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Commentary: French book stokes motor fraud rumors

A once-ridiculed conspiracy theory is rapidly becoming much more real with a new book by French journalist Philippe Brunel.

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Nobody wants to believe it’s true. Nobody wants to believe that the UCI will ever find a hidden motor in a Tour de France or Giro d’Italia winner’s bike, or that the two French judges, and the FBI investigators, said to be exploring the links between tech fraud, race fixing and high finance, will come up with anything real, any irrefutable proof.

It’s unthinkable. Blood bags, syringes, pill-popping — that’s one thing; that’s bad enough — but riding to victory on a hidden motor?

But a new book by Philippe Brunel — one of France’s most celebrated sports writers, a doyenne among cycling diarists and long the mainstay of L’Equipe newspaper’s coverage of the Tour de France — is already making waves. Given Brunel’s profile in France, these waves are big ones.

In Brunel’s new book, “Rouler plus vite que la Mort,” (Ride faster than death) published on January 10, there is a quote from Hungarian engineer and inventor, Istvan Varjas. “If tomorrow, you heard that I had an accident, or that I killed myself,” he tells Brunel, “don’t believe it.”

If that sounds like a line from “Icarus,” Bryan Fogel’s acclaimed documentary that details Russian doping poacher-gamekeeper-whistleblower, Grigory Rodchenkov’s panic-stricken flight from Russia into the arms of a U.S. witness protection program, then it’s almost certainly as loaded as Brunel intended.

Brunel’s chilling book is part novel, part thriller that takes the conspiracy theories of hidden motors back to the late 1990s and after some elegant and atmospheric meandering, drops another accusation of cheating, with a resounding thud, at the door of Lance Armstrong. Like Rodchenkov in “Icarus,” Varjas is the enigma, the supposed keeper of secrets, giving enough away to tease, but never enough to prove anything.

Brunel’s book comes hard on the heels of Phil Gaimon’s otherwise innocuous, “Draft Animals” — with its now notorious passage on Fabian Cancellara, alleging use of a motor — and on the election of David Lappartient, former French Cycling Federation President, as president of the UCI.

Detecting tech fraud, improving the methodology of testing for hidden motors, was a cornerstone of the Frenchman’s toppling of his predecessor, Brian Cookson. Now the whispers are getting louder; the parallels with the build-up to the Festina Affair or Operation Puerto are increasing. There are many who don’t believe motors have been prevalent, but it seems that there are just as many others who believe it’s real.

“I worry that motors have been used,” Lappartient told me when I met him recently. “I have no proof, but it’s not impossible. I want to be sure that we deliver a sport without doping and without motors. That’s the job of the UCI, to guarantee credibility.”

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While Brunel’s book doesn’t really contain any smoking guns, beyond again suggesting that Armstrong may have been a Varjas client (something the Texan flatly denies) it puts a lot more flesh on the bones and further details the history, development and increased sophistication of the Varjas-designed motors.

By September 1998, Varjas had developed a motor the size of a USB, capable of generating 140 watts of power for five minutes. By the end of the year, Varjas tells Brunel, he had sold a prototype for $300,000 in cash. Two years later the price had gone up, apparently to $2 million, paid into an offshore account. The intermediary between buyer and seller was, according to Brunel, a Tuscan at the heart of the Italian cycling scene. Yet it’s a tale that’s unverifiable as the Italian has since died.

Brunel links the Hungarian’s progress to Armstrong’s career trajectory, the development of the motors to Armstrong’s famed high cadence, but ultimately there is no proof: It is all speculation and Brunel freely admits it. Yet increasingly there is a sense of reaching a tipping point.

There have now been allegations made against Armstrong, Cancellara, Alberto Contador and famously, in 2013 on Mont Ventoux, Chris Froome. Lappartient says that the UCI’s new and improved post-Cookson plan to tackle tech fraud will be unveiled at the end of this month.

A conspiracy theory that was once ridiculed, that was once laughed off — much as rampant EPO abuse once was — is rapidly becoming much more real.