Cycling: What is mechanical doping?

Cycling: What is mechanical doping?

A bicycle belonging to Belgian rider Femke Van den Driessche was found to have tiny motors hidden in it last week - the first time someone had been caught for "mechanical doping". We speak to a bike company to find out what it entails.

SINGAPORE: Since the Lance Armstrong doping scandal that surfaced in 2013, cycling has been struggling to regain its credibility.

Last week, the sport suffered another blow: A bicycle belonging to a Belgian rider was found to have tiny motors hidden in it. It was the first time someone had been caught for what is dubbed "mechanical doping".

How easy is it to "mechanically dope"? Channel NewsAsia spoke to a bike company to find out.


The incident involving Femke Van den Driessche at the Cyclo-cross World Championships is possibly the first top-level case of technological fraud. But there has been suspicion that some cyclists have been illegally modifying their bikes by inserting electrical motors to boost their performances.

This is how it works:

  • The motor sits inside the bicycle frame’s seat tube, hidden from sight.
  • It is connected to a small battery, possibly under the seat.
  • At the bottom of the motor unit is a small bevel gear that drives a retrofitted crank spindle.
  • It is controlled with a button located on the handlebar.

"Actually it's not easy to modify. It takes a while to modify, to keep the cables inside and the motor inside as well. I believe it can produce 100-200 watts, the Tour De France standard is about 400 watts, so imagine that you have 400 watts plus 200 watts ... (a) maximum (of) 600 watts!" said Mr Jim De La Cruz, Head Mechanic at T3 Bicycle Gears.

With a simple push of the button, an average cyclist can be transformed into Chris Froome. With other buttons and gears on the bike, such a specially programmed switch could be used without drawing attention.

"For normal people, I believe they cannot easily detect the thing by just looking (at) the bike. Even for me - yes, maybe it's a little bit difficult also to see, unless you take out everything then you can see it. Modification would cost about US$2,000 to US$3,000 (S$2820 to S$4225)."

Mr De La Cruz said the biggest tell-tale sign is the presence of additional screws in the bicycle frame's seat tube.

But not all instances of bicycle modifications are illegal. Mechanisms that still require a cyclist to pedal are allowed in competitions.

Oval chain rings, or more oblong ones help minimise the dead spots while one is pedalling, while ceramic pulleys help minimise the friction of the bicycle chain. All of them are well within the rules of bicycle modification.

According to Mr De La Cruz, there is one other form of mechanical doping: electromagnetic wheels which can produce 20 to 60 watts of power. But such technology is costly and produces much less power than a hidden motor.


Benedict Lee, who competed at the SEA Games in 2015, believes riders will not get away with mechanical doping in competitions in Singapore.

"It's not normal to see a person just cruising out of the peloton at like 50 to 60 kilometres per hour when everyone's at their limits. So you know that either they have a motor on their bike or they're taking drugs because it's really not normal to see someone's wheels suddenly start spinning very fast out of nowhere. So it's very obvious to tell when they're cheating," Lee said.

Bastian Dohling, a Vice-President with the Singapore Cycling Federation, believes the recent incident shows the need for stringent checks. Dohling is a former top road racer, mountain biker and cyclo-cross rider at the amateur level. He thinks the solution to preventing mechanical doping in Singapore is very simple.

"The simplest way to safeguard ourselves as a race organiser from people cheating is really just to do a check on the bike, right? So you can look for cables, you can check the weight, and then if you see it's like a carbon frame and there's like a motor inside then it's going to be heavier, and you can see that and feel that and measure that," he said.

Source: CNA/dl