Testing Tour de France riders for performance-enhancing drugs is standard practice, but there’s a new mode of deception available to cyclists looking to gain an advantage on their rivals: mechanical doping. When used during a race, electric motors can give athletes an extra 200 watts of juice over the course of an hour. For pro-cyclists racing within fractions of seconds of each other, this kind of boost can be the difference between winning or being an also-ran.
In this article:
- How thermal imaging technology is helping
- How officials are dealing with “mechanical doping”
- The difficulties of preventing cheating in the sport
Thermal imaging technology
Earlier this year, the International Cycling Union announced that it will use thermal imaging technology at this year’s race as part of an effort to crack down on cyclists who rig their bikes with hidden motors and other mechanical devices.
As electric motors whirr away they generate a lot of heat, so ahead of this year’s event the French Atomic Energy Authority (CEA) provided Tour de France officials with thermal imagers to test anomalies in cyclists’ bikes, with checks made at various points during the race from the roadside. X-ray machines are also being used at the end of each stage to check for hidden devices and magnetic systems in the wheels.
Suspicions of mechanical doping in cycling
Rumours of mechanical doping have been around for a long time. During the Tour of Flanders in 2010, an attack by the Swiss cyclist Fabian Cancellara caused a stir when he appeared to drastically speed up mid-race. Former cyclist Davide Cassani uploaded a YouTube video alleging Cancellara had used a motorised bike, although the UCI decided not investigate the claims.
Since then, other strange incidents have been reported, fuelling suspicions that mechanical doping is rife in cycling. When Canadian Ryder Hesjedal crashed out of a racing in Vuelta in 2014, the rear wheel of his bike carried on spinning after he hit the ground.
Although other riders came under suspicion, this growing problem was thrown into sharp focus back in January 2016 when 19-year-old Belgian cyclist Femke Van den Driessche was caught with an electric motor hidden in her bike at the Cyclocross World Championship. In April, she was stripped of her medals and banned for six years.
Frustratingly for Tour de France organisers, it remains unclear how effective thermal cameras actually are in determining who is mechanically doping. Firstly, it’s not clear whether they can detect electromagnetic motors that may be hidden in the rear wheel. With a power output of around 60 watts, these are regarded as the “new frontier” of technological doping and cost €200,000 to fit.
Secondly, it’s conceivable that cheats will be thinking one step ahead and using cooling equipment to render a thermal camera useless. Either way, with technology constantly advancing this game of cat and mouse between the dopers and the authorities is likely to continue for some time yet.