Cyclists Use Tiny Motors To Cheat

Blood doping is so last decade! The modern cyclist has a motor and power supply hidden inside the bike’s frame.

We were first tipped off to the subject in this article in the New York Times. A Belgian cyclocross rider, Femke Van den Driessche, was caught with a motor hidden in her bike.

While we don’t condone sports cheating, we think that hiding a motor inside a standard bike is pretty cool. But it’s even more fun to think of how to catch the cheats. The Italian and French press have fixated on the idea of using thermal cameras to detect the heat. (Skip to 7:50 in the franceTVsport clip.) We suspect it’s because their reporters recently bought Flir cameras and are trying to justify the expense.

The UCI, cycling’s regulatory body, doesn’t like thermal. They instead use magnetic pulses and listen for the characteristic ringing of a motor coil inside the frame. Other possibilities include X-ray and ultrasonic testing. What do you think? How would you detect a motor inside a bike frame or gearset?

138 thoughts on “Cyclists Use Tiny Motors To Cheat

        1. There actually are standards in place for weight and a variety of other specifications.

          Problem is, there is a lot of industry involvement in cycling that almost mirrors that of F1 or auto racing. Trek/Giant/Specialized you name it uses it’s teams as a test bed for their high end bikes and to basically push new products/ideas to their limit. So if you take away the differentiation between bikes, you run into push back from the industry.

          Another issue is that riders REALLY like to customize their gear. When Bontrager forced it’s riders to use Bontrager saddles for marketing purposes, the Trek team was up in arms. Riders get used to a particular brand and ‘feel’ and don’t like this being changed. If the UCI came down and only let riders choose from a few handlebars/seatposts/groupos/saddles to put on their bike, I promise you riders would raise hell.

          Another thing I should remind people is that cycling is a VERY entrenched and is a sport rich in tradition. It wasn’t until recently that cheating was ever investigated, but it’s been going on for decades longer than Lance Armstrong was ever racing.

      1. That’s exactly how they caught Femke. Her story is actually that the bike in question was just in her van, was one that they were experimenting around with, and it wasn’t ridden.

        …and those vials of EPO were for my mom.

        But yeah. Disassembly is the proof. How to tell which (ridiculously expensive) bikes to disassemble is the most important question. If you can screen them all, reliably, then you only need to take a few apart.

      1. I think it’s around 200 watt pr. leg that an athlete puts out (round figure). So 20-60 watt extra is a big improvement. Especially considering it’s probably transferred directly to the wheel, so it doesn’t loose anything in the drivetrain.
        (even tho it’s lubed up and done to perfection, it’s still an imperfect system)

      2. 20 to 60W is for the rear wheel one. The one on the crank are said to be around 250W (they are r/c brushless motors).
        The battery is just inside the tubes on top of the engine, or wherever you can put it.
        The best cyclist, can put out arount 400W when pushing hard, but at this level of competifion 50W can be a game changer. Needless to say that 250W can get any amateur put lance armstrong to shame.

        1. It’s a lot more power an athlete puts out. 200 W is a amateur hobbyists power.
          There are people who can hold 700 W for a few moments!
          But whoever had a 50 W support knows that it feels like a strong push in the back!

    1. I’m with you on that… it would seem the motor itself would be inefficient being it has to be hidden, and at some point the motor & batteries would be dead weight. Especially in a long-distance race. And how would it be triggered on? You can’t have a beg red button on the handle bars. Maybe some pulse counting scheme?

      1. You could easily hide a small button under the wraps on the handle bars or put a reed switch somewhere and trigger it with a magnet. As for dead weight there’s actually minimum weights specified for bikes so the best ultralight bikes will have some inert weight added already or places that they could trim some structure to make up for the betteries and motors.

      2. Nah, we are not anymore to the point where there can be speculation about their existence…

        The french video is pretty much self explanatory.
        The demonstration is made, the bicycle do exists, and they work pretty well, it’s shown on the video.

