Cycling faces a new threat: ‘mechanical doping’

Tour de France.(Christophe Ena/AP)

The second Tour De France, in 1904, set a precedent for cheating that cyclists have tried to match for years. The event was marred by a series of brawls, fans forming packs to stop riders, nails scattered across the course to puncture tires and masked men in cars knocking bikers off the road. There were allegations that some riders were poisoned. The winner, Maurice Garin, was later stripped of his title after reports that, for part of the race, he took a train.

And while the greatest cheater in Tour de France history, Lance Armstrong, was exposed for years of doping after his record seven wins, it seems the propensity to cheat is as much a part of “La Grande Boucle” as it was a century ago. While the United Cycling Federation has taken measures to limit doping in the sport, it’s been forced to adopt an aggressive approach to combating another creative form of cheating: motors. “This problem is worse than doping,” France’s sports minister, Thierry Braillard, told the press in June. “This is the future of cycling that’s at stake.”

Reports of riders using tiny motors to help propel their bikes for periods of time throughout a race started to surface about five years ago. Since then, speculation of “mechanical doping” has raised paranoia in the racing community. In late May, Braillard reached out to the CEA, a science and technology research body in France, to come up with a new method of detecting the tiny motors often located in the seat tube.

Vincent Berger, research director at the CEA, led a team that developed a thermal camera capable of detecting a motor in a bike, even if the motor isn’t running. The technology is being used by officials throughout the Tour de France. The camera can detect motors, magnets and batteries in a bike’s frame, hubs and rims in less than 30 seconds. Riders will not know when their bike is being screened. “It’s very difficult to avoid thermal emission,” Berger says. “It’s mathematical equations at the end of the day. It has been tested for a long time.”

Another, more expensive form of mechanical doping might still go undetected for the time being. It involves neodymium batteries in the rear wheel, which generate an induction force with a coil hidden under the seat, which powers a discreet motor. The CEA is a few months away from technology that will measure increases in a bike’s magnetic field during the course of a race, says Berger.

While the technology is likely to deter would-be motor-cyclists for now, new methods of cheating are likely just around the corner. The winning spirit of Maurice Garin, it seems, lives on.

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