Three-time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond says he does not trust recent results in cycling’s biggest race because he believes riders are cheating by using concealed motors. A Hungarian engineer behind the technology claims that he sold exclusive ten-year rights to his invention for almost $2 million in 1998 – but he has not named the buyer.
Both men were speaking as part of a CBS 60 Minutes documentary that will be screened on primetime television in the United States on Sunday evening.
The show airs on the same weekend as the UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships in Luxembourg and it was at last year’s event in Zolder, Belgium, where a hidden motor was discovered in competition for the first time.
It was found on a bike prepared for Belgian Under-23 rider Femke Van Den Driessche, who has since been banned for six years and fined 20,000 Swiss Francs for what the UCI classifies as “technological fraud.”
Since then, the UCI has stepped up efforts to detect concealed motors, carrying out thousands of tests at races last year using a tablet-based application it has developed that seeks to detect electromagnetic waves.
At the Tour de France last summer, x-ray machines and thermal imaging equipment on loan from the French military were also used to try and detect hidden motors.
LeMond, now aged 55 and winner of the Tour de France in 1986, 1989 and 1990, strongly suspects that concealed motors are still in use in the peloton, however. He told the programme: “This is curable. This is fixable. I don’t trust it until they figure out how to take the motor out.
“I won’t trust any victories of the Tour de France,” he added.
Budapest-based engineer Istvan Varjas is likewise convinced that motors concealed within frames similar to those he developed, as well as ones hidden within rear wheels, are being used at the top level of the sport.
He told 60 Minutes that with a friend acting as intermediary, a friend put him in touch with an anonymous prospective purchaser who offered him close to $2 million for exclusive, 10-year rights to the technology.
Varjas, who has previously appeared on French television on the subject of mechanical doping, accepted the money and agreed he would not talk about hidden motors nor engage in developing them until the period of exclusivity had expired.
He sought to distance himself from those who might use the technology to gain an unfair advantage in a race, telling 60 Minutes: “If a grandfather came and buy a bike and after it’s go to his grandson who is racing, it’s not my problem.”
But pressed whether he would supply a concealed motor to someone who revealed he would use it to try and win races, he answered: “If the money is big, why not?”
60 Minutes also spoke to a former testing director of France’s national anti-doping agency, the AFLD, Jean-Pierre Verdy, who revealed that he believes hidden motors are an issue in the professional ranks.
He said: “It’s been the last three to four years when I was told about the use of the motors.
“There’s a problem. By 2015, everyone was complaining and I said, ‘something’s got to be done.’”
Since the seven successive victories between 1999 and 2005 that Lance Armstrong was stripped of five years ago, eight men have won the race, and it’s those victories, presumably, that LeMond is questioning.
Oscar Pereiro and Andy Schleck were awarded the 2006 and 2010 wins respectively after Floyd Landis and Alberto Contador were convicted of doping.
Contador himself won in 2007 and 2009, with Carlos Sastre taking the victory in the intervening year.
The 2011 win went to Cadel Evans, before Team Sky began their domination of the race, with victories for Sir Bradley Wiggins in 2012 and Chris Froome in three of the past four seasons.
In 2014, the yellow jersey was won by Vincenzo Nibali, who joined Contador as the only current riders to have won all three Grand Tours.
However, it was not at the Tour de France but during the Spring Classics in 2010 that the issue of whether professional cyclists might be gaining illegal mechanical assistance first hit the headlines.
That year at the Tour of Flanders, Fabian Cancellara rode away with ease from rival and home favourite Tom Boonen on the Muur van Geraardsbergen, and a week later he also won Paris-Roubaix.
Cancellara has always denied cheating, although shortly afterwards ex-professional cyclist turned television commentator Davide Cassani, now coach to the Italian national team, demonstrated how he believed hidden motors could give riders a race-winning edge.
12 months on from the shock discovery of what remains the only concealed motor to have been found in competition, for many there is a nagging question that remains unanswered; if an Under-23 rider in the notoriously under-funded women’s side of the sport was using one, are we really expected to believe that no male elite rider has done so, given the huge financial stakes involved?
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.