Yes, folks, we have another tasty scandal within the dirty sport of professional cycling. On Saturday, January 30, 2016, cycling officials detained the bicycle ridden by 19-year-old Belgium rider, Femke Van den Driessche who exclaimed, “It wasn’t my bike – it was that of a friend and was identical to mine.” Indeed, Driessche’s bicycle was unique. Inside the frame of the bicycle, officials found a tiny electrical motor capable of providing 110 watts of assistive power to the bike’s pedals. It is the first official case of “mechanical doping” or “bike doping” at cycling’s highest level.
Femke Van den Driessche’s dirty little secret
Many race observers took notice of Van Den Driessche’s unusual riding style during the Koppenberg race, which featured a tough climb that often plays a key role in the race’s outcome. All the other girls stood on their pedals during the steep climb – except for one. Driessche stayed seated during the entire climb, a move that stunned many viewers (“OMG, how does she do that!?!”). A cycling reporter explained why this was “proper technique” for an electrically-assisted bicycle:
“She stayed seated on the saddle, and for a bicycle electric motor system it’s best that you stay on the saddle. Your rpm’s from the saddle are from 70 to 90, and then you have the best effect from the motor. That’s exactly what Driessche did in the Koppenbergcross race.”
The Vivax Assist electric bicycle motor that hides in the frame
The electric motor in question is the Vivax Assist, a small motor that’s inserted into a bike frame and activated by pushing a button that’s installed on the handlebar. It weighs only 4 lbs. and can produce over 100 watts of power. Austrian-based Vivax of course, does not manufacture the product for racers. They told reporters:
“For us it is very disappointing when a product that can bring great benefit to many customers is used for other intents, for that is really unacceptable.”
Mechanized doping has long been suspected in the sport
For years there has been speculation that electric motors have been secretly concealed in pro racer’s bikes and that the practice may even be a darkly-held secret within the bicycling world, one that is just now coming to light. According to Velo News:
“Many laughed when the UCI [a cycling organization] started showing up at races a few years ago with bulky X-ray machines to take a glimpse inside bike frames. Those fears carried over into last year’s Tour de France, with accusations leveled at Sky’s Chris Froome. The abuse of so-called motor-assisted bikes seemed too far-fetched even for a sport where cheating was part of its DNA. The technology seemed too bulky, too heavy, too unreliable, and even too noisy to be realistically applied to a sport in which every gram of weight counts.”
Regardless of rider’s naïve skepticism, Belgian dealer Bart Daems is certain electric motors are being used in major cycling events. He told Business Insider that two years ago, his shop sold a Vivax system to a well-known local amateur rider (Daems will not publicly name the rider). Soon after, he started seeing the rider’s name appear in race finishing results online (a situation that Daems says left him feeling “a little bit strange”). He told BI that he quickly stepped in and put a stop to it:
“We called him and told him, and, well, we dismounted his system. We gave back a part of his money. I think in the amateur circuit, for sure there will be some guys that will use a motor.”
Even cycling legend Greg LeMond (the only America to win the Tour de France) agrees there is a new problem in the sport of cycling.
“I believe it’s been used in racing and I believe it’s been used sometimes in the Grand Tours.”
And Driessche isn’t the first person to be caught
The first major hint of “mechanized doping” emerged in 2010 when video of Swiss pro Fabian Cancellara emerged online showing him moving his hand down quickly, “with his forefinger and his middle finger, pushing something under the gear and brake controls.” Cancellara angrily denied rumors that anything was amiss.
Fan fears were further heightened when a 2014 Tour of Spain clip appeared in which Canadian Ryder Hesjedal’s crashed his bike during the race. As he climbs to his feet and reaches for his bike, the rear wheel of the bike continues spinning, so fast that for several seconds the bike whips around on the ground as if trying to right itself to continue the race on its own.
In Van den Driessche’s case, the cheat was exposed in the under-23 bracket after she experienced a “mechanical problem” with her bike. Belgian news site Sporza reports that there were ‘electrical cables” seen coming out of the bike.
Driessche quickly explained away her part in the ploy.
“It wasn’t my bike — it was that of a friend and was identical to mine. This friend went around the course Saturday before dropping off the bike in the truck. A mechanic, thinking it was my bike, cleaned it and prepared it for my race.”
The news is a fresh blow to a sport still recovering from the 2013 Lance Armstrong doping scandal after the disgraced American cyclist admitted to cheating throughout his career following years of denials.