        With minor tweaks, you can even have the electronics to charge le the battery when you are going down.

        1. Actually there are quite a lot of problems with the video.
          1st: the hot rims are most likely due to braking friction.
          2nd: thermal camera only detects motors that are in use. With limited space for batteries, most motors can run 10-20min (of 5-6h race). I doubt they got that lucky and caught each use. Some other instances can be due to bearing friction (a slightly worn bearing might generate enough to show up).
          3rd: downtube is where the battery for electrical shifters usually is. This might also heat up.

    2. My thought exactly! First I thought it’s all too much trouble for negligible gain as well. However then I thought of my cycling days and I realized the advantage of having this. I think despite the inefficient way of transferring energy, this really comes to use when you are tired and just cruising.

      During long distance rides, our version of taking rest used to be giving a few pedals and just rely on momentum for a while and repeat. Having the motor helping out during these moments would definitely let the rider get longer distance between paddles.

      That little push might as well go a long way.. Literally..

  1. I would rather embrace it than ban it. I think the Tour De France should have a class for electrically assisted bikes. It’s not a given that it would just reduce to an “electric motorcycle” race. The whole concept would be a balancing act of power, energy storage capacity, weight and rider strategy.

      1. LOL.

        But it *has* been done for real… I used to have a Zappy ( add-on kit for my bike (unfortunately, it got stolen). zapworld doesn’t do bikes anymore, but there’s, to name one…

        But so far as I know, no bike *race* has embraced the concept.

      1. Um, except that the idea is that the race is far longer than the range of the electric assistance. Try doing a marathon on a Segway. The battery will run out and then you get to carry it the rest of the way…?

    1. Why not? I’d much rather watch a race involving cyclists covered in fear-sweat just barely maintaining control of rockets on wheels. Same for major league sports too. The only limit should be the athletes personal reservations. Let em juice up and become monsters for our entertainment.

    2. Yeah that’s exactly my thought.
      It would be like KERS in F1, it would help develop new strategies. It would be great

      The problem is that the UCI is really studborn on making bad decicion. They only value the human effort.
      They’ve been banning scientific innovation in their sports since the 30’s.
      They banned the recumbent bicycle, even though they are much more effcicent.
      They put minimum weight limitation on bicycles.
      They even forbid the frame from being anything else than 2 triangles.

      They do everything they can to limit evolution of the sport, and on top of that, they are REALLY bad at catching cheaters.
      A real shame.

    3. It’s a great idea for a competition! You put just som simple limit (like “your bike cannot weigh more than x” or possibly the bike+rider) and then you have a race. Image all the fun stuff that will come out of it. Competitions for/with engineers are always more fun.

  2. EMI detector on the road. A motor will throw a lot of EMI as the currents switch through the coils. There should be nothing electrical coming from the bike as it goes over the detector. Use the EMI sensor to trigger a camera.

    1. That’s just not right because you use a lot of sensors to measure performance data, both from the crankset, gears, shifters, and the rider himself. A lot of modern bikes also use Shimano Di2 shifting which is entirely electrical and more precise than normal gears (and I am pretty sure they are legal for competitive usage).

        1. Then why do they provide kayaks and canoes for paddle sports?
          I agree there is a lot of innovation in the bike, but if electric motors start to come out it’s time to put strict controls over what they must be. Weight range, tire size, etc.

          1. They don’t. They provide a single standard for canoe and kayak races. Everyone can get their own design as long as it fits that standard. I knew a canoe/kayak designer and he told me a lot of interesting stories about how many tricks and techniques are used to push the limits within the design spec.

            Which, BTW is exactly what the UCI obliges with racing bikes.

      1. Some bikes don’t have a removable saddle tube. The frame is made to exactly the right size, with the saddle clamp moulded into the frame. Possibly you could require a small hole in the bottom bracket, right under the crank axis, big enough for an endoscope. Many bike frames have holes in this area anyway.

