Is mechanical doping the next big cycling scandal?

David Woodfield By David Woodfield

UPDATE - 7/3/16

The most in-depth video we've seen about what it's like to ride a bike with a motor was released a few days ago by Global Cycling Network.

It gives you an idea of what a bike with a motor feels like and how much of a boost it gives cyclists.

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At Bought By Many we know that cycling races can be tough. I recently broke my elbow when I was taken out by another rider during the final lap of a criterium.

But despite the damage caused, at least it was all in the spirit of a clean, competitive and fair race. You could say it is no fun if races are easy but it’s even worse if someone has an unfair advantage. Fairness is very important to us; we offer consumers fairer cycling insurance and offer advice to all about the best policies.

Unfortunately, cycling appears to still be struggling through its hill climb of scandal because the dishonest practice of mechanical doping is threatening the parity of pro races.

The sting of public embarrassment relating to human doping might be starting to fade but a new furore is brewing that involves bikes, not bodies, being artificially enhanced.

Mechanical doping involves hiding a motor in a bike that the rider can switch on when they are low on energy or need a burst of extra power - sometimes even for a sustained period.

It might sound fantastical but speculation about secret motors has been swirling for years and in January the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) uncovered the first case of mechanical doping at a major event.

Belgian rider Femke van den Driessche had to abandon a women’s under-23 World Cyclo-cross Championship race because of a technical fault. But when her bike was inspected a small motor was found.

Her father denied the allegations and told the newspaper Het Nieuwsblad that it wasn’t her bike. He said: “Someone from her team, who sometimes trains with her, brought the bike to the pit. But it was never the intention that she would ride it.”

Three-time Tour De France winner Greg LeMond has been outspoken about the need to cut mechanical doping out of cycling and has even appeared in a video demonstrating a bike with a motor in it.

He told the Cycle Tips website: “It is like doping – you hear it, and you know it is true. Everybody wanted to deny it exists because they didn’t want to face reality and disappointment.”

And pros on the circuit, such as Chris Froome, have called on authorities to do more to investigate it.

But older clips such as the one below have reemerged and fueled the debate about how widespread mechanical manipulation is and how cyclists are using it.

It is believed the motors could be switched on via a tiny button on a bike’s handlebars and the battery could be hidden in a water bottle.

Commercial e-bikes that work in a similar way are available from companies such as Vivax Assist. In fact, many of the providers in our guide to the best cycling insurers, such as Bikmo Plus, Yellow Jersey and Cycleplan, cover electric bikes – which are designed for commuters, not racers.

But it seems like mechanical doping could be developing into a serious issue that threatens to further damage cycling’s reputation.

So what is the UCI doing about it?

The body says it has been testing a new detection device and cycling reporter Renaat Schotte recently shared a picture of an official with an unidentified tablet checking a bike.

A photo posted by Renaat Schotte (@wielerman) on

And it February it was reported that the Belgian Cycling Federation was preparing to buy a similar £40,000 scanner that could detect motors ahead of the Belgian Classics.

But there are fears mechanical doping technology has advanced beyond motors and some believe riders could be using electromagnets within wheels, which will be harder to detect.

Mechanical cheating is classed as ‘technological fraud’ by the UCI, which can suspend guilty riders for a minimum of six months and fine them between £14,500 and £145,000. Team fines range from £72,806 to £728,068.

Although these are significant penalties many have called for lifetime bans for anyone caught riding a doped bike.

Let us know what you think about mechanical doping by tweeting us.

Mechanical doping has been a massive talking point among cyclists this year but as the sport warms up for the Tour De France, which starts in July, many will be hoping the scandal doesn’t become the focus of media attention during the competition.

Hopefully the UCI and professionals will work to flush out and make examples of any mechanical doping cheats.

Bought By Many loves cycling, but more than anything, we love fair cycling.

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