How Pro Cyclists Cheat Using Motorised Bikes

How Pro Cyclists Cheat Using Motorised Bikes

If you thought Lance Armstrong's doping scandal would be the last controversy to rock the world of professional cycling -- you were wrong. In the latest reports of ongoing corruption in pro cycling, the international governing body Union Cyclist International confirmed that a 19-year-old rider Femke Van den Driessche cheated in the World Championships using a small motor to power the rear wheel. The revelation is part of a growing problem in professional cycling that forced the UCI to add a clause to the rulebook about "technological doping" early last year.

The report is somewhat shocking given the nature of cheating scandals in major sports: Historically, some of the most well-known cheating scandals have been socially engineered like paying referees or using performance-enhancing drugs. The reason that the UCI revelation was so big was that it marks the first time a cheater in a sport competition has been caught using motorised technology to receive an unfair advantage.

How Pro Cyclists Cheat Using Motorised Bikes

Image from Vivax

How Do You Hide a Motor in a Bicycle?

There are two common ways a person can install a motor into a bicycle: one way is to use a throttle, or a little lever on the handlebar that makes the motor run. When you push the button or twist the throttle, the motor speed increases and the bike accelerates. The downside to this method is that the throttle is visible, so if you're trying to use the bike to cheat in a professional cycling competition, this type isn't an option.

The other way to install a motor on a bicycle is by using a cadence sensor or torque sensor. These methods work a lot like a throttle, but rather than regulating the power by pressing a button, you actually control it with your feet. The sensor is placed by your pedals, and it's able to detect the speed of your pedal movement typically by monitoring a small magnet that passes by the sensor with every turn of the pedal. The motor runs at a higher speed when the pedals are going faster. These types of kits often referred to as pedal-assist bicycles because the speed of the motor is entirely controlled by the rotation of the bike's pedals.

Cheaters using electric motors in professional competitions prefer pedal-assist bicycles to ones with throttles because it's much harder to detect the illegal motor at first glance. There are also a lot of options when it comes to installing a pedal-assist motor into a racing bicycle.

For instance, the Vivax Assist is a popular torque sensor that costs 2700 Euros ($4147) and can be retrofitted into most racing bike frames. The company even touts the inconspicuous look of the motor on its website, saying, "The special design of the drive unit allows it to be built into any bicycle frame with the requisite seat tube internal diameter of 31.6 mm or 30.9 mm and is therefore invisible on the bicycle".

There are literally dozens of other popular electric bike motors on the market. Although they're not specifically being marketed as tools for cheaters, the shrinking size of the motors as well as the ease of installation makes them very tempting for riders who lack moral fortitude. We're now reaching a boiling point where the technologically is finally cheap enough for people to buy.

How Pro Cyclists Cheat Using Motorised Bikes

Image via AP

How Does UCI Prevent The Use of Illegal Electric Motors?

For several years, the UCI has used large, airport-style X-ray machines at the Tour de France to scan bicycles for illegal use of electric motors in competing bicycles. Last year, rider Chris Froome was accused of using a motor inside his bicycle during competition (in addition to the doping allegations that hung over his head). Accusers cited Froome's unusual acceleration speeds as reason to believe that he was being propelled by an electronic motor. Froome applauded the bicycle checks that were levied against him and other racers because he felt like it would put an end to speculation about whether or not he cheated.

The UCI reportedly caught Van den Driessche by using a computer that can read radio frequencies emitted by the motor. When the computer detected signs of a motor in Van den Driessche's bicycle, the governing body reportedly removed the seat post and discovered wires sticking out.

For now, the vetting process for all professional cyclists is still being put together by governing bodies. Just like any other areas technological innovation, the rules have not yet caught up to what's possible. In the future, there are bound to be more powerful motors that require less battery power and can be hidden in just about any part of a bicycle. On the other hand, new methods of motor detection are likely to emerge. I'd expect to see many scanning technologies that are already being used in military settings and airports to be used in cycling competitions. Possible scanning technologies include thermal scanning, listening for radio frequencies and millimetre wave scanning. It's incredible that officials might need to use something like weapons-grade airport scanners to keep cycling honest.

Lead image via AP



    I remember thinking about these when Froome got these questions last year:

    Battery capacity would have to be fairly limited to still be hidden, so the boost would have to be used sparingly. If the motor is attached to the pedals, and not the wheel, there would be no regenerative braking. I can't help but wonder if the extra energy required to pedal-power the extra weight of the motor and battery over the whole course would outweigh the energy saved during the time that the motor still had power.

    The longer the stage, the less benefit the motor could provide. Maybe more useful in time trials rather than full length stages?

