According to a report broadcast by French TV station Stade 2, the UCI (cycling’s governing body) obstructed a police investigation into mechanical doping during the 2015 Tour de France. French police had received tips from multiple sources that two cyclists had been using illegal motors in their bikes during the early stages of last year’s Tour, and conducted surveillance on Stages 7–9. But their main target, a bike company engineer, never showed up, reportedly because a UCI official tipped him off.
Emails obtained by Stade 2 show that UCI technical manager Mark Barfield might have warned Typhoon Bikes CEO Harry Gibbings that French police were investigating a Hungarian engineer who was offering to install motors in bikes. That engineer is Stefano Varjas, a pioneer in mechanical doping technology who worked for Typhoon until six months ago. Stade 2 interviewed Varjas for their April investigation into moto-doping that used secret thermal camera footage to build a case that seven cyclists had been cheating at early-season races this year. Varjas detailed the manufacturing complex electro-magnetic induction systems, claimed to have built systems for a few elite pros, and also laid out how hard it was to catch cheaters.
Varjas could have been with Typhoon at the 2015 Tour simply to sell bikes and try to get a top-level team to ride Typhoons, but given his expertise at creating hidden mechanical doping systems—and the fact that he’s an engineer, not a salesman—his involvement is rather suspicious. Typhoon CEO Gibbings denied knowing Varjas was there, despite expense reports disproving this, and Barfield’s email to Gibbings regarding the police investigation of Varjas looks a lot like a tip, especially since Varjas disappeared shortly after the email was sent.
Barfield is the UCI’s lead against mechanical doping, and he led the press conference announcing the UCI’s response to the infamous thermal camera report. During that press conference, Barfield expressed doubts about thermal imaging’s ability to spot motors, and then inadvertently made clear that his iPad sensor strategy doesn’t work during races, only before and after. The bike Barfield tested his sensors on was a Typhoon, and Gibbings was there to assist, probably because e has been consulting with the UCI on moto-doping. But the Stade 2 report hints that this consulting arrangement might not be on the level, pointing towards an email Gibbings sent acknowledging Varjas and “customers from the past” in reference to moto-doping.
The UCI’s Gibbings also claims that he passed along information to the police, but they deny ever hearing from him during the Tour. The UCI released a statement acknowledging the report and expressing confidence in its staff:
The Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) has consulted experts from a wide variety of backgrounds – including university academics, mechanical, electronic and software engineers, and bike suppliers – in the process of developing an effective method of detecting technological fraud.
The person interviewed in the Stade 2 report was among those consulted by the UCI in order to fully understand the technologies available and hence how to detect cases of technological fraud.
The UCI has full confidence in its staff employed in this area. It will investigate whether emails sent in 2015 to an external consultant were passed on to a third party and used in a way that no-one intended.
There have been shadowy rumblings about moto-doping at the Tour de France before, including at last year’s Tour, when eventual winner Chris Froome faced a fresh round of accusations because of how fast he pedaled. Stade 2's previous report alleged that Alberto Contador used a motor to win the 2015 Giro d’Italia, which is a hugely important race but not nearly the financial and cultural giant the Tour is. Like the last report, this one is full of intriguing connections and sketchy figures in cycling’s underworld, but no smoking gun. But there is enough plausible evidence to believe that there is at least some degree of motorized doping going on at the highest levels of the sport.