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By the time Lance Armstrong sat down for his confessional interview with Oprah in January of 2013, the damage had already been done. The seven-time Tour de France champion had been deservedly dragged through the mud after allegations of performance enhancing drug use throughout his historic career—and the abhorrent lengths at which he went to hide it—turned out to be true. It was one of the worst bombshells ever in terms of sports cheating, and cycling hasn’t made much of a comeback in the United States.
When the most famous champion in the history of your sport goes down in public flames, it’s hard to recover credibility. In the sport of professional cycling, though, Armstrong was hardly the sport’s only cheater.
Wikipedia has an entire page dedicated to a list of doping cases in cycling, with incidents dating back to the late 19th century. From 1998 to 2011, 36 of 70 top five finishers in the Tour de France were busted or implicated in doping scandals.
The use of erythropoietin (EPO), better known as blood doping, is the most common form of cheating in professional cycling. Armstrong said winning his seven Tour titles wouldn’t have been possible without it because everyone in the sport was doing it. As he saw it, doping brought him level with the rest of the playing field.
“That’s a classic response for people who do that,” Mike Rowbottom, sports journalist and author, tells BTRtoday. “If you believe everyone is doing it, or if your coach tells you that, it takes a very strong person to resist it.”
Rowbottom’s book “Foul Play: The Dark Arts of Cheating In Sport” chronicles the lengths to which some athletes will go in order to gain a competitive advantage, from performance-enhancing drug use to match fixing. Some sports are cleaner than others, such as golf, which employs a strong moral code amongst its players. All in all though, cheating in sports is as inherent as the sports themselves.
“We’ve seen it in the ancient Olympics. It’s evolved with time, it’s evolved with human beings so that impulse is enormous, potentially,” Rowbottom says. “It’s interesting to note why they feel it’s worth it, or what the balance is in their mind at that point.”
Cheating can be considered natural human behavior. It’s been documented that getting away with something triggers a positive effect in the brain, and cheating falls directly in line with the humanistic tendency to prioritize short-term results over long-term consequences. In a society that incentivizes getting ahead of your fellow person, it would make sense that people in any walk of life—especially in the hyper-competitive arena of athletics—would seek to skirt the system for personal gain.
Despite these notions and the sport’s long history of unethical behavior, the cycling world was rocked earlier this year when 19-year-old Belgian cyclist Femke Van de Driessche was found to have a hidden motor in her bicycle frame. According to Rowbottom, some suspect this form of cheating—referred to as motor, motorized, or mechanical doping—might have been going on for years, but to actually see it was a shocker.
“It’s so blatant, and I think that’s what makes people do a double take,” Rowbottom says, “because they’re so used to sophistication. They’re used to athletes taking not just drugs, but drugs to block the tests for drugs, which are so advanced. And then suddenly someone says, ‘I know–let’s stick a motor on a cycle.’ It’s like a comic book idea.”
The addition of the motor itself is actually very subtle and easily hidden to the naked eye, placed within a bicycle frame or water bottle, but the advantage it provides is enormous. When engaged, the motor will independently turn the pedals of the bicycle, leaving the cyclist to simply keep up with their speed and motion.
Predictably, Van de Driessche denied any wrongdoing, claiming that the illegal bicycle was given to her by a friend and was identical to her completely legal, non-motorized bike. Nonetheless, she received a six-year suspension from professional cycling for mechanical doping.
“That’s about the only way you can get out of it,” Rowbottom posits. “With [drug] doping, you can say ‘I took this supplement, I didn’t realize it had that in it.’ But you can’t really say that when you have a motor in your bike, can you? There’s nowhere else to go with it, and if people don’t believe that, that’s the end of the game.”
In a sport known for its rampant cheating, it’s fair to wonder whether fans will ever view it without skepticism. There are some who believe the problems will never disappear, though Rowbottom remains an optimist. He points out the notable efforts undertaken to clean up the sport in recent years, and thinks motor doping will end up nothing more than a short-lived phenomenon due to the ease with which it can be detected. At the cyclocross world championships, where Van de Driessche was caught, the International Cycling Federation tested more than 100 bikes, which proves how seriously they’re taking the issue.
“It looks like it’s going to be clamped down on,” Rowbottom says. “It’s something that once you know about it and have the means to test, it’s easy to stop.”
If anything’s been gained in the wake of the first recorded motor doping incident in professional cycling—aside from a few laughs and head shakes—it’s identifying this new, bizarre form of deception.
“If we don’t know about it, it just goes on,” Rowbottom explains. “This publicity is good in that it means somebody has been found out and the wrongdoer has been punished.”