Mechanical doping penalties need to rework the definition of zero tolerance


Barry Sandland/TIMB – The methodical, thorough hands-on aspect of cyclocross crews

The cycling world is up in arms about mechanical doping after Femke Van den Driessche, a European champion (2015), Belgian champion (2016) and one of the spotlighted riders for the future was found with an enhanced bicycle at the World Cyclocross Championships in Zolder. There have been immediate calls, including from Eddy Merckx, for lifetime bans for any athlete found guilty. Zero tolerance. However the focus is wrong, the anger misplaced and the penalties far too limited. The current definition of zero tolerance is not enough. Read on for the entire rant…


Similarly, the actors capable of imposing penalties are far more than the governing bodies like the European Union of Cyclists or the UCI. If mechanical doping is going to be stopped, then make the punishment absolutely unbearable. That does not include a lifetime ban just for an athlete. If you want to stop mechanical doping, then go after the team, the sponsors, the athletes, the crews. Mechanical doping is a group activity, either in action or in tolerance. Sanctions should show that. Cycling governing bodies have to expand their approach with this new threat. It is time for new thinking.


Barry Sandland/TIMB – The methodical, thorough hands-on aspect of cyclocross crews

The protests to the occurrence have been widespread and severe. From the frame builder, who feels betrayed at their bike having been part and parcel in this event, to legends in cycling calling for mandatory lifetime bans for any and all cyclists found culpable.

I am going to stay with this specific event. A 19 year old rider is the focus. She has still to face enquiry on the issue so, to be clear, there is an accusation – not a final judgment. It is important that she be allowed a chance to speak and defend herself. Plus, she is just 19 and I cannot bring myself to believe she deserves a lifetime ban, if found guilty. Anyway, the current rules do not provide that option and I do not like the idea of changing the law after the infraction.

At this level of racing, at the national, European and world championship level, barring wild card last minute team additions of riders, the bikes are team equipment. They are provided by sponsors and, even if gifted as personal property to the rider, they had the same point of origin. The bikes are constantly reworked, repaired, cleaned, updated by team technicians and mechanics. In cyclocross, with the meticulous cleaning of the bike and any and all moving parts, it seems incredible to me that any mechanic could allow the bike to go out without having spotted the “modifications”.

I have to believe that nobody, not one mechanic who spent their adult lives tinkering with equipment and knowing  them inside and out, saw a suspicious knob, lever, wire or connector. Nobody lifting the bike wondered why the bike seemed to weigh more than the rest. It seems like a lost chapter in Blink.

Hands on methodical work

I mean, you have to see the team cleaning bikes at UCI cyclocross events. They hose the bike, then wipe the entire bike dry, check the wheels and brakes and derailleur before the bike can go back onto the course. Any unseen glob of mud on a wire, or in a lever, could mean a mechanical failure, so the observation level is high. Insanely high. And, unlike road racing were the bike might stay untouched for the entire stage, these bikes are in constant need of attention. When the stage is over, they are meticulously cleaned again, right down to the tread on the tires. More than any other bike race, cyclocross is an intensive mechanical sport. That brings the mechanical squad into the area for concern with mechanical doping.


Barry Sandland/TIMB – Hands-on life of cyclocross bikes and crew

With the obsessive, hands-on, “hose-clean-lubricate” structure of the races, I still wonder how a bike with mechanical doping could not have been spotted by the team.

So….. Mechanical doping cannot fall solely upon the cyclists. We have to start looking at the people who have touched, maintained, replaced parts to the bicycles – the entire mechanical squads of the teams.

If the rider has to be suspended or banned, then the mechanical team has to face the same level of exclusion. If not for directly developing the enhancement, then for incompetence in their skills to identify something so blatant on the frame to anyone with expert technical knowledge and that level of access.

Expanded responsibility for action

Sponsors have a role, a far higher responsibility, here. Again, this is mechanical doping. This is equipment being replaced, altered, modified from factory specifications or intent. This is hands-on tampering with physical equipment. Tolerance by the supplier has to be non-existent.

In this instance, I like the response from the frame builder, Wiliers, who were adamant that altering their frame was, and will always be, unacceptable. That kind of position has to be reiterated by the component provider, specifically the drive chain and gearing assembly. A follow through with sponsor contracts that is emphatic that any alteration for mechanical doping will terminate the sponsorship, with damages, effective immediately. Either for the specific rider or the entire team. Yes, mechanical doping by one rider may well merit a loss of sponsorship for the entire squad. That will place further onus on the mechanical squad to be even more meticulous.

Teams should know the weight of their bikes, from specific components to the final weight. If they are assembling the bike and components, and each part has its weight, it will be far harder to slip the weight of a motor unnoticed into the livery. Afterall, this is a motor, not some pill or injection that disappears into a body.

A simple tool against mechanical doping?

A simple weigh scale could be the best front line defence to mechanical doping at the team level. Anybody at this level is aware of component weight, from chain to wheels, handlebars to seat. Just a simple removal of wheels will give a far more accurate weight limit to define – and allows wheels to be checked and weighed separately. And in the weight obsessed world of bicycle racing, this should be relatively easy to monitor.

This, again, brings the mechanical crew front and centre in the presence of mechanical doping. While I am completely in favour of cyclists facing lengthy bans for profiting from mechanical doping, the impact of an infraction has to be far wider. Entire crews of mechanics have to understand they can be barred from the sport, just as easily. If they are working on the bikes, then they have to be responsible for the bikes.

Expanded zero tolerance – Get Them All

Commentators are, again, focusing on the rider as some singular evil doer acting independently and deserving to be the sole target of punishment. That might have substance in drug doping. However mechanical doping simply has to have a wider net. Barring brilliant deception by the riders, mechanical crews should know the bikes and are, in my opinion, deserving of the same ban, or worse, as the rider.

Once riders, teammates, mechanics, technical chiefs, sponsors and chief cook and bottle washers know they can lose everything to mechanical doping, then maybe the potential loss will simply be too great. Right now, they would lose a rider. Disappointing personal loss of talent and all that – but the team will continue. Why?

Get them all. That is my definition of zero-tolerance.

Other blogs on mechanical doping:

There are a few voices out and about now. With it come the comments section where you can get a far more precise view of the divergent public opinion. A few links are here…

Helen Wyman notes from an incredible world championships

Eddy Merckx has called for a lifetime ban on motorized doping

Cookson on mechanical doping: “Don’t delude yourself that we haven’t been taking this seriously

Chris Froome warned the UCI about mechanical doping in cycling

UCI needs to take fast and tough action in motorised doping, says European Cycling Union

Mechanical doping: UCI to introduce new detection methods

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