      Weight means almost nothing compared to air resistance. Could easily have provided 200W for 10km and weighed only a few kilos.

      It'd be possible to have a charging system on it for when the rider is going down hill or something. Of course, you then have the problem of resistance and drag meaning the system requires more energy than it puts out.

        But it'd look weird though if you're pedalling full kilt while going downhill. Most road cyclists don't pedal going down hill, especially when they're concentrating on braking and turning at 70kmph.

    I know this might sound dumb, but how good is this for the domestic market? like one less barrier to entry, if your worried you might not have the energy to get up that hill. I think this is awesome for people who want to ride to go to the local café, yet instead drive because it's too much effort. Again if the prices come down this could be a very interesting proposition for average commuter.

      There's heaps of electric bikes on the market for that exact scenario. You can also get electric kits retrofitted into your own bike or for the cheapest option you can pick up these kits off of ebay.... I can't remember off the top of my head but I reckon you can get a cheap kit for $250-$400.

    Simple fix. Make the riders ride only one type of bicycle that is locked up and only given to them just before the race. That'll fix the cheating bicycle racers and it looks like there's many of them.

      Or we could let them use as many drugs as they like and give them a range of motors they can use.... embrace the cheaters and technology hahaha.

        lol i'd watch the roid league for sure. be cool if it was split up into natural and enhanced competitions.

          It would be interesting if they submitted all of their drug doses as well.... oh man this guy is popping x amount of clen and y amount of test hahaha.

      Or use post-race Parc Ferme rules as per Formula 1.

      Ultimately this is why I'm not a huge fan of endurance or strength sports. I guess we could argue about the amount of "skill" required over for cycling, it's mostly physical strength/endurance. Same with sports like swimming, running, etc.
      Other sports where technology can play a big part like tennis, motorsport, golf etc... still require a great deal of skill and while cheating is possible, it rarely takes over completely.

      Those strength and endurance sports tend to be far more singular in focus, which makes cheating easier and more rewarding. Having a faster car or better golf clubs doesn't mean you can drive better, crash less or swing better. Having high tech hockey ice skates and stick doesn't mean you're more skilled with the puck or a better team player.

      Same goes for drugs. Sports that require skills and team play and strategy have far less impact from drug use. if you take strength enhancing drugs for swimming, running, cycling or weight lifting, then you're just breaking the sport. What's the point at that stage?

        Simple fix, we go drug free, then inject cortosone into their inflamed joints at half time then send them back out to play

        I think you have a simplistic view of sport: strategy plays a big part in endurance events (you lack the knowledge to recognise it) ; and, non-strength/non-endurance sports all benefit strongly from drugs.

        Also with all other things being "equal" the person with the better equipment will win more often than not.

        Today, sport is about winning, as winning makes for good TV, and good TV means you earn the big bucks - so everyone does whatever they can to win.

          Sports with the worst doping problems are Cycling, Weightlifting, Triathlon, Athletics. Varies between sources but there's a good graph here. Global data for 1 year:

          My point is that the strength/endurance ones are the worst offenders because that's where the biggest reward is. Too much of the sport focuses on the strength and endurance, while those that require skill and teamwork are less represented. Things like MMA and Boxing are lower on the graph because the number of competitors is much lower but apparently Boxing is the 3rd worst offender based on % with 2.9% testing positive.

          I never said it doesn't effect other sports at all. Skill sports like baseball, hockey and soccer are there too, but it's not as big of a benefit.

          Same goes for technology benefits.... it's easy to get a better equipment that makes things faster or stronger or easier (less physical effort) but there's not many situations where better equipment makes you a better team player, more accurate, react faster, drive better or stuff up less. I guess you could have a better and more accurate bow or gun in shooting sports... but that's probably about it.

      What if there's a crash, or mechanical issue? Swapping out bikes is often necessary in a race.

      It's worth mentioning that no road bike has ever been found with a motor - the UCI has been testing for these for a couple of years now - since the technology has been around. Of course there are other technologies (like electo-magnetic wheels), but the UCI are scanning for these as well. I think it's the hardest form of doping to get away with...

      I'm not a fan of the sport so I was surprised to learn that this was not the case to begin with. marks the first time a cheater in a sport competition has been caught using motorised technology to receive an unfair advantage.Out by more than a century:

      The first to arrive at the finish line was Frederick Lorz, who actually rode the rest of the way in a car to retrieve his clothes, after dropping out after nine miles. The car broke down at the 19th mile, so he re-entered the race and jogged back to the finish line. When the officials thought he had won the race, Lorz played along with his practical joke until he was found out shortly after the medal ceremony and was banned for a year by the AAU for this stunt, later winning the 1905 Boston Marathon.[4]

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