Just how much of a boost can a concealed motor give to a cyclist’s performance? Enough to enable an amateur to drop a former world champion and three-times Tour of Flanders winner on one of that race’s signature climbs, the Oude Kwaremont.
The big news in cycling this week was the discovery of a hidden motor in a bike prepared for use by Belgian Under-23 rider Femke Van den Driessche at the UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships in Zolder.
While rumours of such devices being used have circulated since 2010, it’s the first time one has been been discovered in competition, and casts in new light a 15-minute segment aired in 2014 by the Belgian TV documentary series, Koppen.
The production team set 48-year-old amateur Luc Keim up with a bike containing a Gruber Assist motor for an amateur race in Herzele.
The day before, they pitted him against Lion of Flanders Johan Museeuw, also aged 48 at the time, for a race up the 1.5 kilometre Oude Kwaremont, the cobbled climb with an average gradient of 4 per cent and a maximum of 12 per cent.
Few know the climb better than Museeuw, and the first time he and Keim tackle it, the latter without electrical assistance, he leaves him far behind.
The second time, the amateur is on a motor-equipped Spartakus bike and pushes the button on the handlebars to get a mechanical boost just as the climb begins; this time, Museeuw is left in his wake.
“An obvious advantage”
“That was more fun than the first time,” said Keim afterwards. “Obviously. I didn’t realise the difference would be that big.”
Museeuw replies: “There is an obvious advantage. You felt it yourself. 150 Watts is a lot.”
“I can tell you that normal people who don’t normally exercise would find it difficult to push 150 Watts in a cardio test. It’s unequivocal. You’ve won. Congratulations.”
The riders decide to call it a day at one-all. The report says the motor, powered by a battery hidden in a water bottle or saddlebag, can give Keim an advantage of between 10kph and 15kph over one of the top Classics riders of the past quarter century.
The following day, Keim tries it out at an amateur race. As yet, the organisers and announcer have no idea he has a motor hidden in his seat post, and he uses it to bridge a gap of around half a minute from the peloton to the escape group ahead.
Rider offers to split race winnings in return for motor
According to Bart Daems who distributes the product in Belgium, he had sold 60 of the devices there, mostly to cyclotourists. But it has attracted interest from racers, too.
“We have had an installation request from a young racer via a distributor in return for half of the race winnings. We didn’t take him up on this to protect the cyclist.
“I want to stress that the motor is not intended to be used on the racing scene. It is more of an aid for cyclists who can’t follow their friends anymore because of health problems, or for people who want to ride to work, on a racing bike, with a bit of help.”
2010 Cancellara suspicions
The programme cuts to archive footage of the 2010 Tour of Flanders, when Fabian Cancellara’s decisive attack on Tom Boonen on the Muur van Geraardsbergen first gave rise to rumours the Swiss rider was using a hidden motor – suspicions fuelled by him fiddling with his handlebars, plus a number of bike swaps.
“It’s the number of bike changes that is especially suspicious,” says Michael Wuyts, who describes them as “peculiar ... unnecessary. There wasn’t a mechanical or a puncture. He simply changed bikes three times on a stretch where everything was prepared. That’s maybe a little confusing.
He believes, however, that the four-time world time trial champion was powered by nothing more than his own muscles.
“I know that Cancellara is a big name, he’s got a lot of power and he can put that power into a high cadence, that’s his strength, and I don’t believe that he used it [a motor]. I’m not saying that it hasn’t been used by other cyclists, but not by Cancellara.”
The segment aired in days preceding the 2014 Tour of Flanders, and at Gent-Wevelgem, Boonen was asked his thoughts on Cancellara’s win four years earlier.
“He’s over there, ask him,” he said, indicating his rival. “It’s not for me to say, but I have seen a lot of tests where they had simulated it and it is possible, yes. It’s not for me to answer this.”
Asked if he would consider using one, he responds: “No. For me doping is a step too far, let alone mechanical doping.”
In recent days, suggestions have been that where concealed motors are most likely to be used isn’t at elite level, but at Gran Fondos and similar events, and back at the amateur race, Keim is looking good in the front group.
But not wanting to steal an unfair victory, he eases off and finishes seventh.
“It works, but you have to be able to use it,” he reflects. “And I think that’s not always so straightforward. Every time you have to reach to the end of the handlebars.
“All I did in the last lap is chase down gaps. Then at the end somebody jumped, and normally I would chase him down. That guy would lose because of me, and that would make feel guilty. That would be a real shame. So I didn’t end up sprinting because I didn’t think it was fair.”
It’s time to come clean to the race organisers.
“I’m participating in an experiment for Koppen,” he explains to Guy Vanparrijs. “So it’s like this: this bike is different. This bike has a motor.
“You’re not surprised?”
“No, no. It’s honest of you that you’re telling us.”
“It’s for an experiment.”
“It’s honest of you that you are telling us, because otherwise we wouldn’t know. Some of the riders came up to me and said, ‘that guy, doesn’t he have a motor in his bike?’ But, it’s impossible to check. This year, maybe, with all the media attention, we’ll have to find a way to find the cheats.”
“I hope you won’t ban me from racing,” adds Keim.
“No, no, we’ll leave it at this for this one time.”
It’s not known which type of motor was found on Van den Diessche’s bike last weekend, and the absence of water bottles in cyclo-cross, let alone saddlepacks, would mean some other type of battery technology would have to be used.
What we do know, however, is the UCI’s ability to detect such devices has evolved quickly and commissaries can now quickly check bikes for concealed motors using a tablet computer and bespoke app.
Last weekend’s Cyclo-cross World Championships appears to be the first time it has been used in competition, and while we await full details of what exactly was found, it appears to work.
As for Keim, he said his motor-assisted days were behind him and in future he’d race on his own bike, relying on pedal power alone.
With thanks to Iwein Dekoninck for translation of the programme.
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.