  3. I find myself curious how a motor that was small enough to hide within the axle of a bicycle could possibly provide enough torque to be of any advantage whatsoever. Every little bit counts maybe?
    Definitely not worth throwing away a career over.

    1. The linked article said the hidden ones might only produce 25 watts, which doesn’t seem unreasonable, and that they “cost 10,000 to 25,000 euros (about $11,300 to about $28,200)”. Probably most of that cost is the hidden integration. Hobbyking claims to have a 28mm diameter motor that can put out 1 kW. If you can gear it down and even get a tenth of that, it’s 100W, and that’s significant on a bike.

      I’d be interested in seeing a teardown and explanation of how the system is built into the bike!

    2. At peak in a sprint a male cyclist is putting out 1000W, or in a marathon situation averaging around 400W. A brushless motor of the size needed to fit in a bike frame should have no problem putting out an extra 100W. That’s a fairly significant addition.

      1. I just wanted to point out that the top road sprinter’s output somewhere around 1500W to a whopping 2000W or more (for the pure sprinters). 1000W would be considered dismal. The rest of your comment sounds pretty accurate though.

    3. As i understand it, these mini motors add only a small amount of Watts (like 10 to 20%) for a limited time. So it will never turn an amateur cyclist into a Tour de France winner but it can make an important or even deciding difference in a race

    4. Every bit counts I guess. Even shaving off a couple second over the entire race could be significant depending on how well you normally perform and your competitors. As you said, definitely not worth throwing away your career.

    5. The winning margin in the 2015 Tour de France was 1 minute 12 seconds, out of nearly 85 hours of racing. That’s 0.02%.

      On a typical stage riders output an average of 200W over 4 hours, or 2.9MJ. A single ordinary 18650 cell has a capacity of 35kJ, or 1.2% of the rider’s energy output. In other words, that one cell is easily sufficient make an huge difference to the final race classification.

    1. Friction an a modern, well maintained road bike is very low. Rule of thumb is, that resistance is made up of ~10% mechanical friction (including tires on the road) and the rest is aerodynamic drag while driving 30km/h. If any part of such a bike gets warmer than ambient temperature there has to be a reason. A (very) dead bearing or a motor.
      Reality is, competitive cyclist often change their bearings multiple times a year and often use ultra low resistance hybrid ceramic bearings. Pro teams have their mechanics checking the bikes before every race. It’s unlikely just, that any of the top 10 in any pro to semi pro race has flawd material..

      And having a motor + battery which adds 20W for a full distance race is a huge benefit! Just mind, normal races having a top 10 which is separated by seconds or even fractions of a second for the top three after driving a distance of 80km some thousands of vertical meters for hours. 100 – 200Wh bonus has a enormous impact?

    2. If you watch the footage you can clearly see the claimed “cheat” bikes have a very different heat signature to the rest of the field, and it’s not really consistent with the (small) heat generated by friction in the moving parts.

      Now, there’s enough technology goes into building these bikes that I’d be willing to believe there’s some facet of the construction that might conduct heat up the frame in an odd way, but that should be very easy to prove for the bike manufacturer.

      1. The NY times article claims that some types(?) of carbon fiber can mask the heat signature.

        I say keep it K.I.S.S. do random checks of a specified percentage of racers and always check the bikes of say… the top five winners in each category. Do the tear down in view of the public.

          1. Probably very similar to graphite heat spreaders. They have a very anisotropic heat conductivity to spread out heat in the plane but do not conduct it very well through the thickness. The use is to avoid hot spots on the back of your tablet/phone where the CPU sits. The heat has to go through the plastic housing, so it has to be spreaded over a bigger area.

  4. I’ve heard about this before in 2011. It was a rumor about a cyclist that made an unexpected cycle change. The rumor said it looked like the cyclist had it easier on the new bike. It adds that the bike never made it to inspection. I’m not a expert nor can i recall the cyclists name)

    Apart from temperature its pretty hard to detect. A bike frame could act as Faraday cage. The bikes are already checked, weighted. Maybe even before and after the race.

