Two leading magistrates based in Paris are reported by French newspaper Le Canard Enchainé to be investigating whether hidden motors are being used at the top levels of cycling.
The satirical newspaper, which like the UK’s Private Eye has a strong tradition of investigative journalism, says that the probe was launched last summer following a preliminary inquiry.
It is being conducted by two magistrates, Claire Thépaut and Serge Tournaire, from a specialist judicial unit based in Paris set up in 2014 to investigate high-profile cases related to fraud and corruption.
Aided by a dedicated anti-fraud unit of the Gendarmerie, the pair are reported to be focusing on the highest levels of the sport, and are said to suspect that some of cycling’s biggest stars may have benefited from the use of motors concealed in the frames of their bikes.
The newspaper notes that “extraterrestrial” performances in the mountains have given rise to suspicions that hidden motors are being used.
When used in the media in connection with cycling, the word – in French, “extraterrestre” – is generally seen as insinuating that a rider is cheating, and was regularly used to describe Lance Armstrong while he was racing.
The term was also employed by ex-pro and now TV pundit Laurent Jalabert to describe Chris Froome when the Team Sky rider won the first mountain stage of the 2015 Tour de France at La Pierre Saint-Martin in the Pyrenees.
UCI president David Lappartient has vowed to crack down on motor doping and said earlier this month that it would be a “disaster for the sport” if a leading rider were caught using a concealed motor.
To date, only one concealed motor has been discovered in competition, hidden in a bike prepared for Belgian under-23 rider Femke van Den Driessche at the 2016 UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships in Zolder.
Rumours persist of their use, however, and in November Lappartient appointed former pro Jean-Christophe Péraud, runner-up in the 2014 Tour de France and an engineer by profession, as the UCI’s manager of equipment and the fight against technological fraud.
The two magistrates reported to be investigating the issue of motor doping are big hitters within the French judicial profession.
Thépaut is well-known for her investigation of former President Nicolas Sarkozy over allegations of corruption and illegal financing of a political party.
Both she and Tournaire are involved in an ongoing investigation into claims that former Prime Minister Francois Fillon employed his wife in a fictitious position as parliamentary assistant.
The investigation was launched in January following an exposé in Le Canard Enchainé at a time when Fillon was frontrunner to win this year’s presidential election, his popularity in the opinion polls immediately plunging.
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.