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Rolling back the years with cycling's 'mechanical doping'

Electric motors are nothing new for racing bikes. Whether they're used in competitive cycling is less clear. At the Giro d'Italia, the mood oscillates from hopeful optimism to concerns that riders might be cheating.

Bhoss Cycling store in Empoli, Italy.

Need a helping hand up that steep incline nowadays? This store has an answer.

In Empoli, at the Bhoss Cycling specialist store: Alessandro Bartoli's shop in Tuscany is almost an hour from this year's Giro d'Italia course. A racing bike's frame is hanging up in the workshop, with cables spewing from it. The wires coming from the seat tube lead to a motor. From the down tube, they lead to a battery. At this store, Bartoli installs Vivax motors on racing bicycles.

Once everything's finished, there's no visible sign on the exterior. But this is no ordinary bicycle, for the chain is also being driven by a motor.

"The motor is set at 250 Watts. Between 120 and 140 Watts reach the rear wheel," Bartoli says. He proudly explains that his solution of storing the battery within the frame is not just an optical improvement; it also increases the battery's range. "A battery inside a tool kit only lasts 50 minutes, because it's small. In the drinks holder, it lasts 90 minutes. But we get up to roughly three hours."

Bartoli says that his waiting list stretches to several months. He can only wire up two wheels each month. The capacities of his workshop are a part of the cause. He also prepares the frames individually, according to the customer's weight. The delivery times for the batteries themselves slow the process down, too.

"The batteries are produced in northern Italy. There, they also only manage around two each week. They are adapted to fit the frames as well," Bartoli says.

'Rolling back the years'

Bartoli assures us that 99 percent of his customers are amateur cyclists. He walks across to a series of photos on the wall of his store showing riders on various peaks.

Alessandro Bartoli, owner of Bhoss Cycling.

Store owner Bartoli says his batteries last three hours

"This man here is 72 years old," Bartoli says, pointing to a gray head of hair. "He is on the Stelvio Pass and the Gavia Pass [high Alpine passes in northern Italy - the ed.] That's our typical customer. Soon our new advertising slogan will be released: 'The wheel of eternal youth.' After all, this man hadn't climbed the Dolomites in 20 years, but with this wheel, he can do so again. That's a noble cause."

Eternal youth - talk about promising to roll back the years. Obviously it's a good thing that, with the help of such a wheel, veterans can once again ride with the younger generations, and the uninitiated can gain an insight into performance cycling. Bartoli, himself a former amateur rider, now joins in professionals' training courses using his e-bike. He's evidently proud to be back in the fold, even thanks to prosthesis. Bartoli says he cannot rule out the possibility of professional riders using wheels like his.

Suspicions in pro cycling

Thermal imaging camera work conducted by a French TV team at the Strade Bianche race early this year showed heat signatures precisely where Bartoli's Vivax motors would be installed. It's the same place that Hungarian engineer Istvan Varjas installs motors. Varjas has been in the business for more than a decade now. As he told French TV, initially he was providing bikes to veterans of the wars of the former Yugolsavia who had lost legs in the fighting. Varjas makes no bones about it, professional riders are among his clientele. However, to date, only teenage Belgian cyclo-cross rider Femke Van den Driessche has been caught using a motor.

Bhoss Cycling store in Empoli, Italy.

The motors built into bike frames are tiny but increasingly effective

Few people are willing to believe that a junior rider is blazing a trail in what some have dubbed "e-doping" or mechanical doping. Jean-Pierre Verdy, formerly the head of French anti-doping agency AFLD, estimates that around a dozen bikes with electric motors may have taken part in the previous Tour de France.

Deception only possible with team help

So how likely is it that bikes with motors are charging around the Giro d'Italia right now? Nikias Arndt, a competitor with the Giant-Alpecin team, considers the probability to be "pretty low." But quickly he quantifies: "Everybody really sees this differently. We've talked about it in the team too. We don't really believe in a phenomenon. But it certainly has happened."

The prevailing opinion now posits that it is at least a risk. That's why teams are welcoming world cycling's governing body, the UCI, deciding to introduce tests to check.

"Our team was checked here at two stages," rider Arndt tells DW. "Firstly in the time trials, and then they came after another stage and lit up the wheels using their iPad. I think it's a good thing. It's better to check."

Team bosses see the matter similarly. "To be honest I am happy that there are tests," says Tristan Hoffman, team boss of the Tinkoff team. Although Hoffman says that the checks are a good idea, he's not so sure that the motors could really be used in competition. "If, as a team, you wanted to incorporate a motor, at least 10 people would have to know: the engineering company, the mechanic, the team boss - I can't believe that."

Nevertheless, Hoffman quickly adds: "But it's still good that they are testing. Let's hope nobody's stupid enough to actually try it."

There's another possible consolation, using this technology in competition really would not be easy. Admittedly, the motor and batteries can't be seen on the bikes - but their gentle whirring noises can be heard. So, keep your ears open during the racing!

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