  5. Find the power supply. Forget about finding the motor. The power supply will be large and heavy. I would do something like put it in a water bottle and have contacts in the bottle cage. You could fit it in a seatpost, but it would be hard to retrieve. Other places? You could put it in the tire or rim, but that would make the handling atrocious.

    The real evil would be to use an external power source – beam microwaves from the team car directly to the bike. Don’t cook the rest of the peleton!

    As for the motor, I’d hide it in the new disk brakes. You might even be able to design for regenerative braking.

    1. The battery can be made small enough to hide it in the bicycle frame itself.
      120Wh equals 10x 3,4Ah 18650 lion cells from Panasonic* which can be placed in the downtube of a modern carbon bicycle frame. Weight should be 500grams (48g for each cell + battery holder).

          1. That’s trivial.

            No it isn’t but techniques for portable EMP generation is well known – some way to provide large amounts of energy in a short pulse and then radiating it as radio waves. The most space efficient way is using a explosively pumped flux compression device but those have the problem of explosives, using a truck full of charged capacitors + some type of radio generator would be more practical and reusable (at least if the truck electronics are protected).

            But EMP seems like a bad idea, there are a lot of other ways to detect cheating that are cheaper and easier than blasting electronics.

    1. Exactly. Motor racing has had a requirement that the cars have to be inspected by scrutineers to determine if they meet the standards of the class for decades. Obviously this needs to be instituted here.

      1. Wasn’t there a race team suspended for a time a few years ago for having an air bypass that initially passed inspections? I think Subaru was the car, can’t remember the race. I think it was mentioned here on HaD a while back.

        1. It was actually Toyota, the class meant you had to have restrictor plates so what they did (simply atleast) was make the plate under load move so it let more air around the outside of it.

  6. It doesn’t even need to be an electric motor. Some kind of purely mechanical motor or spring that could store energy when going downhill and release it slowly when going uphill might make enough of a difference to be useful.

    1. Thomas Edison built a bike like this for his own use – the spring was wound up on the downhill cost from his home to his lab, the spring powered his uphill ride home at the end of the day.

  7. If they are going to omit thermal imagining in favor of electromagnetic detection then I propose that chemical rockets hidden under the seat cushion would be the best way to cheat.

  8. My father in law works at a bycicle shop who specialices in these types of bikes. They sell 5 of them every week:)

    I designed a special water bottle holder with a docking station and the battery in the bottle. That way when the battery is empty they switch bottle and can go again;)

    Here in belgium this is a very hot topic in sports. The shop that sells these bike sells them mostly to older people who cant follow the young guys but still want to stay in there club. Everyone know they have a small motor and only uses them on the hills. But this is hobby biking offcourse.

  9. I’d start with a weight measurement for every bike. Millions have been spent to reduce the weight of these competition bikes, and every gram counts. Any bike with unexplainable extra weight is a prime candidate for extra inspection.

    1. UCI limits the weight of any race legal bike to a minimum of 6,8kg. Bikes (race worthy) were build under 6kg with of the shelf parts. So you can have at least 1kg for motor, gearing, electronics and batteries.

    1. Mainstream sports. You might like sports but not sports you can open talk about. For example I can’t say on my dating profile I enjoy watching Women’s Gymnastics, Women’s Figure Skating, Women’s Tennis or Women’s Nude Oil Wrestling. *a wild awkward penguin appears!* Uhhh… My point is you do like sports just depends on the sport and the competitor. Whether or not you can say what sport well that is different story.

      In other news “Gladiator banned from Colosseum!”

      Moribus Quaestio was accused of using a spear that did not meet standards. His “Jupitier Finger” was officially blessed at the local various temple and later inspected by Vulcan Council of tributes and priests. As it was approved the spear previously however some comments were on file as to why chose a material that could not possible hold up to true combat as it was made of a sharpened bone and oak staff that had a strange inlay of electrum wire.

