Like this site? Help us to make it better.

Mechanical doping - the pro cycling story that won't go away

Fresh claims ahead of Tour de France that one rider's representative approached electric assist bike maker ...

It’s the story that refuses to go away – are some professional cyclists using concealed motors to give themselves an advantage over their rivals in what is known as mechanical doping? If they are, no-one has been caught yet, but according to a Telegraph report there is interest in the technology, with claims published today representatives of one rider approached a manufacturer to see if it could be included in his bike.

The allegation, which comes two days before the start of this year’s Tour de France where the UCI says officials will be checking some bikes for concealed motors – as it first did in 2010 – was made on by Harry Gibbings, one of the men behind the Typhoon electric assist bike.

Gibbings wouldn’t reveal the identity of the person who approached him – it’s unclear whether it was a team manager, or rider agent, saying only: “I was approached by one rider manager recently asking if it could be incorporated into his client’s bike. I don’t want to be asked again. Next time I might go public with who it is. It’s important to stress that.”

Instead of pros, it’s aimed at amateurs, albeit ones with deep pockets, since the bike comes with a price tag of £8,500 – something unlikely to trouble residents of Monaco, where the company is based.

But according to the Telegraph’s Tom Cary, who visited Gibbings there, the cost is reflected in its performance, as he describes whooshing past ex-pro Baden Cooke on a climb near the principality.

The Typhoon is an electric assist bike rather than an electric bike – the rider needs to turn the cranks (handy, some might say, to help conceal the help he or she is getting) with the motor hidden in the downtube and the battery inside a bottle, for now – there are plans to conceal it in the seat tube.

There are three power settings – 50-70 watts, 120-150 watts and 250 watts, though you can imagine that anyone using the latter might come across a bit like Floyd Landis on his way to Morzine in the 2006 Tour de France.

Cary writes that the company has only been around since the start of the year, and certainly there are some unanswered questions in his article – besides the identity of that “rider manager,” the identity of the Russian inventor who sold the rights to the technology to Gibbings and his business partner Gary Anderson, previously designer for the former F1 team Jordan.

Suspicions that riders may be getting electric assistance surfaced in 2010, falling on Fabian Cancellara, with Italian ex-pro Davide Cassani, then a TV commentator and now national coach, explaining how he believed it could be done.

Cancellara, winner of the Flanders-Roubaix double that year, denied the claims, as did his then team, Saxo Bank. But Chris Boardman, then head of R&D at British Cycling, visited the UCI to explain how it was possible to conceal motors within frames, resulting in the governing body saying it would test for them at that year’s Tour de France.

Suspicions do fall on some riders from time to time, however, often fuelled by insinuations on social media – remember the furore surrounding Ryder Hesjedal, when his rear wheel kept spinning after a crash on last year’s Vuelta?

That caused his then Garmin-Sharp team mate Alex Rasmussen to post a video to show how the wheel could, in those circumstances, continue to spin quite naturally.

Even so, the Cycling Independent Reform Commission said in its report, published earlier this year, that the issue of concealed motors “was taken seriously, especially by top riders, and was not dismissed as being isolated.”

Shortly afterwards, UCI president Brian Cookson told Shane Stokes of the website Cycling Tips: “Our information is that this is a very real possibility. We don’t have any firm evidence but we are absolutely aware that these products are out there and that it is a possibility.

“Given that there have been various allegations and rumours and evidence given to the CIRC that this was a potential area of cheating, we have obviously decided that this is something we should check up on on a regular basis” – as has happened at several WorldTour races this year.

Two current WorldTour riders spoke to Cary for the Telegraph’s article, one of them Orica-GreenEdge’s Adam Blythe, who joined him on that ride with Baden Cooke.

He said: “When Harry first showed me, honestly, I was like, ‘---- me. I mean, you hear all these rumours. You feel a bit sick. For me, if anyone is using this ... it would be an absolute disgrace. As bad as [Lance] Armstrong. There is no grey area.”

The other rider, whose name or nationality were not disclosed, was sceptical however that it would be possible for a rider to engage in mechanical doping due to the number of people who would need to be involved.

“Absolutely no ------- way. It would require too many people to be complicit; mechanics, DSs, agents. It would get out,” he insisted.

A final thought. If someone did have a concealed motor in their bike, the weight of it plus the battery would have to be compensated for elsewhere – which would mean some seriously lightweight components elsewhere on the bike.

And that’s something that we imagine would raise the suspicions of any experienced UCI technical commissaire, who could probably come up with a pretty good idea of whether or not a bike is close to the minimum 6.8 kilogram weigh limit without too much of a problem.

For now, however, it’s not an issue that’s going to go away anytime soon, and during the Tour we can probably expect Twitter to spring into life should, say, Alberto Contador do one of his regular mid-stage bike changes in the mountains; something that during May's Giro d'Italia saw Mario Cipollini publicly question whether the Spaniard had electric assistance, with the UCI choosing his bike to be tested later in the race.

Simon joined as news editor in 2009 and is now the site’s community editor, acting as a link between the team producing the content and our readers. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, he has reported on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, the latest developments in the bike industry and the sport’s biggest races. Now back in London full-time after 15 years living in Oxford and Cambridge, he loves cycling along the Thames but misses having his former riding buddy, Elodie the miniature schnauzer, in the basket in front of him.

Latest Comments