Motorized cheating stepped from conspiracy theory to reality over the weekend when a bike associated with Belgian Femke Van den Driessche was found with a motorized crankset at the cyclocross world championships in Zolder Belgium. The discovery opened a new chapter in cycling’s decades-old anti-cheating efforts.
Reports of motorized cheating began in 2010, but its use in racing was the stuff of conspiracy theories until last weekend, though the authenticity of motorized crankset technology was well known. Now, it seems motorized cranksets may be the tip of an electronic iceberg. A report in Italian daily Gazzetta dello Sport on Monday claims that electromagnetic systems inside a rear rim are being used, particularly in Italy’s gran fondo scene.
But as tempting as “bike doping” headlines are, motors are an entirely different kind of cheating, and will be treated as such by authorities. Mechanical cheating exists outside the purview of the World Anti-Doping Agency, which means the UCI has the ability to make and enforce all its own rules. With physiological doping cases, it must bow to WADA’s code.
Last January, the UCI added rules specifically pointed at what it calls technological fraud. There are key differences in both the post-discovery protocol and prosecution between a technological fraud case and a physiological doping case.
While physiological doping puts the burden of proof on the testers and governing body, and riders are occasionally cleared due to failures within either group, technological fraud places strict liability on the rider and the team involved.
What does that mean? If non-compliant equipment is found near a team or race, “within or in the margins of a cycling competition,” as the UCI rule states, it qualifies as technological fraud.
A non-compliant bicycle is one that doesn’t conform to the rules laid out in Article 1.3.010 of the UCI’s technical regulations, which bans motors.
The UCI confirmed Sunday that a motor was found in a race bike. Van den Driessche maintains that the bike in question was not hers. She claims it was a friend’s bike, one she sold last year. It was sitting around and a mechanic grabbed it.
Athletes have frequently attempted to pin the presence of doping products on a family member or friend (Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning recently pushed away accusations of Human Growth Hormone use by noting that the medication was prescribed to his wife), but such arguments are useless against technological fraud due to the athlete’s strict liability. It doesn’t matter if the bike was raced. It doesn’t matter who owns it. It doesn’t matter if it was sold to somebody else or ridden accidentally. It doesn’t matter if the rider doesn’t know about the fraud. It’s still fraud.
Further, it is the responsibility of riders to ensure their bikes are compliant with UCI rules. Pleading ignorance or sabotage, as Van den Driessche is attempting to do, will not help.
The minimum punishment for technological fraud is disqualification, a six-month suspension, and a fine of between 20,000 and 200,000 Swiss francs for the individual in question. A team can also be suspended for six months (or more) and fined between 100,000 and 1,000,000CHF.
Van den Driessche’s case has been handed to the UCI’s Disciplinary Commission, a 30-member group that will decide her fate. Her case will be put before a panel of one or three members of the Commission (likely three in this case), and will be heard at UCI headquarters in Aigle, Switzerland. Panel members will call witnesses and experts, and Van den Driessche may either submit her own defense or be assisted by an advisor.
Van den Driessche will be notified by mail of the result. She can appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, just as in a physiological doping case.
With those proceedings ongoing, the governing body is answering few questions.
It is unknown how the Commission will define a team, which is relevant for the application of penalties beyond Van den Driessche herself. She races for Kleur op Maat-Nodrugs (yes, really) during the regular cyclocross season, but was with the Belgian national team on Saturday. Is the entire Belgian national squad in jeopardy? This is an Olympic year, and a six-month ban for the entire nation would put the team back into commission just a week before Rio’s opening ceremonies.
For Van den Driessche, a six-month ban is a best-case scenario. Six months is the minimum sentence, and the disciplinary commission could deem a motor to be worth a much larger penalty. There is no maximum suspension, so the Belgian could be out for life.
The Commission has dealt with technical regulation breaches before, but nothing on this scale. It is also responsible for more commonplace breaches of UCI regulations, and its protocols are well established. A verdict in Van den Driessche’s case should take just a few weeks, assuming the investigation goes smoothly.