      During his last bout and a furious scuffle with Johnous Cenaous where Johnous appeared to be possessed by spirits and simultaneously voiding himself and pronounced dead by the slight graze of Moribus Quaestio weapon. Moribus Quaestio himself was thrown back as minor lightnings appeared to plauge him as well as blue smoke and fire appeared across his spear where he promptly fell into a pit contain a live lion.

      Asclepius priests rushed out to attempt to revived legend Johnous Cenaous, however 2 of the priests were caught unaware by two strands of sand colored waxed leather rope and were injured as they collided.

      Further investigation found one of the inner pits contained approximately 1000 lemons that were connected in a demonic looking array. The temple of Hades is currently under investigation.

      Representatives at the temple of Delphi had no comment as they didn’t see that coming. Zalmoxis stepped out of his cave to laugh for a moment at the question before going back into his cave. Even attempting to reach Hermes could not be done as all messengers were out of grasp or earshot.

      Senate, Temple Officials and the Caesar held closed door hearing today to discuss this incident. Cautious ears heard much moaning, labored breathing and the occasion loud cry of exuberance or frustration during the deliberations. A vast mental effort was used (as could be discerned by the thirst the Senators, Officials and Caesar had) due to the empty wine jugs present.

      We can only hope they will inform the populace later of any wrong-doing later. Regardless local citizens mentioned they were highly entertained.

  10. 4 small holes like the size of ones used for cable routing in the seatstay & downtube made mandatory on conpeating bike would fix it a visual check could be done on all bikes in seconds…..sometimes the simplest ideas are the best ;)

  11. I’d go with pneumatic turbine and pressurized frame filled with compressed gas. Add to it a mechanical valve that opens when torque on bicycle pedals increases. This way it will add torque only when needed most…

    1. I was thinking the same thing… Use the tubular frame to store compressed air. Integrate the turbine or piston or whatever into the existing moving parts, use some hybrid design that fits in with the appearance. Maybe the pedal mounting could have something that helps push the pedals round. You could perhaps have it activate with some simple mechanism driven from the gear selector and the brake line.

      Ideal thing with this, is that the energy is compressed air, that’s quite hard to find on a scan, or at all.

      You don’t need too much power to make enough difference to get a worthwhile advantage.

  12. For the many variations of “why don’t they test it” the UCI already test a random sample of the bikes. It’s likely they will increase the number of bikes tested, although in fairness to them, they were testing long before this story broke.

    Also the headline of “Cyclists Use Tiny Motors to Cheat” is a little misleading as it makes it sound like a commonplace thing. So far one person, a female cyclist in an under 23 cyclo cross race called Femke Van den Driessche has been caught.

    1. People have been speculating for more than 5 years concealed motors in TDF and there has been an italian firm designing them at least that long. It was easily a decade after rumors before anything turned up in doping investigations.

          1. That doesn’t really address the parent post though, there are a lot of cases where cheating have been tolerated to some degree (don’t ask – don’t tell) but detected cheating have been punished as it is against the rules.
            With current sports being a huge industry that tendency isn’t going to be easy to remove completely.

  13. Oh please. This isn’t a one of and everyone knows it. As for testing, obviously it isn’t currently effective or she (or her management) wouldn’t have tried it. And this was a team effort – an individual athlete might choose to dope on their own, but this speaks of far greater involvement.

  14. An X ray seems the most reasonable option – fast, cheap, non-destructive and thorough. I can’t really think of a way to cheat it with such a device. Ultrasonic detection would need direct physical contact with the tested bike.

  15. If they can fit the power supply, motor and control gear inside the frame why not. The tight restrictions will drive innovation – hell its only a bike race . If we can gain som much more from driving the technology than just the fact one person won the the nets milk it for all we can

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