Three months ago, in a muddy field in Belgium, cycling’s newest boogeyman first showed its face when 19-year-old Belgian cyclocross racer Femke Van den Driessche got caught using an illegal motor inside her bike. Since then, there have been a variety of murky reports on electromagnetic wheels, a truther’s video of Van den Driessche speeding away with the use of the motor, and an in-depth joint investigation by the Italian and French press that used secret thermal cameras to film inside bikes and implicated one of the most famous cyclists in the world.
The intervening time between the offense and the sentencing have all centered around trying to figure out the precise size and shape of the moto-doping problem. Try as the European press might, they haven’t found a smoking gun in the professional men’s peloton. There’s enough circumstantial evidence to suggest that the UCI should ramp up testing efforts, but adjudicating the first confirmed case is as important. A precedent needs to be set. Eddy Merckx, the greatest cyclist of all time, advocated for a lifetime ban which would put the fear of God into anyone thinking of popping a motor in their top tube, but is also very harsh for a teenager.
Today the UCI made their ruling and formally banned Van den Driessche for six years. The ban is retroactive to October 2015, so she’ll be out until the start of the 2021 cross season and she’ll have to pay 20,000 Swiss Francs. In the UCI’s press release, they revealed some details of the exact model that she used in the World Championships:
This decision follows the discovery of a concealed electric motor in one of the rider’s bikes during checks at the Women Under 23 race of the UCI Cyclocross World Championships in January 2016. The bike concerned was scanned using the new magnetic resonance testing deployed this year by the UCI. This detected the motor whilst the bike was in the rider’s pit area. The motor was a Vivax which was concealed along with a battery in the seat-tube. It was controlled by a Bluetooth switch installed underneath the handlebar tape.
Six years feels about fair. Van den Driessche’s defense since January has been that she never knew what was in her bike. This is both simultaneously plausible and highly unlikely. She’s only 19, yes, but the Belgian cyclocross underworld is notoriously shady (without getting too far into the weeds here, the mafia is allegedly involved and there have been rumors of institutionalized doping programs for years). Her age, bizarre family history of crime, and association with the Belgian cyclocross machine cut both ways, in that it casts doubt on her explanation, but also makes you sympathize with her circumstances. A lifetime ban would be unduly harsh, but leniency would set a weak precedent.
Of course, if someone got popped at the Tour de France, this would be another matter entirely. The legitimacy of professional road cycling has been on shaky ground for over a decade, and moto-doping is so much more outlandishly and openly illegal than biological doping that it could undermine the public’s trust in the sport even further. I’d bet all the money in my pockets that the UCI and the ASO (the Tour’s owner) will do everything they can to scare any would-be motor users away from bringing the technology to the Tour.
In a sense, Van den Driessche’s positive test is a best-case scenario for the UCI. The timing (right before road season) and subject (a cyclocross racer) give them carte blanche to test as many bikes as they want, but the veneer of cleanness since nobody has been caught using a motor on the road.