Tour de France Mechanical Doping and Motor Drives

June 30, 2016 by Jeff Shepard

So-called "mechanical doping" consists of using a hidden electric motor to provide additional drive power at critical times in a race, such as up a steep climb. Already, there are sophisticated motor power systems that can be hidden in the bike's seat tube. For example, the Vivax Assist only weights 1.8kg (including the battery). Press the button and the motor delivers 200W to the crankshaft. Press the button again and the motor stops.

Without motor power the bike functions as normal without any kind of resistance. The lithium-ion high-performance battery, which fits into a conventional saddlebag, provides motor-assisted cycling lasting for 60 minutes (with a 6Ah pack) or 90 minutes (with a 9Ah pack). The special design of the drive unit allows it to be built into any bicycle frame with the requisite seat tube internal diameter of 31.6 mm or 30.9 mm and is therefore invisible on the bicycle – except the on/off switch, which is unobtrusively located on the bar end.

Of course, the Vivax Assist is too obvious for use as mechanical doping in major cycling races (although there are reports of amateur racers using the device). While the Vivax Assist provides 200W of assist, much smaller hidden motors in professional cycling may provide only 50W to 60W of assist. Minimal size and stealth are critical. According to cycling experts as little as a 1% to 2% of assist on up-hill climbs can make a positive difference in a cyclist’s standings and get him onto the winners’ podium.

The Tour de France begins tomorrow. And the organizers have teamed with the French Atomic Energy Commission to have thermal imaging cameras installed on tablets that organizers will use to identify and prevent the use of miniature motors hidden inside bikes.

Since first deploying its new scanning method to test for technological fraud in January, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) has tested several thousand bikes at many races in different disciplines and in different gender and age categories. Recent examples at stage races are approximately 500 tests at the Tour de Suisse and over 2,000 at the Giro d'Italia.

Co-operation from teams, riders and organizers has been excellent and the UCI staff and technical commissaires deployed to carry out these tests have met with no resistance. It is clear that all stakeholders in cycling have a common interest to demonstrate that this sort of cheating has no place in the sport.

For the forthcoming Tour de France, the UCI will have resources in place to conduct between 3,000 and 4,000 tests. An effective testing protocol is one which is unpredictable so the UCI confirms that it will deploy additional methods of detection at the Tour to both assess their performance and to ensure a varied testing protocol.

UCI scanners, as well as being deployed across the UCI calendar, are now available to UCI’s member National Federations, supported by training from specialist staff. Many federations have placed orders and some have already begun deploying it at national level races.

UCI President Brian Cookson said: “Since the beginning of the year, we are sending a clear message which is that there is literally no-where to hide for anyone foolish enough to attempt to cheat in this way. A modified bike is extremely easy to detect with our scanners and we will continue to deploy them extensively throughout the Tour and the rest of the season.”