The cycling world has been abuzz today with what appears to be the first case of technological fraud, better known as mechanical doping! The International Cycling Union (UCI) confirmed that it had impounded the bike of Belgian rider Femke van den Driessche following the women’s under-23 championship race at this morning’s cyclocross world championships in Belgium.
For those not familiar with the term, doping normally refers to performance-enhancing drugs, but as you might have guessed, mechanical doping is boosting your performance with a motor in competition, which needless to say, is banned and punishable by disqualification, a suspension of at least six months, and a fine of up to 200,000 Swiss francs. Add to that, any team found guilty of mechanical fraud could also face a suspension and a fine as large as one million francs.
According to reports, the bike was caught thanks to new technology the UCI has been developing for several years. The Belgian TV network Sporza reported, “After one lap of the world championships, UCI took Femke’s bike in the pit area (riders will often swap bikes during cyclo-cross races, enabling their mechanics to clean mud off during the event and thus limit mechanical issues such as gears and brakes getting snarled up with gloop) and tested it with some sort of tablet. The bike was immediately sealed and taken. The UCI then called in the Belgian federation. When the saddle was removed, there were electrical cables in the seat tube. When they wanted to remove the bottom bracket, which is normally not difficult, they could not because the crank was stuck. Inside there was a motor.”
Van den Driessche, the European CX champion who rides for the Kleur Op Maat-Nodrugs cycling team, on Wilier bikes, began the race in Heusden-Zolder as one of the favorites. She reportedly ran into issues at the start with her pedals, and was caught up in rider traffic. She was also hit by mechanical problems heading onto the final lap. She came across the finish line on foot and abandoned soon afterwards.
Belgian national team coach Rudy De Bie told Sporza, “This is a disgrace. I never imagined something like this would happen to our team. Why would a rider do this? Especially at such a young age. And who is responsible for her? I’m embarrassed on her behalf.”
Meanwhile Van den Driessche’s father has, insisted upon her innocence, saying that it was not her bike, belonging instead to someone in her entourage who trains with her…words met with some skepticism, as her brother is currently serving a ban for EPO.
Although the bike belonged to Van den Driessche, the UCI has yet to implicated her or her team, saying it is still investigating the matter. In light of the reports, however, bike manufacturer Wilier Triestina has tried to distance themselves from the situation putting out a press release stating, “We are literally stunned, as the main technical partner, it seems only right to distance themselves from this gesture…our society reserves to take legal action against the athlete and any responsible for this very serious matter, in order to safeguard the good name and image of the company, marked by professionalism and seriousness in 110 years of history.”
Mechanical doping has been long rumored, but never seen, nor proven in the pro ranks. Needless to say, the use of detection equipment will likely be ramped up across the board.