Could 'mechanical doping' open the door to sanctioned e-bike racing?

Electric bike enthusiasts see a silver lining to allegations that a Belgian cyclocross athlete cheated by using a hidden motor.

Pro cycling fans may be lamenting the first-ever accusations of “mechanical doping” against a female Belgian cyclocross star, but those who want to see the formation of formal E-bike racing circuits are hailing it as a progress.

The Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), cycling’s governing body, announced its first case of technical fraud when Femke Van den Driessche was found to be using a motorized bike to compete in Saturday’s World Championships.

Van den Driessche says the bike belonged to a friend and was shuffled into her race-day bike lineup by mistake.

In a press conference, UCI President Brian Cookson confirmed the existence of a motor: “It is no secret that a motor was found...we believe that it was indeed technological doping.”

"Cycling is a sport and like most sports people are always going to be seeking the advantage, " says USA Cycling Spokesperson Chuck Hodge. "However, we have a very strict anti-doping stance and as a result of this case we are going to be looking into mechanical doping as well to see what we need to do there to crack-down."

“I think as much as it is a disgrace, from another angle it is also a testament to the difficulties of competing in the sport,” writes Jeff Silverberg, whose son, Jake, races on the world cycling stage for UCI team Astellas, in an e-mail to The Christian Science Monitor. “The riders are so good, and so willing to push themselves to their very limits – that despite this – it is still not enough. A difficult sport to reach the top, to say the least.” 

MakerSpace757 cycling technology expert, Wes Cheney, says in a phone interview not to underestimate the power of this hidden technology.

"Some people may claim that these electronic assists are too small to matter but if you're getting a one- or two-percent boost going up a hill, in a race at that level, it's the difference between winning and losing," Mr. Cheney says.

Fans on took to Twitter to voice their opinions, both moral and mechanical.

Concerns over mechanical enhancement are not new to cycling, with red flags popping up all over YouTube over the past five years.

In 2010 a YouTube video created by Italian Cycling Expert Michele Bufalino shows how mechanical doping could be achieved.

In 2015, three time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond built a bike and demonstrated in a video how a motor could be easily hidden, with a control mechanism in a faux water bottle.

“Part of me is upset that people are still trying to find ways to cheat in pro cycling,” says electric bicycle pioneer Corbin Keegan of Los Angeles, Calif., in an interview.

In 2013 Mr. Keegan released a video of what he now calls his “doped bike” that uses neodymium electromagnets in the hub motors to reach speeds up to 50 miles per hour. “But another part of me is excited thinking that maybe this is a chance, an opportunity, for people to start talking about hyper-cross.”

“Hyper-cross” is Keegan’s term for what he says is the natural evolution of cycling from the days of cycling races that featured high front wheels (front wheels reaching 60 inches in diameter) with tiny back wheels, to today’s electronically and mechanically enhanced e-bikes.

“Yes, doped bikes are enhanced, and it’s cheating, but the same thing could be said about the derailleur, which gives us gear ratio assistance and is commonly used today but would probably have been seen as cheating in the 1800s,” Keegan says. “Of course it’s cheating when only one racer has them, but then let’s not squash it all. Let’s regulate it. Move ahead and create a race circuit for e-bikes. Let’s get technology past the cheating and move it over into advancing the sport.”

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