The professional cycling season stretches from January to October, across every continent, but only one race achieves any kind of crossover into the mainstream sports world. The Tour de France, which starts this weekend at Mont Saint-Michel, accounts for over 80 percent of the annual TV exposure for teams involved, and it’s the only race that Americans really watch (if only for the scenery). This year, Nairo Quintana, Alberto Contador, and a bunch of other insect-skinny dudes will line up to try and take down defending champion Chris Froome. Meanwhile, the French government will be doing everything in its power to make sure its signature race is not tainted by the strange, ineradicable specter of motorized doping.
A refresher: Rumors that professional cyclists had been housing tiny motors in their bicycles have been buzzing around the peloton for six years. Whenever cycling officials tried to look into them, the cycling world laughed at them for chasing ghosts, until January, when they caught a Belgian woman using one at the cyclocross world championships.
The benefits of an extra motor in your bicycle are obvious and also significant enough that some of the biggest names in the sport, including Contador, have been connected to it despite the obvious legal risks. Unlike biological doping, for which there are always vaguely plausible excuses, getting caught with a motor in your bike is a pretty ironclad sign of cheating. The Union Cycliste Internationale’s main testing method has been electromagnetic scanning with iPads, but French TV station Stade 2 used secret thermal cameras to supposedly catch seven pro cyclists cheating at an Italian race in April (they never named them), and exposed the UCI’s testing inadequacies (which their reported role in covering up motorized doping at the 2015 Tour de France could explain).
In Stade 2's report, UCI boss Brian Cookson expressed his doubts over the efficacy of thermal cameras, but the Tour is planning on using them to catch would-be cheaters (or more accurately, try to dissuade them from trying to sneak in a motor in the first place). French sports minister Thierry Braillard announced this morning at a press conference that the government convinced the French Atomic Energy Commission to hand over a handful of portable thermal cameras for race officials. The UCI and the Tour’s organizers, the ASO, both expressed their support for the plan. In a companion press release, Cookson said:
Since the beginning of the year, we are sending a clear message which is that there is literally no-where to hide for anyone foolish enough to attempt to cheat in this way. A modified bike is extremely easy to detect with our scanners and we will continue to deploy them extensively throughout the Tour and the rest of the season.
It’s worth pointing out that the uncertainty over whether or not thermal cameras provide incontrovertible data worth cracking into a $10,000 bike over hasn’t disappeared. If someone is monitoring the thermal camera feed all race and can call in post-race inspections on suspicious bicycles, then the French plan to catch any would-be moto-dopers seems to have no holes in it, but that assumes that whatever data the cameras gather will contain will paint a clear picture. Remember, Stade 2 needed to call in experts to parse their data, and it’s unclear how much analysis the Tour’s data will require.
All of which is to say, adding thermal cameras to the Tour’s anti-motorized doping toolbox will probably be enough to catch a cheater, but their introduction to the race is primarily a deterrent. It’s a bad look for cycling officials to struggle to catch moto-dopers while reporters and the French police seem to be ahead of them, but it could be potentially catastrophic for the sport to get wrapped up in an even stupider, more blatant cheating scandal than the biological doping crisis of a decade ago at the biggest race in the world.
The sport’s integrity is always going to be in doubt thanks to the excesses of the past, but if the Tour began popping riders for moto-doping, the whole sport would look like a sad joke, and suddenly its cornerstone could be in question. Adding an array of cameras from a nuclear institution to the race is a pretty clear way to let would-be dopers know that they don’t have much of a chance of evading the security apparatus.
It’s unclear how many (if any!) top-level pro cyclists are even mechanically doping at all, so the entire cycling bureaucracy tooling up right before the sport’s biggest race is a show of force. They clearly believe that the problem extends beyond one Belgian cyclocross rider, but their enhanced setup at the Tour is more about the fraught reputation of the sport rather than catching cheaters.