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Mechanical doping: UCI tested - and rejected - thermal imaging to detect motors

Governing body says magnetic scanners work but thermal imaging technology wouldn't have caught Femke Van den Driessche...

The UCI says it considered using thermal imaging technology to check bikes for hidden motors but found it to be “much less effective” than the magnetic field-based scanning technology that found one in a bike at the Cyclo-cross World Championships in January.

The governing body gave more details of its scanning technology in a press release issued on Friday, a fortnight after an investigation from French TV show Stade 2 and Italian newspaper Il Corriere della Sera claimed that using thermal imaging cameras, they had discovered seven concealed motors at races in Italy in March, including Strade Bianche.

> Hidden motors used at Strade Bianche, claims French TV (+ video)

Referring to the technology that found a motor hidden in a bike prepared for Belgian under-23 cyclo-cross rider Femke Van den Driessche, who last week received a six-year ban, the UCI said: “The new scanning method uses a tablet, case, adapter and custom-made software which enable an operator to test a complete bike, wheels, frame, groupset and other components in less than a minute.

> Six-year ban for Van den Driessche

“The software utilised was created in partnership with a company of specialist developers and electrical engineers. If the scan picks up anything unusual, the bike or component is then dismantled for inspection.

“The UCI's trials of the current scanning method showed it is highly effective in detecting hidden motors or any components that could contribute to powered assistance.

“The scanner creates a magnetic field and the tablet then detects any interruptions to this magnetic field which can come from a motor, magnet or solid object such as a battery concealed in a frame or components.

“The scanners have proved to be a flexible, reliable and highly effective tool which enables large volumes of bikes to be tested in short periods. Extensive prototype testing was undertaken in 2015 before Beta testing in the field environment was started.”

> Mechanical doping: All you need to know about concealed motors

The UCI said it had “also carefully considered and tested alternatives, including thermal imaging, x-ray and ultrasonic testing,” but found them to be “much less effective.”

Initially, the governing body trialled thermal imaging, “as it was believed that it had the potential to be the most useful method.”

But the UCI said it was unsuitable for pre- or post-race checks, since it could only detect a motor when it “is in use or just been used and is still warm” – adding that it would not have discovered the one in Van den Driessche’s seat tube of the bike prepared for her, which was in the pit area.

It added that it could also pick up heat signatures due to friction from legitimate sources such as bearings or tyres, insisting that the images that appeared on the Stade 2 programme “are consistent with normal heat from moving parts.”

Moreover, the ability to deploy screens to hide the heat signature and the fact thermal imaging only works on line of sight also made it unsuitable, the UCI maintained.

X-rays, meanwhile, were ruled out for a number of factors including cost, logistics, space required and legislation that varies between countries as well as the time involved – on average, three minutes per bike – while calibration issues caused by variations in measurements between frames made by different manufacturers ruled out the use of ultrasonic scanning equipment.

UCI president Brian Cookson commented: “Over the past two years we have made a considerable investment of UCI resources to find a method of testing bikes for technological fraud which is flexible, reliable, effective, fast and easy to deploy.

“We have consulted experts from a wide variety of professional backgrounds – universities, mechanical, electronic and software engineers, physicists – and worked with the best technology available.

“Our ability to reliably test so many bikes has transformed our work in this area and we will continue to test widely in all our disciplines to ensure that anyone tempted to cheat in this way knows they are highly likely to be caught,” he added.

The UCI revealed it had performed 507 checks on 347 bikes from all the teams at the Tour de Romandie in Switzerland last Friday, and had not detected any instances of technological fraud.

The scanning equipment was the same as that used in the Van den Driessche case and follows similar tests on bikes at other events including the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix and at the Track Cycling World Championships in London earlier this year.

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.

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