One year ago to the day, officials uncovered one of the strangest scandals in a sport famous for strange scandals.
After dropping out of the U-23 race at the cyclocross world championships, Femke Van den Driessche, then a decently successful teenage amateur racer from Belgium, had her bike inspected and officials found a small hidden motor that had been giving her extra power. Van den Driessche was swiftly banned for six years while the cycling world, which has been populated by occasional rumors about “motodoping” since 2010, kicked into high gear to try and find out how extensive the scandal really was.
Riders regularly had their bikes scanned at races all year, but no other motors were found by UCI officials. However, a number of reports came out alleging that motodoping had been going on for a while, including at the 2015 Tour de France. A joint investigation by French and Italian outlets relied on secret thermal cameras and supposedly found that seven pro cyclists had been using motors, but they never named the cheaters, and nobody was ever caught. They also went to Budapest and interviewed Istvan Varjas, a Hungarian engineer who claimed to be the principal inventor and vendor of illegal motors.
In his interview, Varjas hinted at an interview with an American TV show. That show is 60 Minutes, which has been investigating motodoping for months and just aired their report on Sunday.
Reporter Bill Whitaker went to Budapest and met with Varjas, who claimed that he designed the first functional secret in-bike motor in 1998. According to the engineer, an anonymous buyer paid him $2 million for the motor and made him promise that he wouldn’t sell any more motors or tell anyone about them for ten years. As Le Monde noted in December, that timeline of events lines up nicely with Lance Armstrong’s first Tour de France win in 1999.
Armstrong denied everything, and Whitaker spoke to Tyler Hamilton, Armstrong’s former lieutenant, who said that he had never heard of anyone using a motor back then. There’s no evidence connecting Armstrong or anyone else to that mythical 1998 buy, but bank records provided by Varjas did show that he came into $2 million in 1998, shortly before he went to prison for tax evasion.
Varjas is an incredibly slippery figure, who will claim to be against helping riders cheat only to contradict himself two sentences later. If everything he says is true, he furnishes motorized bikes to professionals (through middlemen) while also cooperating with a French police investigation at the same time. He is weirdly accessible for a supposed mastermind yet he remained frustratingly unspecific throughout the whole interview. He tries to come off as someone who knows where the bodies are buried when it’s to his benefit, but really seems like someone playing both sides. Whitaker called him a “complicated character.”
60 Minutes also had Jean-Pierre Verdy, a French anti-doping official, on to talk about the Tour de France. Verdy claims that riders began to complain to him about motors as early as 2014, and information gleaned from a network of informants inside the pro peloton led him to believe that 12 riders had cheated with motors at the 2015 Tour de France. Once again, he declined to name names and much like with the earlier investigation, supposed cheaters have remained anonymous to this day.
The closest thing to firm proof of motodoping that the report offered—which was still entirely circumstantial evidence—was another case from the 2015 Tour. In addition to the tube motor, Varjas also claims to have developed a more discrete mechanical assist in the form of electromagnetic wheels. If you line the perimeter of your back wheel with a series of magnets and create a magnetic field, that can push your bike forward. This technology is a lot more expensive, but it’s harder to detect and only weighs about 800 grams.
Team Sky’s Chris Froome won the 2015 Tour de France thanks to a pair of strong performances in the race’s two time trials. 60 Minutes presented evidence showing that Team Sky’s bikes at one of the time trials (they didn’t specify which, but they showed photos from the longer team time trial) each weighed 800 grams more than they were supposed to. For their part, Team Sky denied the claims and said that sometimes it’s beneficial to carry extra weight for aerodynamic purposes.
American cycling legend Greg LeMond spoke to 60 Minutes and said that any pro cyclist carrying an extra kilo of weight would notice immediately. LeMond is the only American with an unblemished Tour de France victory, and was once ostracized from the cycling world for his outspoken anti-doping stance. He advocated for stricter testing and harsher penalties for dopers, and he’s taken a similar stance against motodoping:
“This is curable. This is fixable. I don’t trust it until they figure out...how to— take the motor out. I won’t trust any victories of the Tour de France,” says LeMond
For all the mysterious videos of ultrafast bicycles (see above) and convoluted reports relying on testimony and imprecise thermal camera footage, no pro road cyclist has been caught using an illegal motor in a race. The amount of circumstantial evidence, and the sport’s operating principle that if it’s possible, someone is doing it, all seem to indicate that motodoping is real, but until specific, incontrovertible proof is offered, cycling’s bogeyman will remain just that.
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