Are pushy parents to blame for young athletes cheating? That’s the view of Dutch journalist and former professional cyclist Marijn de Vries in the wake of the discovery of a motor hidden in a bike at this weekend’s World Cyclo-cross Championships in Zolder, Belgium.
The news has stunned the cycling world. As we said last year, rumours of mechanical doping was the story that refused to go away although there was a school of thought that too many people – riders, mechanics, team staff, suppliers – would have to be involved for it to happen in practice.
Well, that myth can now be laid to rest. A bike has been discovered with a hidden motor, and at one of the UCI’s flagship events, too. And while the rider, Belgium’s Femke Van den Driessche, insists it belonged to a friend, it had somehow been cleaned and prepped for her to race by team mechanics.
The bike was found a year to the day after the UCI amended its rules to specifically include “technological fraud,” and as blogger Inner Ring explains here, it’s a strict liability offence with the onus on the rider to ensure their bike is compliant.
Van den Driessche had been favourite to win the Women’s Under-23 title this weekend. Ironically, (non-electrical) mechanical problems put paid to that. And it was while she was racing that UCI technical staff found the motor hidden in the spare bike.
Aged just 19, she seemed to have a glittering future ahead of her. Last month, she won the European Under-23 title. Earlier this month, she added the Belgian national championship for that age group.
But since Saturday, her performances have come under scrutiny and in particular the Koppenbergcross in November, when she finished second from a star-studded field to compatriot Jolien Verschueren.
In that race, Van den Driessche outclassed some of the best cyclo-cross riders in the world on the signature climb from which it takes its name.
She made it look easy, as you can see in this video at 3 minutes as she pulls away while still in the saddle. Or again, at 11 minutes 45 seconds when even missing a couple of pedal strokes doesn’t affect her rhythm.
One of the other riders in that race, British champion Nikki Harris who finished fifth in the women’s elite event on Saturday, was unequivocal in her view of that performance in an exchange of tweets with ex-pro Daniel Lloyd at the weekend.
. @daniellloyd1 I would defo place a bet she had this in Koppenberg earlier this year... What a joke
— Nikki Harris (@Nikkiharris86) January 30, 2016
In a column for Dutch newspaper Trouw headed “I am angry, but not at Femke Van den Driessche,” de Vries wrote “I’d really like to believe you, Femke,” but likewise raises suspicions about that race, describing the 10 seconds the Belgian youngster took on the climb as “an insanely large gap.”
“And what about your brother [Niels}, who is suspended at the moment because of doping,” she went on.
“I’m afraid that’s the truth. You really need a bike with a motor. It makes me sad, and angry, but not with you.”
There have been cases in countries such as Italy of families and coaches found to have encouraged up-and-coming riders to use performance enhancing drugs to gain an edge on their rivals, and some fanatical parents, de Vrijs insisted, have a win-at-all-costs attitude towards their offspring.
“Children forced to ride on the rollers before a race, even in the pouring rain. Children on the most expensive carbon bikes with wheels even I can’t afford.”
She wrote that on her own team, there were “Flemish girls who wanted nothing more than to give it up but did not dare because it would disappoint their dad.
“But each week they would disappoint him, because if you don’t like something, you don’t win. I’d feel nauseous seeing how they shuffled around with their parents, head bowed, after every race.”
Noting that the rider’s father “doesn’t seem like a man to be trifled with,” de Vries said, “even if it is a mistake, your life is broken.”
She concluded by reflecting on the experience of another Flemish youngster, Jonathan Breyne, who after testing positive for clenbuterol at the 2013 Tour of Beijing, tried to take his own life. “He was found just in time. And later acquitted,” added de Vries.
1994 men’s cyclo-cross world champion Paul Herygers, now a commentator for Belgian sports network Sporza, also said it was people around Van den Driessche who have to shoulder the responsibility for what is being termed in Belgium as “Femkegate,” with matching Twitter hashtag.
"It is pure fraud,” he maintained. “I never thought something like this would happen in cyclo-cross. But it's just a little fish they have caught and the big fish may have long escaped."
He said the fact his own daughter was a fan of Belgium’s rising star also affected his feelings, admitting he “went wild” the first time the rider took on the Koppenberg.
"Van den Driessche finished second and also became Belgian and European champion. I cried. We finally have a girl for the future.
“It was tough to see how she gave her side of the story live on TV,” he added. “That child does not deserve this. Who is behind it? I hope they get a kick in the ...."
The UCI had already made public its intention to use its new magnetic resistance-based scanning technology at the weekend’s event, confirmed last month by the governing body’s technical manager, Mike Barfield, to the website Cycling Tips.
He said the new tests, revealed at the weekend to be carried out using a tablet computer and bespoke app, were so simple to conduct that any commissaire could use them, and that the UCI would be able to test more bikes.
With a greater risk of discovery, then, it’s possible that this case could be the first and last of its type; too late for Van den Driessche, but the unanswered question for now remains, how did the concealed motor come to be there at all?
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.