UCI: Thermal cameras unreliable to catch motor cheats

The UCI contends that thermal cameras are not the most effective way to catch motor cheaters, despite recent news expose.

In April, Italian and French media outlets released video from both Strade Bianche and Coppi e Bartali races that supposedly demonstrated evidence of motorized cheating. The footage, taken with thermal imagery, seemed to confirm the cringeworthy reality of cheating in cycling, but the UCI contends that this type of thermal imaging is unreliable and that the heat patterns detected at the two March races are consistent with normal heat from moving parts.

The UCI initially tested thermal imaging at the beginning of its research into motor detection. It found that, while in certain circumstances thermal imaging can indeed detect a motor, it was only reliable when the motor was in use or just been used and is still warm. This makes pre- or post-race checks ineffective. But thermal imaging also picks up heat signals from other sources, including the rider’s body, bearing friction, and heat from warm tires.

So the heat signatures from the thermal imaging at Strade Bianche and Coppi e Bartali could have been caused by friction in wheel bearings (lit area around the hub) or heat transfer from the tires (lit area at the base of the seat tube).

UCI President Brian Cookson said, “Over the past two years we have made a considerable investment of UCI resources to find a method of testing bikes for technological fraud which is flexible, reliable, effective, fast, and easy to deploy. We have consulted experts from a wide variety of professional backgrounds — universities, mechanical, electronic and software engineers, physicists — and worked with the best technology available.”

This research led to the development of the UCI’s current scanning method that uses a tablet, case, adapter, and custom-made software that enable the operator to test a complete bike, wheels, frame, group, and components in less than a minute. The scanner creates a magnetic field and the tablet then detects any interruptions to this magnetic field, which can come from a motor, magnet, or solid object such as a battery concealed in a frame or components.

If the scan picks up anything unusual, the bike or components are then dismantled for inspection. The UCI says that the current scanning method is highly effective in detecting hidden motors or any components that could contribute to power assistance.

At the Tour de Romandie, the UCI carried out an unannounced comprehensive bike check on stage 3 and found no evidence of technical fraud. In one day, the UCI tested 347 bikes from all 20 teams, which brought the total bikes tested at the Tour de Romandie up to 507.

The UCI has also been testing bikes at many races throughout the season, including 274 bikes at the UCI Track Cycling World Championships in London, 164 at the women’s Trofeo Alfredo Binda, 216 at the Tour of Flanders, 232 at Paris-Roubaix, and 173 at the U23 Liège-Bastogne-Liège. The UCI will continue testing in all disciplines throughout the remainder of the year.