By Paul Willerton
On January 30, 2016, traditional, unassisted bicycle racing officially lost another facet of it’s innocence. The scene was the World Cyclocross Championship held in Zolder, Belgium.
At the finish of the women’s Under 23 age class race, it was discovered that Belgian rider Femke van den Driessche had a bike in her pit with a concealed electric motor and battery system.
Cyclocross is a discipline that allows bike changes during races. Cyclocross circuits usually combine paved and off road sections as well as areas riders have to dismount and run with their bikes.
The races last for about one hour. She denies knowing that she was in possession of a bike with electric assist. It turns out her brother Niels, also a bike racer, is currently serving a suspension for physical doping for the blood boosting drug EPO. Amazingly, it doesn’t even stop there.
Both Niels and van den Driessche’s father, Peter, are facing criminal charges for trying to steal two expensive parakeets from the pet store De Gouldamandine in Varsenare. If convicted, they could receive prison sentences of between one and five years, and a fine of up to €3,000.
It has long been suspected that certain riders at the very highest levels in bicycle racing have at times used “mechanical doping”. This is the term the sport’s governing body, the UCI (Union Cycliste International) has given to electric assist on bicycles.
Marc Madiot is sports director of the FDJ pro road team and two-time winner of perhaps the most prestigious one day race in cycling, the Paris-Roubaix classic. He has called for lifetime bans against any rider caught with mechanical doping.
Jacky Durand is an ex-pro seen in the following video (French language):
Durand describes the mechanical doping allegations that were focused on the famous Swiss rider, Fabian Cancellara. Cancellara has been scrutinized more closely than any rider before for mechanical doping, however no physical evidence has ever been found.
In the video, Durand talks in depth about the unbelievable power of Cancellara’s accelerations, hand motions on his bikes control levers and the timing of the bike changes that lead to his victories in races like Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders.
Johan Museeuw, the “Lion of Flanders”, won many one day classics as well as the World Road Race Championship. Museeuw eventually admitted using banned substances during his career. Recently, he was part of an in-depth look at mechanical doping in this video (Dutch language)
One can easily see the advantages of electric assist as the two riders climb the “Old Kwaremont”, the centerpiece of Belgium’s premier one day event, the Tour of Flanders. The video also displays a similar motor/battery configuration as used in the bike possessed by Femke van den Driessche.
There was a time when mechanical doping in bicycle racing was thought to be impossible. We also know the technology has been available for years with smaller, more powerful concealed motors and batteries. One company bringing such a system to the public today is called Vivax. The Vivax system can be seen in more detail in this video:
With a weight of 1.8 kilos, a power output of 200 watts and 6 amp hour battery in it’s “fully invisible” system, the Vivax is getting a lot of attention lately, albeit in part from the van den Driessche discovery.
If you know your e-bike specs, you might believe that is not much power or battery life. That would be missing the point when it comes to mechanical doping in racing situations.
Madiot, Durand and Museeuw are all riders I spent time with as teammates or competitors. They know the cobbles of Northern Europe as well as any rider before or since their time. They have an eye, a sense, for subtle details in the big races that wouldn’t be noticeable to the average viewer.
When they point to instances in races that are abnormal to them, chances are good they could be onto something. They all know that mechanical doping poses another serious threat to the authenticity of their sport. If not through electric assist, then possibly by another means of power generation.
For you and I, 200 watts and a 6ah may not get us very far. The difference between winning a race and finishing outside the top 30 can be incredibly slim. 200 watts is an extra 50% on top of the 400 watts a world class racer may only be able to create for a handful of critical minutes.
To them, that equates to an absolutely enormous boost. As far as the 6ah battery, that is more than enough stored energy to assure them a spot at the front of race if they’re on a good day. In fact, I venture to say that a battery half that size but with decent voltage would be enough to build a huge gap over rivals during an attack at a critical stage of a race.
Mechanical doping is not going away. It may have been here long before it was officially discovered. It’s popularity could actually begin to soar. The UCI will have it’s hands full in the years ahead, testing bikes as closely as it tests bodies.
Personally, I’m glad I no longer have to compete against riders who could be using doping of any kind. Racing a bike is grueling enough without all of that. Trying to conceal doping, mechanical or otherwise, seems like it would simply ruin an otherwise perfect day of bike riding.
If I want to race an ebike, I will carry a big smile and a clear conscience into an ebike race.
Thanks to Paul Willerton for this report!
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