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Analysis: UCI stuck to its guns in search for hidden motors

UCI president Brian Cookson confirms the governing body discovered a hidden motor in a rider's bike at the cyclocross worlds.

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The UCI can take grim satisfaction after cycling’s first case of “mechanized doping” was confirmed over the weekend at the cyclocross world championships.

Many laughed when the UCI started showing up at races a few years ago with bulky X-ray machines to take a glimpse inside bike frames. Those fears carried over into last year’s Tour de France, with accusations leveled at Sky’s Chris Froome. The abuse of so-called motor-assisted bikes seemed too far-fetched even for a sport where cheating was part of its DNA. The technology seemed too bulky, too heavy, too unreliable, and even too noisy to be realistically applied to a sport in which every gram of weight counts.

Yet the UCI, possibly using a new detection method in Zolder, found what they say is the first documented case of illegal mechanical assistance in a major bike race. Details are still to be filled out, but officials confirmed a milestone in a sport rife with doping and cheating: a bike fitted with a banned motor.

“We have heard stories for a long time, and we have been testing at a number of events,” UCI president Brian Cookson said at a press conference over the weekend in Zolder. “We will be testing more frequently. Our message to cheaters is that we will catch up to you, sooner or later.”

Officials claim they discovered clear proof of a motor-assisted bike found in the pen of Belgian under-23 rider Femke Van den Driessche. She tearfully denied that the bike was hers, claiming someone in her entourage incorrectly placed it in her pen. How the bike showed up there, and whether it was fitted with stickers and pedals that could prove otherwise, will be revealed as part of the UCI investigation. The exact type of motor has not yet been revealed, but Cookson was emphatic that the evidence was clear.

“It was a concealed motor,” Cookson said. “No secrets about that.”

The news shook cycling to its core, and comes just as the sport was making advances on cleaning up its image as a dirty sport in the wake of decades of doping scandals. The mainstream media jumped on the story, with The Wall Street Journal dubbing it “the goofiest scandal ever.”

The first major hint of “mechanized doping” emerged in 2010 in the wake of Fabian Cancellara’s impressive attack at the Kapelmuur at the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders), and later at Paris-Roubaix. The Swiss superstar angrily denied the rumors, but the idea gained traction when former racer Davide Cassani revealed the possibility in a report broadcast on Italy’s RAI-TV in what appeared to be a fully functioning motor that could be slotted into a frame’s seat tube. A subsequent video showing how the system might work went viral on YouTube.

Later that summer, the UCI scanned bikes for the first time at the 2010 Tour de France, and thus began what was the most divisive question in cycling: did mechanized cheating exist, and were the elite pros using it?

How the motor might work was wasn’t up to debate — technology already existed in 2010 for e-bikes, and has only improved over the past half-decade — but the big question was were motors being systematically used in the elite road racing scene? The question seemed to cut to the very essence of bicycle racing: a contest between athletes on a human-powered machine.

Riders and teams rolled their eyes at the notion, saying it was something from “science fiction,” insisting the motors, even if they could add additional watts in key moments of a race, were too heavy and cumbersome to be effective in racing. Batteries were considered too bulky to be properly hidden, and battery life was too short to be reliable in a six-hour road race.

There were suggestions that battery packs could be hidden inside water bottles, and that the motors would only be needed for a few decisive moments of a race. Mysterious mid-race bike swaps only fed conspiracy theories, and fears grew that motors had slowly worked their way into the peloton.

There are even rumors of motors being hidden inside carbon-fiber wheels. A video that went viral of Ryder Hesjedal’s spinning rear wheel from a crash during the 2014 Vuelta a España fanned the worst fears. When his bikes were checked during last year’s Giro, Hesjedal said, “it’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard of.”

Early efforts by the UCI to check for motors were sometimes clumsy and never struck gold. Mechanics were forced to disassemble bikes just before the start of races — like this video showing Tinkoff-Saxo’s mechanic taking off the cranks of Alberto Contador’s bike at the 2015 Giro d’Italia. In other cases, the UCI always came up empty when inspectors used a large, airport-style X-ray machine to check bikes.

The UCI remain determined, however. The arrival of Cookson as the new UCI president in 2013 saw renewed efforts to try to prove the myth of mechanized cheating and snip it at the bud. The UCI’s CIRC report, released last March, also confirmed underlying worries that the problem was real, with the report highlighting, “this particular issue was taken seriously, especially by top riders, and was not dismissed as being isolated.”

The UCI deserves kudos for pressing the issue, and if this weekend’s events prove to be true, what could be cycling’s most embarrassing chapter could have a very brief life. A hefty fine and lengthy ban are deterrents, but without full enforcement of the rules, the cheaters look for openings. Cookson has been consistent in his message that the UCI will be unrelenting in its hunt for cheaters, even if it’s bad for business.