Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
Given the sport’s troubled past, it is hardly surprising that dominant performances attract more than just raised eyebrows. Doping questions and accusations seem almost par for the course for the modern Tour de France leader.
Tadej Pogačar bulldozed the competition on route to his second Tour title last week. At times the young Slovenian looked like he was on a ride to the shops, while his closest contenders clambered for his back wheel.
The doping questions quickly followed, but this year’s allegations took a new twist: motor doping! CyclingTips Iain Treloar covered the subject and Pogačar’s response last week as the race entered its final weekend.
Now, almost a week after Pogačar was crowned champion for the second year in a row, questions about motor doping / technological fraud remain. I decided to look into the potential forms of mechanical doping Pogačar could have used, and assess each on its potential and probability.
Before getting started on the actual motors, let’s first assess the performance requirements of such a system to be effective in the Tour de France. If a 65 kg rider got just a 30 W (almost 0.5 w/kg) boost for 30 minutes, that is the difference between good and all-time great for an already gifted athlete on one of the long mountain climbs of the Tour.
Does it exist: Yes
Assistance: 100-250 W
Likely use: Low to zero
Pogačar, or any other rider in the Tour de France, is certainly not using a standard e-bike as available to you or me.
Some of the latest e-bikes perform fantastically and do an excellent job of hiding the motor if you deem that important. But “off the shelf”, they carry a weight penalty (immediately noticeable to anyone who would lift the bike), limited range, and a (removable) speed limiter.
I reviewed the HPS Domestique back in February, a road e-bike providing 200 W of sustained assistance from an 85 watt-hour battery and motor weighing just 1.5 kg. A larger battery is also available, meaning the HPS can provide “up to three hours of assistance”.
The Domestique impressed me, and it’s one of the best examples of disguising an e-bike as a standard road bike, but its hidden secret wouldn’t pass the eye of a UCI commissaire.
HPS is serving the needs of the rider who is losing fitness or needs the assistance to stay with a group. What if the rider was already the best in the world and only needed a little boost?
The smaller 30 W assistance needed here could also mean a much smaller and lighter battery, tipping this setup back towards possible.
Even still, the UCI electromagnetic resonance scanners and X-Ray testing used at the Tour mean detection of these systems is almost certain. As such it is unlikely any rider or team would ever use a typical e-bike system. The UCI conducted more than 700 iPad electromagnetic resonance scanner tests at the Tour and 150 X-Ray (including weight check) tests. The weight check is actually quite important here as, theoretically, any undetectable drive system would still add significant weight to a bike; enough to raise suspicions in a world where teams are still trying to hit the 6.8 kg weight limit on these decisive stages.
To quote a quote from Iain’s article “The UCI underlines that the post-stage testing pool always includes the bike ridden by the winner of that day’s stage as well as the leader of the general classification. The remainder of the post-stage testing pool is decided on a two-pronged approach: bikes selected by the UCI based on its information and intelligence, and bikes ridden by athletes selected for targeted anti-doping controls by the International Testing Agency (ITA), the independent body in charge of the UCI’s anti-doping activities.”
More information on how the UCI conducts these tests is available here.
Does it exist: Yes, but only in rollercoasters, high-speed trains, etc.
Does it exist in bikes: We don’t think so
Likely use: Low to zero
The theory goes that with currents pulsed through electromagnets in the frame and with precisely placed magnets in the rim, it would be possible to create a wireless motor driving the rear wheel.
Although there has never been an actual working model to the best of my knowledge, this motor theory is not a new. It was La Gazzetta dello Sport who first reported the possibility of wheel-based electromagnetic motors and CyclingTips’s own James Huang covered electromagnetic wheel motors extensively way back in 2016.
The finding back then was that although theoretically possible, the cost of such a system made it highly unlikely.
Hub motors and Kinetic Energy Retention System (KERS)
Does it exist: Yes, in Formula 1
Likely use: Low to zero
E-bikes and magnetic motor accusations are so five to ten years ago! KERS is where it’s at in 2021.
According to Wikipedia, “a kinetic energy recovery system (KERS) is an automotive system for recovering a moving vehicle’s kinetic energy under braking. The recovered energy is stored in a reservoir (for example, a flywheel or high voltage batteries) for later use under acceleration.”
So what has this got to do with cycling? This is the system described by anonymous riders to Pierre Carrey of Le Temps for the article that sparked this year’s accusations.
“We are no longer talking about a motor in the crankset or an electromagnet system in the rims of the wheels, but a device hidden in the hub,” the rider apparently said. “We are also talking about a recuperator of the wheels. Energy via the brakes. Inertia is stored as in Formula 1.”
KERS sounds amazing: enjoy a boost all the way up a climb, and then recharge it going down the other side. But is it possible to condense such a system into a Tour de France-winning bike? One industry insider told me:
“KERS is a kinetic energy recovery system. That means you have to harvest and store energy in a battery or gyro, keep it there (stored) until you want to deploy that energy using electronics to manage the torque/power into a drive system which will have to go through a gear box and final drive. And all this in a normal looking standard rear hub. Good luck with that!”
