clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The Motor Doping Story is Cycling-Shaming

New, comments

Maybe it’s a story, but “here we go again” it is not.

bike motor check

“The sport of cycling is notorious for cheating...”

So begins a 60 Minutes profile of motorized cycling — motor doping, if you will — that you can watch in its entirety online and make of it what you will. I’m trying to keep an open mind about this as a potential problem, so in that spirit here are some pros and cons.

Pros:

  • A 60 Minutes reporter might be a cyclist? Times, how they change.
  • A 60 Minutes report is likely to increase the public interest in the subject and increase the pressure on races to do motor detections. I’ve yet to hear anyone argue that the motors are undetectable and that stopping cheaters will take that much effort.
  • There is no question that it’s possible to use a motor to cheat in a race, if there is no effort to police the problem.
  • There is anecdotal evidence of anecdotal cheating in this manner, with one rider (former Belgian cross racer Femke Van Den Dressche) booted out of the sport as a result.

Cons:

  • There is little that counts as evidence of this being any sort of a problem. Not that it isn’t an issue. But as evidence you have a Hungarian guy who sold some motors to someone, possibly even (cue scary music) Dr. Michele Ferrari. You have Greg LeMond expressing extreme caution around the issue, as he is wont to do — and again, that’s fine, it can only help to stop the problem, but that’s just one person’s opinion. You have Tyler Hamilton testing a motorized bike and acknowledging that it could help. And you have a couple rumors from curiously spinning wheels to the pretty baseless accusations lobbed at Fabian Cancellara from 2010 Paris-Roubaix. None of this proves a single thing about motors being used in cycling now.
  • Why did this story run? The sourcing is pretty poor. Maybe the reporter, Bill Whitaker, took it as far as possible before the legendary Omerta kicked in the walls of his story. I can tell you, from working in a world of uncertain science, that you go with what you have, but if it’s uncertain, you talk about the uncertainties. That didn’t really happen here; all we got was the stuff that tended to show a problem.

Of course, we know why the story ran, it’s sensational-sounding, and it’s entertaining. Whitaker is probably a fine reporter, and I won’t shame him completely, but he left out something that a lot of casual fans miss completely: how this is totally unlike the sport’s history of medicinal doping.

Performance-enhancing drugs undoubtedly originated with unscrupulous individuals from the earliest days of this sport, and plenty of other sports too. So, like a person slipping a motor into their main tube, one bad apple can make this a problem. And that’s about where the similarity ends.

PEDs nearly ruined the sport because they took over the sport. It reached the highest levels of cycling, particularly in the 1990s, when Hein Verbruggen’s UCI placed a 50% hematocrit limit on participating riders, which functioned as a requirement for every rider to try to raise their hematocrit to 49. Doping was systematic, organized, and hidden from sight by a massive effort that rose to the top of the sport. So when a rider chose to participate, he made a probably rather unappreciated choice of cheating over retiring from the sport he loved and wasn’t ready to just walk away from.

To me, the choice to put a motor in your bike is nothing like that. There is no systematic inserting of motors that anyone has ever acknowledged in any way. There are no UCI rules that cap motorization of up to 50% of the bike, essentially mandating a 49% motorization by any rider who hopes to win. There are no new motors that beat the current motor test, such that everyone knows you’re a sucker for not using one. There is no moral or physiological grey area between “this legal substance” and “that banned one, which does roughly the same thing.”

No, the choice to use a motor is the choice to be a complete fraud, a choice a rider would make consciously, with apparently no external pressure and no participation from anyone outside of that rider’s conscience. It’s a choice to run the real risk of being caught, because unlike EPO the motor in the main tube of the winner’s bike doesn’t dissolve within 48 hours. It’s the desperate choice of an athlete who so can’t stand their irrelevance to the degree that they are willing to risk utter shame and disgrace in order to change things. A few riders will still make that choice, I’m sure. But 99% of riders will feel free not to go down that road, not to accept the indignity of riding a bike that is no longer even a bike. I’d guess that almost everyone in the sport today considers such a choice incomprehensible.

To imply that the scandals of the past meant that riders are capable en masse of making this grotesque choice about motor-doping is to completely ignore the reality of PEDs and the trap riders from past decades walked into. Maybe I’m too easy on them but I will always believe that the system completely failed the riders pre-Puerto, as much if not more than the riders failed us. The coverage of doping has always started with the riders being forced to take all responsibility, with the teams and the UCI escaping blame more often than not, only changing focus later when the whole story is uncovered. To me, that’s unacceptable, and the motor-doping story’s implications that these amoral lying cheating riders are up to their old tricks again is utterly wrong and unfair. I seriously doubt people would make such a horrible choice because that’s not the choice they were making with PEDs.

So, 60 Minutes, welcome to cycling, and I hope you settle in. May your work increase the vigilance against this form of nonsense. But I challenge you to really learn what the hell you’re talking about when feeding this story to the public, because so far it looks like you’re not up to the job.