By Ari de Wilde
In a news cycle that has been marred with broad national discussions of discriminatory immigration laws and attorney generals disobeying executive orders from President Donald Trump, it was with pleasure that I watched the CBS 60 Minutes news story on “Enhancing the Bike” in professional cycling.[i] Investigative journalist Bill Whitaker’s story aired on January 29th and warned of the potential for cheating in professional bicycle racing using bicycles with hidden electric motors. True, one could connect Donald Trump to the Tour de Trump of 1989 and 1990, when Trump sought to fundamentally upend the world of professional sports and bring a Tour de France-level event to the United States. (His name on the Tour lasted about as long as his earlier bid to take-over professional football with the United States Football League and Trump’s support of the league to directly take-on the National Football League with his New Jersey Generals). But this story did not involve President Trump and was a nice change in the news cycle. News reporters for 60 Minutes interviewed Hungarian Istvan Varjas who claimed he sold a “doped” bicycle to an unknown client in 1998 and was paid millions to stay quiet about the technology for ten years. Before the segment aired, rumors of mechanical doping had swirled for years. In 2010, a YouTube video (see link) was posted showing Fabian Cancellara accelerating at a super-human pace and suggesting that he was using a motorized bicycle.
No definitive proof of motorized doping was discovered in a major race until Femke Van den Driessche was caught with an electric motor in her spare bike at the 2016 World Cyclocross Championships. She was an Under 23 rider who did not place that day, but was selected for an inspection. (Cyclocross is a winter sport that is essentially a bicycle steeple chase). The mania since has escalated and stories and rumors have abounded in some of the world’s most renowned publications.[ii]
The rumors led to the 60 Minutes investigation. The segment did have revelations as it showed a former French anti-doping official, Jean Pierre Verdy, who suggested that up to 12 riders used micro-sized electric motors embedded in either bike frames, wheel hubs, or magnets in wheels to cheat for short bursts in the 2015 Tour de France. The news magazine also featured former professional cyclists and Americans Greg LeMond and Tyler Hamilton. The former has been largely vindicated and lionized in the wake of the Lance Armstrong scandal; the latter who is a former admitted doper and 60 Minutes alum. Both cyclists argued that the micro-systems, which are designed to provide up to a 20-minute burst of power, could be used to change the outcome of tightly and intensely contested races.
There is no doubt that 60 minutes and the cyclists are correct: the devices could change results. However, as a former professional cyclist and sport studies professor working (slowly) on a book about the once popular format of Six Day bicycle racing at Madison Square Garden (the racers raced on a small ~300m track for six days and nights in a row), I couldn’t stay silent about how pleasing it was to see the cycling and news media obsessed with “mechanical doping.” Yes, I know that it’s still cheating and morally wrong, but in comparison to the doping scandals of the 1990s and 2000s and the much longer history of deaths and manipulations from exhaustion and medical “doping,” the mania related to mechanical doping seems almost laughable. When I was in graduate school in the ‘00s, the medical doping scandals were so bad that we considered the possibility of “gene doping.” Scholars such as Andy Miah point out that the term “doping” is a misnomer when it comes to gene manipulation as doping implies a temporary performance boost and gene manipulations are potentially permanent and even multi-generational.[iii]
Certainly, medical doping is still of concern in bicycle racing and sport more globally, but it is nice to be distracted from the fatalistic ends of medical doping. The stories of riders setting alarms throughout the night to wake themselves and quickly elevate their heart rates to prevent their doped-hyper thick blood from causing a heart attack, or, Tyler Hamilton’s story of injecting his own improperly stored blood at the 2004 Tour de France and nearly dying in his hotel room, give me the creeps.[iv] There is a long history of this level of enhancement. The track races and especially Six Day races were popular through much of the early 20th century in America. At the time, it was standard for the racers at locales such as Madison Square Garden to take performance enhancing substances. Cocaine, Strychnine, or nitro-glycerine were commonly used drugs. The latter two drugs are components of rat poison and dynamite, respectively. There are also stories of riders becoming gravely ill and riding the wrong way around the track or collapsing.[v]
Mechanically, too, the contemporary devices cause miniscule harm. At the turn-of-the twentieth century, the internal combustion engine allowed the development of motorcycle racing and revolutionized bicycle racing by allowing pedal-powered riders to draft motorized bicycles. The result was that riders could go at much higher speeds (50 to even 70 Miles Per Hour). Promoters and crowds loved it. The riders, however, frequently suffered catastrophic crashes. The tires of the age or bicycles or the engines would frequently break or explode. Such was the fate of Harry Elkes whose skull was crushed by a motorpacer after his rear-tire blew out while traveling at an estimated 60 miles per hour in 1903 at the Charles River Track in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Elkes was one of many racers to lose his life or be severely maimed riding his bicycle in pursuit of a motor. Thus, the notion of a racer using a miniscule motor to go slightly faster over the top of a hill does not compare to these risks.[vi] (In the images below, you can see a pacer and cyclist of the same generation as Elkes. In the second, one can see a satirical take on motor-paced racing after a 21-year old cyclist died. The image is from a German website commemorating many of the cyclists and pacers who lost their lives in pursuit of speed).[viii]
Electric bicycles, too, are very positive innovations. They, in themselves, are revolutionizing transportation. If you want to build your own “stealth” electric bike, you can. The “Vivax-Assist” (see link for image) package can be purchased for less than $2000 and can be hidden inside a conventional bicycle frame. But one has to be or know somebody who is relatively handy to install the device.
