Monday, February 01, 2016

For Cycling, is "Technological Doping" the Next Big Thing?

As if cycling in any form needed another black eye, over the weekend a Belgian rider by the name of Femke Van den Driesshe was forced to withdraw from the Cyclocross World Championships when a small motor was found hidden in the frame of her bike. The revelation has caused some to wonder just how widespread this practice is in the various disciplines of the sport, with the term "technological doping" be used to categorize the illegal behavior.

Van den Driesshe was one of the favorites heading into the race, but on the final lap her bike suffered a mechanical problem that forced her to withdraw from the event. She actually had to dismount from the bike and walk it off the course. When the race was finally over – and one by British rider Evie Richards – several bikes, including Van den Driesshe's, were taken for inspection. It quickly became clear that something was amiss.

UCI president Brian Cookson said of the situation “It’s absolutely clear that there was technological fraud. There was a concealed motor. I don’t think there are any secrets about that." He also reiterated that the cycling union has come up with ways to test bikes for these kind of activity, although he was understandably reluctant to share what those were. He promised that further testing would be done throughout 2016 at UCI sanctioned events, including the Tour de France.

For her part, Van den Driesshe denies any knowledge of the hidden motor on her bike, which she says was put their without her consent. She is facing a six-month ban from the sport, and a fine of 20,000 Swiss francs ($19,500 US) for using the enhanced bike during the race. Those numbers are just preliminary however, as both the amount of the fine and length of suspension could be go up.

This isn't the first time that a rider has been accused of using a motor on their bike. There were allegations against Tour de France winner Chris Froome last year, and former World Time Trial champion Fabian Cancellara has been accused of using a motor in the past too. Neither of those accusations have ever had any merit, although this latest incident does raise the question of how much "technological" or "mechanical doping" is actually taking place.

It's no secret that cycling has had more than its fair share of scandals regarding performance enhancing drugs over the years. So much so, that the UCI has taken measures to try to combat the issues, becoming far more stringent and wide sweeping in its testing. But the developers of PEDs have traditionally stayed one step ahead of the tests, making it very difficult to catch anyone who is actually using them. But as the scrutiny has intensified, it seems that some riders are looking for other ways to get the upper-hand on their competition. Finding unique and creative ways to improve their bike's performance that falls outside the rules of racing seems like the next way for them to do just that.

I suspect this won't be the last time we hear the term "technological doping" being passed around when discussing cycling. It will more than likely become a problem that the UCI will have to deal with on a wider level in the years ahead. While it seems impossible the it could rival the largest doping scandals of the sport's history just how widespread and pervasive it becomes remains to be seen.

All of this of course begs the question, why is cycling so filled with scandals and characters who are willing to bend or outright break the rules for a chance to win. The problems that cycling faces don't seem to be quite as common in other sports, although there are plenty of them that have had to deal with PEDs too. But there seems to be a persistent culture that surrounds cycling that makes it more common amongst those who participate in it, and how that changes is anyone's guess.

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