Skip to main content

Over the past year, the idea of moto-doping – secreting a small motor in a racing bicycle – had become the great white buffalo of professional cycling. People inside the sport were talking about the devices, but no one had actually seen one used.

Most of this conversation was linked to curious video footage taken during major races and then picked apart by cyclo-conspiracy theorists on the Internet.

In one of them, Giro D'Italia winner Ryder Hesjedal of Canada falls during a 2014 race. After Hesjesdal skids to a stop, the bike, now lying on its side, begins to spin in a circle, seemingly under its own power. Hesjedal would later say that moto-doping is "just not possible." Although there are reasonable explanations why his wheel continued to turn, suspicions festered – as they tend to do.

In another, Swiss rider Fabian Cancellara is seen accelerating comically through a group of riders, showing few signs of extra effort. He's also shown sitting comfortably in his saddle, rapidly pulling away from an opponent who's straining out of his own. Both are climbing a 45-degree incline.

That Cancellara video has attracted four million YouTube views. Asked about it the other day, Cancellara told Velo News he had "not even had time to look into it."

The technology to electronically augment bicycles has existed for several years. The motor is obscured inside the frame's metal tubing. Wiring is run through the seat. Batteries are hidden in water bottles. An on/off switch is fitted discretely into the handlebar assembly.

The motor won't provide a huge boost, but since so little separates one elite rider from another, even the smallest advantage can be decisive.

Most pros were on record agreeing with Hesjedal – that the whole idea is so preposterous that it's not just unlikely, but inconceivable. That's the thing with cheating in sports (or anywhere else). It only seems plausible once everyone's doing it.

Having been so behind the curve on PEDs they were practically out in front of it, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) needed to be seen as cleaner than clean. So it began randomly testing bikes last year for hidden motors.

And then, deliciously, it discovered one.

It was found in the possession of Belgian cyclo-cross champion Femke Van den Driessche. The offending equipment was taken from her paddock during the recent under-23 world championship. Van den Driessche, 19, has since said she doesn't own the bike. It was once hers, but she sold it to a friend and training partner, who then mixed it up with her current assortment and … do you really want to hear the rest? Would it convince you? I'm guessing not.

(The story gets weirder. After Van den Driessche hit the top of the Belgian news cycle, a pet-store proprietor claimed to recognize her father and brother as two men who'd stolen a pair of parakeets from her store. They're now facing criminal charges. The brother, Niels, is also a professional cyclist. He's currently serving a doping ban.)

The reaction from within the cycling world hasn't been outrage so much as eye-rolling exasperation. That cohort of pros is long past being genuinely shocked at what their colleagues get up to.

"I can understand why some people would choose to dope with what is at stake and what is to be gained from it, financially and things," British Olympic hero Bradley Wiggins said. "But to stick a motor in your bike? I don't understand the logic behind that."

Here's the logic, which Wiggins has already provided: When you win, you get rich, which is awesome. When you don't, you have to get a real job, which can really suck.

One suspects the first instance of actual moto-doping may be the last. It's just too simple to find a motor in a bike if regulators begin a concerted effort to look for them (which is now inevitable). Until this week, the UCI searched for cheaters by taking bikes apart after random seizures.

Why not just run every single one through an airport-style X-ray machine at the start of major races, then slap on seals? It'd be faster, easier, fairer and probably cheaper.

As controversies go, the only instructive part of this is reminding us how far people will go to succeed at the very highest levels. They'll ruin their health, court ridicule and take risks a Bond villain might judge too cartoonishly vainglorious. But I suppose that, compared with an exotic bird heist, no scheme looks crazy any more.

In stepping beyond acceptable boundaries of fair play, cheaters also perform a necessary function – pushing whatever they do beyond its own limits.

Across the board, athletes are constantly getting better at everything – running faster, jumping higher, throwing harder, and lifting more. Few athletic superlatives exist in stasis. None recede with time.

The vast majority of that is because of the science of training, but the human body isn't changing. We're all working with the same raw genetic material that existed a century ago.

And so some of it must be down to the fear that everyone else has an unnatural advantage. So you have to try harder and go further. Although we don't like to think of it this way, that's what real disruption is – cheating.

We don't have to like or condone it. Most inside the sport want Van den Driessche's competitive head chopped off. Eddy Merckx, the greatest Belgian cyclist of all time (which is really saying something) has said that moto-dopers should be banned for life after a first offence.

Maybe that's fair. Once Van den Driessche goes, someone pulling up after her will try something even more extreme, and then he or she will be slapped back as well. Or perhaps they'll change the way the sport is played.

It's not the only way progress happens, but it is a way.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Check Following for new articles