The technology, though, has exploded and for less than the miniature system, people can buy an entire pedaled electric system. Take, for example, the Juiced Cross-Current electric bicycle. One can now purchase it, a bicycle that can go up to 28 miles per hour for well over 30 miles, for less than $1500 with just voltage. It uses “Speed Pedelec” technology that allows users to pedal and receive an electric assist up to a legal speed limit of 28 miles per hour, but only while the rider pedals.
This, of course, pales in comparison to the $12,000 that 60 Minutes spent to reconstruct a 1999 U.S. Postal Bicycle with a small electric motor. Other than weight and innuendo, 60 Minutes presented no hard evidence that Lance Armstrong’s team or Lance used these contraptions. Many viewers of the segment were unconvinced that Armstrong or any big star had anything to do with the technology.[ix] Nevertheless, the segment was a wonderful break from the other heartbreaking stories of the day. I do hope, however, that people put mechanical doping in perspective when compared to other forms of cheating in cycling and do not let these scandals cloud the vision or the promise of a world in which many more commuters are able to utilize clean electric bicycle technology that encourages physical movement. If a few unworthy winners take races with the technology, well, at least, it’s staying with the long tradition of performance enhancement in professional cycling and much healthier and less dangerous than previous methods.
Ari de Wilde is a trained sport historian and Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Eastern Connecticut State University. His main research interests are in the business history of sport and the North American bicycle racing industry. He received his BA from Bates College —2005— (History), MA—2007— and PhD—2010— from The Ohio State University in Sport Humanities. His articles and book reviews have appeared in the Journal of Macromarketing Journal of Sport History, Journal of Historical Research in Marketing,, Quest, and International Journal of Sport Management. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @aodewilde.
[ii] See, for example, “Tiny Motor Powers a New Threat to Cycling Races,” The New York Times April 18, 2016. < https://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/19/sports/cycling/with-a-discreet-motor-doping-the-bike-instead-of-the-cyclist.html?_r=0 >.
[iii] Andy Miah, Genetically Modified Athletes: Biomedical Ethics, Gene Doping and Sport (London: Routledge, 2004).
[iv] On the stories of riders waking themselves to do calisthenics to stay alive, see Julian Barnes, “The Hardest Test: Drugs and the Tour de France, The New Yorker; August 21, 2000 http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2000/08/21/the-hardest-test ; On Tyler Hamilton’s story, see Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle, The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France: Doping, Cover-ups, and Winning at All Costs (New York: Bantam Books, 2012) location 3197 Kindle ebook.
[v] Ari de Wilde, “The Dizzy Race to Nowhere: The Business of Professional Cycling, in North America, 1891-1940,” PhD diss., The Ohio State University, 2010, pp. 136-137. https://etd.ohiolink.edu/ap/10?0::NO:10:P10_ACCESSION_NUM:osu1281498167 .
[vi] On Harry Elkes, see “Harry Elkes Killed in Fearful Bicycle Mixup,” Boston Globe May 31, 1903.
[viii] On the infamous history of professional cycling, see “The Scandalous History of the Tour de France,” The Guardian, July 15, 2012; https://www.theguardian.com/sport/shortcuts/2012/jul/15/scandalous-history-tour-de-france .
[ix] See Lance’s former director attack Greg Lemond over the accusations: http://www.velonews.com/2017/02/news/bruyneel-attacks-lemond-motor-claims_430341 .See also another professional cyclists take: http://stevetilford.com/2017/01/31/60-minutes-investigation-of-mechanical-doping/ .