Last January, Belgian cyclist Femke Van den Driessche was caught using an illegal motor in her bike at the cyclocross world championships, and though it was the first confirmed case of motodoping, the professional cycling world’s ultimate boogeyman has haunted the sport since a very specific incident in 2010. That year, all-time great Fabian Cancellara dominated both Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders (the two most prestigious one-day races in the cycling world), though his performances were met with a bit of scrutiny. Former pro David Cassani accused Cancellara of using a hidden motor, and a now-infamous YouTube truther video highlighted a few suspect accelerations that Cancellara was able to make, purportedly with the aid of that motor.
Cancellara has denied the allegations up and down and he’s never been found out. However, those accelerations are funky, and although no professionals besides and Van den Driessche have been caught, there have been a steady stream of accusations against top-level pro riders and cycling officials seem to be taking motodoping pretty seriously. Goofy amateurs keep getting caught, but the degree to which this is an actual problem is still uncertain.
Which brings us to Phil Gaimon, jolly former professional rider whose recent book Draft Animals: Living the Pro Cycling Dream (Once in a While) has dredged up Cancellara’s sudden accelerations from seven years ago and brought this whole mess back into the news cycle. In the book, Gaimon writes about watching the 2010 Paris-Roubaix and hearing rumors that Cancellara kept his bike away from the rest of his team with his private mechanic. “When you watch the footage, his accelerations don’t look natural at all, like he’s having trouble staying on the top of the pedals. That fucker probably did have a motor,” he writes.
That’s a fairly hefty accusation, and it’s been picked up around the cycling world. However, Gaimon pointed out that he was simply giving his take, and that writ large, motodoping is essentially a nonissue inside the cycling world. “The irony is that in the book, the context is dismissing motor doping as clickbait since that year when he did it,” Gaimon told Deadspin. “In retrospect I should have expected it but I didn’t.”
This echoes what he told Cycling News yesterday, when he called the accusation a “red herring”:
“I do think it happened that year a couple times, but as soon as somebody noticed and it became a story nobody did it again. I think it’s an absolute clickbait, red herring - even up to the new UCI president [David Lappartient] who is acting like it’s a big issue that he is going to get to the bottom of. Anyone on the inside knows it’s a joke.”
Red herring or not, Lappartient is taking things quite seriously. Even though Cancellara is retired and any physical evidence is almost certainly gone, Lappartient made big noises about wanting to be tough on motors, and he also told Cycling News that the UCI (cycling’s governing body) would investigate the Cancellara incident:
“What I would say regarding the case you are speaking about is that I will try to have more information and we will investigate. We will investigate because we need to know exactly what is behind this. Of course, I heard all the rumours, like everybody, and I just want to know exactly. So we will investigate, that is our job,” Lappartient said.
“I was a little bit concerned that the system of the UCI was useful, but not enough,” Lappartient said. “I will always voice my concerns about this subject. I want to be sure that nobody is cheating with motors, and that is the job of the UCI, to ensure that this will not be the case. At the end of the year or the beginning of January we will make an announcement about what we will do to enforce the controls from the UCI.”
Lapparrient ran for UCI president on a reform platform, promising to clean up the messes that Brian Cookson could not, which included “Taking A Stronger Stance On Technological Fraud.” Secret thermal camera footage and shadowy testimony from a nutso Hungarian engineer are one thing, but there’s still no direct evidence that ties anyone in the sport to motodoping. Cookson implemented thermal scan checks at races, and it’s not as if this was an issue that called for “stronger stance.”
Motodoping is a genuinely silly and fun scandal, and as much as fans delight in it, it still seems more like an ersatz tactic that may have been employed a few times than a widespread cheating method. I’ve spoken to pros and managers and nobody has ever heard anything about anyone using a motor in the past few years. By all means, investigate Cancellara, but the issue doesn’t really demand bluster and Very Serious Press Releases. Perhaps Lappartient should focus on ensuring the precarious future of top-level pro cycling and, you know, paying women.