In the last year there has been only one woman caught red-handed during a race with a ‘doped’ racing bike. Her name was Femke Van den Driessche and she had her doped ebike confiscated by the UCI. What they found was a motor and battery hidden in the seat tube of her frame that was very similar to the Gruber assist system. While the bike racing world would have you believe that this is a rare and unusual thing to have happen, a recent 60 minutes report has blown that whole idea away when they interviewed Stefano Varjas who has been happily installing doping systems in road bikes for professional racers since 1998. He claims to have been paid as much as 2 million dollars to install this system discreetly for professional racers. Two million dollars, holy crap, it would seem that I’m in the wrong business (breaking my own ebikes for fame and heartache).
Although no names were named during the show, it does seem pretty strange that Lance Armstrong won a series of Tour de Frances from 1998 on while he was diagnosed with cancer. All the people I know that are diagnosed with cancer tend to end up looking pretty bad and just lay around in bed all day and are not going out and winning any World Class cycling races. Seeing as how Lance was found guilty of a series of incredibly sophisticated chemical doping charges, it’s not much of a stretch to think that he may have been riding a doped ebike to win those Tour De France titles as well. The reality is that we’ll probably never know what really happened.
What drives people to cheat? Why would they risk large fines and humiliation if they are caught? The answer is to win. For some people, nothing matters more than winning.
So how hard is it to dope a racing bike anyway?
If you want to install most mid drive systems on a bike frame you end up just pulling out the Bottom Bracket, front derailleur and front chainring and throwing them all away to replace them with the large and obvious mid drive system. For a fancy seat tube motor like the Gruber assist you will need to replace the bottom bracket with a custom axle that has interlocking teeth to mesh with the motor. The motor is then installed above the axle into the seat tube and then the batteries are generally installed above the motor or hidden somewhere else in the frame. The Gruber Assist will put out 200 Watts of peak power which might not sound like a lot for someone like me who rides 2500W ebikes every morning, but for a race like the Tour De France having 200 Watts of power for 20 minutes can easily be the difference between winning and not winning. Stephano said he generally would charge between $12,000-20,000 to install a motor and battery combo like this (his motor was not a Gruber but was similar). The reality is that the cost of the motor and battery is probably pretty inexpensive so Stephano is making a large chunk of change with every conversion (I’ll do it for $20 and a tube of superglue). This kind of mid-drive system can be pretty easy to detect with a heat sensor when the motor is being used as it generates a lot of heat and there is nowhere for that heat to go except out to the frame of the bike.
To install a Gruber you will need a seat tube that is at least 31.6mm wide and many carbon fiber frames may not be strong enough to use this kind of system unless the bottom bracket is reinforced. Carbon Fiber tends to fail pretty catastrophically which can be fun for the rider and any bystanders. For normal aluminum and steel framed bikes you will need to drill a hole through the top of the bottom bracket which can be a little tricky. I suggest that you use a normal titanium drill with a 2ft drill extension (check on ebay) and then something like a PVC pipe around the outside of the drill to keep it centered. Doing it this way you should be able to patiently drill through the top of the bottom bracket without destroying the frame too badly.
Eenie- Weenie Hub motors
Everyone knows what hub motors look like, but what about a hub motor that is so small that you can fit inside of a normal rear bicycle hub. For a system like that to work, the batteries would need to be located in the frame somewhere and there would have to be some electrical connection between the batteries and the motor. This size motor would only be capable of around 50 watts or so, but on the professional circuit 50 watts over 15-20 minutes can be a huge increase. The average professional cyclist can put out about 400 – 440 watts of power using their legs. While 50 watts might not seem like a lot, a little boost at the right time (like going up a hill) can allow you to pass other non-doped riders.
The Next Generation – Wheel Rim Doping Hub Motors
As the UCI wises up to the mid drive motors, a newer much harder to detect system is being integrated into the rear wheel. Coils are hidden in the wheel with magnets that add about 800g to the total weight of the rear wheel. When the rear rim is turned on (by wireless remote) then it will start to accelerate the tire forward by triggering the magnets sequentially inside the rim. This setup is totally silent and you could feasibly install it in a bike and give it to someone without that rider even knowing that the bike is motorized. If you actually weigh the racing bike first then it is pretty easy to tell if this system is in place because 800g on a racing road bike rim for an event like the Tour De France is like riding around with a brick strapped to your tire. It’s a huge amount of weight that clearly does not belong there.
