a secret motorcycle. Earlier this year, in what the New York Times called the “first confirmed case of mechanical doping,” a Belgian cyclist’s bike was found to have a tiny motor and battery that could give the rider a motorized boost. Since then, there have been more suggestions that top pro cyclists are rigging their bikes.

So, just when it seems we hit the limits of the possibilities for physical/medical doping, the cheats turn technical. According to the NYT:

Suspicions stem from two factors: The technology exists, and there is an ever-growing library of videos that show suspicious performances and actions by riders as well as teams.

Anyone can buy systems that hide small motors and batteries inside bikes. Marketed as a way to help older or infirm people keep cycling, most of the systems power the axle that joins the two crank arms of the bike and are outwardly invisible, with on-off switches hidden under handlebar tape. Newer, even smaller motor systems can slip into the rear hub to boost the bike from there.

The evidence comes from thermal photos, which can reveal heat signatures from motors, and videos that show “unusual patterns of bike changes that precede or follow exceptional bursts of speed by riders.” The videos can also show surreptitious hand movements involved in turning on a motor.

The cycling union U.C.I has been using magnetic resonance testing to scan bikes. Suspicious readings are cause to pull in a bike for closer, physical inspection. This device was responsible for the world’s first confirmation of mechanical doping during an event—an under-23 women’s event at the World Cyclocross Championship in January 2016. The rider, Femke Van den Driessche, quit cycling just before a disciplinary hearing could begin.

As avid amateur cyclists ourselves, we have to ask: Is this the “brave new world” of cycling? Is there any satisfaction to be gained by winning a sporting event with the help of a motor? Cycling may never be “pure” again.

Worse, these devices raise the risk of causing accidents and pile-ups. Riding in a peloton–especially in a race–is all about predicting the possible actions of the bikes in front and aside of you. If someone suddenly revs up the motor, their actions become chaotic from the group standpoint, and chaos leads to trouble. We fear that this form of doping will only gain widespread attention when a cyclist is seriously injured. Let’s hope this problem gets under control before that happens