Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
“I don’t know. We don’t hear any noise,” said Tadej Pogačar, clad in yellow and seemingly a little in disbelief at what he was being asked. “We don’t use anything illegal. It’s all Campagnolo materials, Bora.”
And then, “I don’t know what to say.”
The Tour de France‘s most dominant rider was responding to anonymous insinuations of technological fraud that had been published in the Swiss daily Le Temps, based on the testimony of three riders from within the race.
There had been, the riders alleged, “strange noises” coming from the bikes of four teams – Team UAE-Emirates, Deceuninck-QuickStep, Jumbo-Visma and Bahrain Victorious.
“It’s coming from the rear wheels,” one of the riders alleged to Le Temps. “A strange metallic noise, like an incorrectly adjusted chain. I’ve never heard it anywhere.”
Le Temps’ writer Pierre Carrey goes further in spelling it out, describing it as an “alleged new generation engine”.
“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,” another of Carrey’s sources elaborates. “We are also talking about a recuperator of the wheels. Energy via the brakes. Inertia is stored as in Formula 1.”
The lack of any supporting evidence, and the anonymity of the sources, raises some fairly big questions about the credibility of the report.
Nonetheless, here we are, with the maillot jaune being directly asked in a post-stage press conference if he’s doing anything illegal with his bike. That stage had ended with a victory from a rider from the embattled Bahrain Victorious team, making a zipping motion across his mouth as a victory salute.
A climate of suspicion has descended on the race like a low-hanging fog, with the speculative Le Temps report only increasing the sense of intrigue.
A history of misbehaviour
This year’s Tour de France – like most editions of the race in modern history – is stalked by the presumption of wrongdoing.
That’s how it has been since at least the Festina Affair in 1998, which exposed widespread doping within the peloton, and was reinforced by Lance Armstrong’s fall from grace over a decade later. But while cycling is almost certainly cleaner than it’s ever been, the questions linger. It’s like a tattoo on the sport’s metaphorical skin – slowly fading, perhaps, but difficult and costly to remove.
This year’s dominant performance by Tadej Pogačar has raised some peripheral questions from armchair commentators, while a high-profile investigation of Bahrain Victorious launched in Pau a couple of days ago has further heightened suspicion.
The report from Le Temps has been lobbed into this flurry, prompting Pogačar’s denial yesterday.
The young Slovenian seemed a bit perplexed by the question, maybe a little annoyed, and then moved onto the next one. Asked about his arrangements for the Olympics, he dryly confirmed he’d be travelling to Tokyo on Monday by plane – “I checked Google maps and you cannot go by car. It doesn’t find the route, so we’ll go in the plane, yes …” – and that was about it.
Hidden motors and hidden motives
Motor doping has been the monster under the bed of professional cycling for a number of years, commonly cited as a fear of organisers and the UCI but seldom substantiated with any actual evidence despite a huge increase in testing. There has been just one cyclist discovered and sanctioned by the UCI for a hidden motor, for an incident stretching back to 2016 involving Belgian U23 cyclocross rider Femke Van den Driessche.
In the aftermath of this, David Lappartient’s 2017 presidential campaign was run on a platform of eradication of the hidden scourge of technological fraud.
In the years since, having uncovered no examples of “motor doping”, Lappartient’s UCI has pivoted toward more nebulously protecting the ‘integrity’ of the sport, although many of the innovations brought in to catch technological fraudsters are still in use.
As of stage 15 of this year’s Tour de France, according to the UCI, 720 bike tests had been conducted at the race. “606 were conducted on bikes before the start of each stage using magnetic scanning tablets. Meanwhile X-ray technology was used to test another 114 bikes at the end of each stage,” the UCI said in a press release.
“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.”
In addition to the magnetic tablets – which have been in use since 2016 – and the mobile X-ray technology – first deployed in 2018 – the UCI also highlighted the introduction of a compact, light, hand-held device using backscatter technology that will be introduced at the Tokyo Olympics.
“The UCI takes the fight against technological fraud very seriously, which is why we continue to innovate to further enhance the effectiveness of our testing,” said Michael Rogers (yes, that Michael Rogers), the UCI’s recently-appointed Innovation Manager.
Is it plausible?
Stranger things have happened, but it seems fairly far-fetched. As outlined by the UCI, there’s extensive testing taking place. And based on the testing protocols outlined above, it’s unlikely that the named teams are going to fly under the radar. After all, they’ve been prolific winners – ensuring that their bikes are going to be X-rayed on a regular basis.
At the very least, it is guaranteed that the UCI testing has brought them into direct contact with the bikes of Tadej Pogačar, Julian Alaphilippe, Mark Cavendish, Wout Van Aert, Sepp Kuss, Matej Mohoric and Dylan Teuns – all stage winners on the teams that were specifically highlighted by Le Temps’ anonymous sources. Pogačar’s bikes have been tested at least 15 times.
There’s no common thread allowing a conspiracy to take place on a sponsor front, either – four wheel brands are represented across the teams cited.
Deceuninck-QuickStep, the team of green jersey-wearer Mark Cavendish and world champion Julian Alaphilippe, rides Roval wheels. Jumbo-Visma, the team of Wout Van Aert, Sepp Kuss, and Jonas Vingegaard, is sponsored by Shimano but also riding Vision. UAE-Team Emirates is riding Campagnolo. Team Bahrain Victorious, which leads the team classification and has won three stages, rides Vision wheels.
Motor-doping on this kind of team scale would require the silence and complicity of hundreds of individuals across multiple rival teams and technological partners.
The UCI is not an organisation that has always behaved with the greatest integrity, but in this particular case it appears that there’s unlikely to be a cover-up from on high. After spending millions fighting a phantom battle against technological fraud, it would be politically expedient for the UCI to catch the fraudsters. They haven’t.
So: Tadej Pogačar is almost certainly not a beneficiary of technological fraud. A reporter has found three riders in the peloton who either don’t believe what they’re seeing or want to seed some chaos. There is now a whispering campaign implicating four of the leading teams of this year’s Tour, which seems unlikely to have a basis in reality.
And yet, here we are.