Usually when we think of cheating in professional sports we think of performance-enhancing drugs. But there are other, more externalized approaches to cheating, too. Equipment tweaks in things like swimsuit material or ball inflation can potentially do just as much as doping to affect outcomes. But a new trend in professional cycling involves some hilariously blatant scamming: Riders are literally installing electric motors on their bikes.
On Sunday, journalists at Corriere della Sera and Stade 2 published evidence that seven cyclists were using hidden bike enhancements last month at two races in Italy. (Stade 2 is the French TV network that broadcasts the Tour de France.) The International Cycling Union has been using iPads lately to check bikes for electromagnetic irregularities, but the investigative team used thermal cameras to collect additional data.
Speculation about tiny, battery-powered motors started around 2010 with rumors that Swiss cyclist Fabian Cancellara was using one. He strongly denied the accusations and no conclusive proof ever surfaced. At the time, though, a spokesperson for the Cycling Union told the New York Times, “Maybe we are facing a general problem. You never know with technology.”
In January, these concerns finally bore out when the Cycling Union began investigating “technological fraud.” It discovered that 19-year-old Belgian competitor Femke Van den Driessche had a hidden electric motor on the bike she used in an off-road cyclo-cross competition. “We believe that it was indeed technological doping,” said Cycling Union president Brian Cookson.
The Corriere della Sera and Stade 2 journalists allege that five riders were using electric motors similar to Van den Driessche's, and two others had magnetic propulsion systems on their rear wheels. These electromagnetic wheels can add 20 to 60 watts of power on top of someone's pedaling. Hidden motors can add up to 200 watts, though probably closer to about 100 watts in practice. A February article about the technologies in Gazzetta dello Sport said, “You can do more miracles with electricity than chemistry.”
Electromagnetic wheel systems are somewhat mysterious and don't seem to be sold openly, but electric motors are a consumer product marketed for the average rider. Who wouldn't want an extra boost on the way to work or the grocery store? So-called "e-bikes" like the Raleigh Detour iE cost about $2,000 to $3,000 and proudly advertise their motors. But conversion kits like the Vivax-Assist and E-BikeKit can be in a similar price range or higher, especially if you're paying for special low-profile options like Vivax's "Invisible Performance Package." Vivax told Cyclist magazine in October that it hadn't been contacted by the International Cycling Union and that its customers were mainly people over 60 who were trying to keep up with riding buddies.
Though they're no better, you can at least see how an athlete could justify electromagnetic wheels as a sort of equipment upgrade. Concealed motors, though, are just flat-out ridiculous. You're basically doing a biking competition on a motorcycle. The International Cycling Union clearly needs to continue improving its bike-scanning tech. Meanwhile, athletes should stop cheating. Or at the very least have some dignity about keeping the techniques subtle.