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Science

'Mechanical doping' gives riders noisy edge over competition

As Tour de France inspectors look over racers' bikes for hidden motors designed to give them a boost, DW tracked down one of the secret engines and took it for a spin.

A red button on a bicycle handlebar

Bicyclists with a concealed motor can just press the red button to zoom

Competitive bicycling has long been troubled by doping scandals, but during this year's Tour de France, officials are keeping a vigilant eye on another form of cheating: secret electric motors.

The Tour de France left Rotterdam, Netherlands on July 3, and scanners are being used to search for motors which could be hidden inside bicycle frames. Cyclists have yet to be caught in the act of "mechanical doping," but rumors abound that Swiss Olympic time-trial champion Fabian Cancellara did so during victories in the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.

Exacerbating the situation, Hungarian engineer Istvan Varjas has claimed to have built a covert motor that could secretly help propel a rider up to 90 kph (56 mph). Italian prosecutors have also started an investigation into sporting fraud after former rider Davide Cassani made statements to Italian television about having tested a 'mechanical doping' device.

Testing a device

A bike with a motor and a battery pack

It would not be difficult to conceal the battery on this motorized bike

Salvatore Gambino, the owner of a bicycle shop in the town of Bad Honnef outside of Bonn, said more and more people are asking him about the motors.

"In the best-case scenario a hidden motor can give you an additional 100 watts to add to your own power," he said. While not a lot, 100 watts could make the difference between winning and losing in tight competition.

Gambino keeps a bike equipped with such a device, which costs 3,000 euros ($3,760), in his shop. The motor is housed within the bicycle's seat tube, and through a worm gear drives another component mounted to the bicycle's crank.

"The controls for the motor are integrated into the seat column," Gambino said, displaying the device. "Since this has a rear freewheel, spinning the pedals backwards still makes a loud noise. At the moment, the battery is mounted to the outside of the seat column. But it wouldn't be difficult with a little tinkering to hide it within the frame."

With the device mounted on Gambino's bicycle, an obvious noise could be heard whenever the rider wasn't pedaling.

A matter of time

A motor which can be concealed in a bicycle's seat tube

A motor can be concealed in a bicycle's seat tube

But Gambino, who has been following the development of covert bicycle motors for years, said it is only a matter of time before "mechanical doping" becomes a real possibility - if it's not already in use. During the past two years, bigger motors have been developed which are completely silent and can deliver extra power. Only the motors small enough to hide still make noise.

"If you consider how much things are bound to change in just a few years - how miniaturization will certainly continue - then soon having small motors that can be built into the seat tube that are totally silent is no longer just a dream," he said.

Author: Joscha Weber/gps
Editor: Sean Sinico

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