So are people out there mechanically doping right now?
The answer to this question is absolutely, unequivocally, yes. There is no doubt that there are plenty of people out there racing right now using electric doping systems. Just check out some of these videos and articles.
Check out this video where the rider crashes then the bike stops then starts moving again on its own. There is clearly an electric motor on that road bike.
During the first stage of the Volta a Valenciana, Ion Izagirre is shown in a video here, crashing his Canyon bike. After crashing his bike the bike rear wheel starts spinning on its own until he stands it up. Either it’s a ghost, or there’s a motor in there.
In this video here a bunch of racers are filmed in a race and you can see that are FLIR (thermal) videoed and probably have motors in them. As disturbing as this video is, I’m sure it’s worse if you can actually speak
French Italian (not me, I’m an Mon-no-ligual Ameri-kan-o).
In this final video with 4.5 million views, there is a bunch of what would I would call very suspicious behaviors from bike racers that I absolutely would have grabbed their bikes after their win and shaken them down looking for motors.
Stephano says that he knows for a fact that motorized doped ebikes were raced in the Tour De France with his interview with 60 minutes. Since it doesn’t really serve any purpose for him to lie about this (it’s actually better for him if he does lie) I would say that his statement is almost certainly true. It seems insane to me that people would go through that much trouble, cost and risk to win a bicycle race. I can’t see how the win would be very satisfying in the long term when you know that you had to cheat to win. It’s kind of like paying money for sex, if you have to pay someone to have sex with you, how is that going to affect your feelings of self-worth over the long haul. I can’t imagine that the sex is going to be so good that you’re going to forget about how much of pathetic loser you are for having to pay money for sex.
The whole “it’s oh so hard to catch mechanical dopers” thing is a total sham
The reality is that finding these seat tube motors is a pretty easy thing to do. You just pull the seat post out and shine a flashlight down the seat tube. If the UCI was serious about catching people cheating then as soon as the race was one the bike would be taken from the rider and inspected for motors. If they pulled the seat tube off and didn’t find any motor and pulled the back wheel off and weighed it and it didn’t weigh a whopping 800g more than it should then the winner gets their prize, if they find a motor then there is a heavy fine levied and they get kicked out of bicycle racing. Forever. Seems simple to me. Until the UCI gets serious about catching cheaters, let the best doper win.
The reality is that the UCI is clearly not that interested in catching cheaters. Mechanical doping is infinitely easier to detect that chemical doping and the reality is that there is absolutely NO excuse for them to not be able to quickly and easily find these motors and batteries. As their bike inspections got more throughout then inevitably people would start hiding the motors in other places like the downtubes and possibly even the chainstays. All motors generate heat, so setting up thermal cameras along the race at secret points along hills or other places people are likely to use their motors will help show if people are mechanically doping. If their bikes are showing heat where no heat belongs then they would confiscate the bike and tear it apart. Guilty until proven innocent.
As far as I’m concerned Dope belongs in one place and one place only … in the bowl of a bong. Mechanical doping is for posers, cheaters, and people who like to play with their Peters. That being said stealthy ebikes are really cool, and I love riding in places I’m NOT supposed to ride and getting away with it. In fact, the entire month I was in Vegas every single trail I rode was completely off-limits for ebikes and I loved every minute of it. I was passed by dozens of bikers who just smiled and grunted at me and didn’t even look down to see the giant udder of a motor hanging off my craptastic full suspension ‘My Little Bronie‘ mountain bike with a 3lb 6Ah 30Q 52v 30 Amps continuous minicube battery dangling under the seat in a scrotal seat bag. Because it’s so much better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission (unless you’re talking about sex, in which case it’s better to just get all the groveling over with up front, because nothing is sexier than a fully grown man groveling for sex).
I still don’t understand how marijuana was ever considered a performance enhancing drug, all it ever made me do was forget who I am and then suddenly have an epiphany that the video games are really just playing us … (true story)
… and that, boys and girls, is why you shouldn’t use drugs
I wrote this article after a 90-minute long phone conversation with Eric Hicks where we both got so excited about doping that we decided to have a competition to see who could write and article about it faster. I published mine first, a few hours later, but I still think that he wrote the better article. Go and read his and decide for yourself. Competition is good when it brings out the best in people. I think competition is bad when you’re stabbing the people you’re competing against in the back with an ebike.