No motor doping tests were carried out on two stages of this year’s Tour de France and four stages of the Giro d’Italia – where the climbing bikes used on the race’s decisive time trial also failed to be tested for technological fraud – despite the UCI claiming that bikes are tested for concealed motors at all of its WorldTour and Women’s WorldTour events.
The investigation by the RadioCycling podcast also found that there have been no tests for motor doping, either using an x-ray machine or the less accurate tablet system, at the Volta a Catalunya, one of the sport’s biggest week-long stage races, since 2021, while just four bikes were tested at this year’s Milan-Sanremo, Flèche Wallonne Femmes, and Paris-Roubaix Femmes.
While Belgian cyclocross rider Femke Van den Driessche remains the only elite level professional to have been banned for mechanical doping, after a concealed motor was found in her bike at the 2016 world championships in Zolder, accusations and rumours concerning the use of hidden motors at the highest levels of the sport have emerged once again in recent weeks.
Earlier this month, in the wake of Jumbo-Visma’s 1-2-3 atop the Col du Tourmalet at the Vuelta a España, former Quick-Step pro Jérôme Pineau accused the Dutch team, without providing any evidence, of mechanical doping, while claiming that the UCI “don’t control anything anymore and do what the big teams want”.
However, following this year’s Tour de France, the sport’s governing body released a statement warning the peloton that it is “impossible” to dope mechanically without getting caught, thanks to the extensive testing carried out at cycling’s biggest races.
Of the 997 tests carried out at the Tour, the UCI revealed, an average of 48 per stage, all came back negative. 837, or an average of 40 per stage, were undertaken at the beginning of the day before racing was underway, using a tablet fitted with a dongle to detect magnetic fields. Meanwhile 160, or an average of eight per stage, were undertaken at the conclusion of the stage using more accurate backscatter or transmission X-ray tests.
While those figures may look impressive on paper, the new investigation by RadioCycling has exposed a more worrying trend behind the negative tests.
Despite the high number of tests carried out at the Tour, the podcast revealed that the x-ray machine was not deployed, and was in fact taken home, for the race’s final weekend, while no tests at all were carried out on the final stage into Paris.
At the Giro d’Italia, meanwhile, no tests were carried out on four of the grand tour’s 21 stages, including the stage one and stage 10 time trials. While 158 bikes were tested before stage 20 – the decisive mountain time trial to Monte Lussari – almost all of the riders taking part changed their bike before the steep final climb, with no tests carried out on those climbing bikes after the stage.
X-ray machines were also not used once at the Italian grand tour, and were only used for the last six stages of the Vuelta a España, with commissaires forced to rely on the less accurate tablet (or iPad) method for tests.
At the Tour de France Femmes, x-rays were not used once throughout the race, while just six bikes were tested before the final day time trial. No tests were also carried out on the Vuelta Femenina’s queen stage to the iconic Lagos de Covadonga.
While the tablets (which account for over 88 percent of the total tests carried out in 2023) enable testers to scan a high volume of bikes quickly, the dongles used to detect magnetic fields tend to lack accuracy due to not being able to see through carbon frames.
The podcast also revealed that, according to their sources, some bikes have been displaying high magnetic readings for reasons which are currently unknown, with some suggesting that the materials used in the construction of the bikes are responsible. In these cases, the bikes should be dismantled for further inspection, though RadioCycling understands these procedures have not been followed.
The paucity of tests becomes even more alarming when you venture outside the grand tours.
Of the 51 men’s and women’s WorldTour races – where motor testing is mandatory – approached by the podcast, 24 provided their testing figures, while 12 said that the UCI had not shared the data, and 15 did not reply.
At one of the 24 races that did reply, the Volta a Catalunya – one of cycling’s most prestigious week-long stage races – testing for motor doping has not been carried out since 2021, while the women’s Tour of Scandinavia has not witnessed a single test since its inception in 2017, the same year that UCI president David Lappartient pledged to step up the fight against mechanical fraud.
At Paris-Nice, arguably the sport’s biggest stage race outside the grand tours, there were no tests on three stages, while tests also failed to take place on at least one stage of this year’s men’s Tour Down Under, UAE Tour, Tirreno-Adriatico, and the Critérium du Dauphiné.
Just four bikes, meanwhile, were tested at three of cycling’s biggest one-day races: Milan-Sanremo, Paris-Roubaix Femmes, and La Flèche Wallonne Femmes.
Responding to the investigation, the UCI said in a statement: “The UCI’s programme against technological fraud has developed steadily over the years and provides a robust system for the detection of any possible propulsion systems hidden within framesets or other bike components.
“In 2023, a total of 4,280 controls have been performed, with magnetic tablets used for 3,777 of the controls and X-ray technology – either backscatter or transmission X-ray technologies – for 503 controls. All tests were negative.”
Rumours of potential motor doping in the peloton have been swirling for a number of years, with UCI president Lappartient saying in 2017 that “I worry that motors have been used” in pro racing.
Lappartient’s comments came a year after French TV programme Stade 2 raised suspicions about a bike change made by Primož Roglič at the 2016 Giro d’Italia shortly before the Slovenian started – and won – the stage nine individual time trial.
Other riders and teams have been subject to accusations over the years, notably Fabian Cancellara by Phil Gaimon, though the seven-time monument winner has always strenuously denied the accusations which disappeared due to a lack of evidence, leaving Van den Driessche as still the only top-tier professional to be caught mechanically doping.
At a lower level, in September 2022 we reported how a French pensioner was caught motor doping during a hill climb after the 73-year-old aroused the suspicions of race organisers by finishing just three minutes behind the winner on the 10km-long climb. Two months earlier, an Italian amateur was accused of cheating his way to victory, via a hidden motor, after finishing first at the Maratona dles Dolomites, one of Italy’s iconic gran fondos.
And while there is yet to be a high-profile case in the UK, in 2016 a to-the-point website called Doped Bikes launched purporting to sell motors specifically designed to be hidden within bikes during races, only to later reveal it was, in fact, a ‘honeypot’ operation aimed at finding out who was prepared to cheat.
Founders Moreno Grazioli and Roberto Bassi said they were part of a “group of concerned racers and industry insiders” who wanted to “find out who was prepared to cheat our sport”. The pair alleged they had been contacted by an unnamed “UK team boss”. No further detail was ever given.
Ryan joined road.cc as a news writer in December 2021. He has written about cycling and some ball-centric sports for various websites, newspapers, magazines and radio. Before returning to writing about cycling full-time, he completed a PhD in History and published a book and numerous academic articles on religion and politics in Victorian Britain and Ireland (though he remained committed to boring his university colleagues and students with endless cycling trivia). He can be found riding his bike very slowly through the Dromara Hills of Co. Down.