The US Environmental Protection Agency, in collaboration with students from the University of Michigan, developed this KERS-like hydraulic Regenerative Brake Launch Assist (RBLA) in 2012:
Others, including Tom Stanton, have added a flywheel to bike frames to store energy for later use.
Clearly, neither of these systems are subtle enough to meet Pogačar’s needs.
F1 cars use an electric motor connected to the gearbox to transmit power via gears, with the energy stored in lithium batteries. I asked another industry insider with a Formula 1 and cycling background if KERS could be the Slovenian’s secret recipe for success:
“I won’t say that this is impossible, but in terms of probable reasons for Pogačar’s performance, I think it ranks between sorcery and collaboration with extraterrestrial creatures,” they said. ‘The reason for that is that storing energy requires physical space.”
That physical space is either a flywheel or batteries, both detectable by the UCI’s X-Ray tests.
Still, theoretically, it is possible to create a Tour de France-suitable KERS hidden within a frame.
The battery required is not all that exotic. To provide 30 W for 30 minutes would require a 15 watt-hour battery (30 watts / 0.5 hours). Theoretically, those so inclined could hide these much smaller batteries inside Di2 or EPS shifter batteries and possibly evade detection that way.
As we can see here, Shimano Di2 batteries contain 2 x 2.4 watt-hour batteries, roughly the size of an AA battery. Our theoretical 30 mins of 30 watts would require seven of these batteries, with a little extra leftover to power the gear shifts.
Any UCI commissaire looking at a bike with an X-Ray would surely spot a battery three to four times (two internal batteries per case) larger than the standard Di2 battery.
Theoretically (again), a team or rider this motivated to cheat and with enough budget could find much smaller batteries to provide the same power/energy storage. Both the drone and mobile phone industries are using higher battery energy densities by weight and size.
So if the battery is at least “possible”, what about the motor and the presumably necessary gearbox?
Given that the UCI is already scanning frames for motors, anyone hoping to cheat this would likely need to turn to the hub to disguise the drive mechanism.
Videos and photos emerged on Twitter last week backing the hub based motor theory, but as yet, such a system does not exist in the market.
Another photo of a claimed e-hub motor surfaced but featured a distinctively different hub shell to that seen in the video. Perhaps this suggests the existence of two versions of the hub motor or a system still in development.
Looking at Pogačar and his teammates’ bikes, their wheels feature the standard Campagnolo Bora hubs on both his rim brake and disc brake bikes. As the owner of a pair of Campagnolo Bora wheels and having serviced the hub several times, I don’t see any space to include a drive mechanism.
All that aside, 30 W motors are not unheard of; drones often use such motors but don’t need a gearbox. Similar motors with gearboxes do exist but start to add serious bulk to the motor, making it even more challenging to hide.
Then there is the problem of wiring and controls. Even if control of the motor could be via a Bluetooth signal to the rider’s head unit, the wiring from the battery (energy storage) to the motor is unavoidable, difficult to hide, and would immediately raise suspicions in a UCI X-Ray.
Having researched the potential for motor doping, it is my opinion this form of cheating does not exist in the WorldTour peloton. Having also seen Pogačar’s bike up close at the Grand Depart in Brest (admittedly this could have been swapped before the race), and again multiple times during the Tour, as he attacked on mountain stages, and as he crossed the finish line on multiple stages, I seen nothing to suggest any mechanical assistance.
That’s not to say this sort of cheating didn’t happen once upon a time, but the UCI checks now make it very unlikely.
Of course, cheaters have long relied on blind spots in testing processes, e.g. micro-dosing. So one must always remain open to the idea that cheaters are one step ahead of the testers and benefitting from some undetectable assistance, either mechanical or biological.
That said, bicycles are still such simple vehicles; it seems difficult to hide such devices well enough to evade UCI testing.
Furthermore, should a KERS-like system exist, its value in the currently booming e-bike market could be colossal! It seems unlikely the company behind such a system would pass up on certain industry domination just so that Tadej Pogačar could win the Tour de France.
Lastly, along with the high risk of getting caught, there is zero chance of deniability for the rider and team. How many convicted doping cheats have we heard deny all accusations with all sorts of fanciful explanations as to how a sample tested positive.
Although these explanations are quite often laughable, the drugs cheat always has some level of deniability. These denials can sometimes leave just enough doubt that the cheater can always point to some doubt in their positive, return to the sport, and act like nothing ever happened.
One motorsport industry insider told me “a good cheat has a low risk of getting caught, and if caught, allows the perpetrator to cast doubt on the evidence or imply that it was an unintentional mistake. It goes without saying it is suicidal to cheat in a way that does not allow some level of deniability.”
It seems unlikely the UCI would not spot any of the systems discussed here. Once discovered, the rider and team, possibly even the frame and wheels manufacturer, would have zero room for deniability. As the same insider told me “A rider found with a propulsion mechanism inside their bike would have their reputation destroyed in a far greater way than any biological doping would.”
All this is not to say we should be complacent about the threat of technological fraud. And to be fair to the UCI, its testing processes seem to ensure any known forms of motoring doping highly are easily detectable. However, as good as the testing appears to be, the UCI has only implemented at most two of the six steps Greg LeMond suggested are necessary in the fight against motor doping.
I’m sure we haven’t heard the last on the subject of motor doping in pro bike racing.