There has already been drama aplenty as the gruelling 3,519km Tour de France — the world’s premier road cycle stage race — nears the second week of its three-week duration.
And, as always with Le Tour, as it is affectionately called, there are a host of battles within battles, with SA interests right in the thick of them.
Last year’s tour winner Chris Froome, who was educated at St John’s College in Johannesburg, is again a contender, along with South African Daryl Impey (arguably the first African to wear the race leader’s yellow jersey). Impey races for the Australian team ORICA BikeExchange. And the Dimension Data team is racing in SA colours.
Dimension Data, in particular, says Gregory van Heerden, secretary-general of Cycling SA (SA’s governing body for cycling), “has punched above its weight” in the early stages of this year’s race. The team delivered evergreen sprint racer Mark Cavendish first over the finishing line three times in the race’s first six stages — better than any of the 22 teams in the race.
But, as always with the tour, the sprint tussles are only one of the clashes in this, the 103rd running/riding.
And it is not just rivalry between the pedallers. Equally fierce is the intense long-running arm-wrestle between race administrators and the, seemingly inevitable, cheats, particularly the drug cheats who plague the sport.
Now a new cheating challenge has emerged just as the administrators seemed to be gaining the upper hand following the UCI (cycling’s world governing body) and the US Drug Administration’s exposure and unsaddling of self-confessed super-cheat Lance Armstrong in 2012,which resulted in him being stripped of his record seven consecutive tour titles.
Instead of, or as well as, steroids, masking agents and all sorts of almost undetectable performance enhancing pharmaceuticals, the latest concern is that the cheats are turning to what has been dubbed “mechanical doping” — hidden electric motors in the bicycles intended to boost rider performance and bamboozle administrators and the competition.
Organisers are not taking the threat, technological fraud to use its official designation, lightly. They are applying draconian measures to nip the practice in the bud.
Just days before the race start — giving would-be cheats scant time to plot countermeasures — the French government, cycling authorities and Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme announced jointly that race administrators would use a thermal imaging camera, developed by the French Alternative Energies & Atomic Energy Commission, to detect and expose hidden “mechanical anomalies” on the riders’ bikes.
The camera will be deployed randomly anywhere along the route, on the side of the road and even in the race, so riders will not have a clue when they are under scrutiny.
Hidden motors in bicycles are a reality. They are manufactured legitimately to assist leisure cyclists — though that raises the question: Why do manufacturers go to such lengths to make them invisible by miniaturising the mechanisms? Typically a 200W motor weighs just under 2kg, is driven by lithium batteries, and can be secreted away in the seat tube (the tube that goes from the bike saddle to the pedals, for the uninitiated). Activated automatically or by a hidden Bluetooth button in the handlebars, they can be set to assist riders for either sprinting or hill climbing.
Even more sophisticated and unobtrusive are electromagnetic systems installed in a race bike’s wheels.
The first instance of mechanical doping in professional cycling was exposed earlier this year when a motor was found hidden in a bicycle being used by Belgian Femke Van den Driessche at the cyclocross world championships. Unsubstantiated rumours, however, date back to 2010, when it was suggested that Swiss Olympic champion rider Fabian Cancellara used a hidden motor in his bike to win two European classic races — the Tour de Flanders and the Paris Roubaix.
The UCI, however, says it is confident that it has an effective, robust and reliable solution in place which it is in a position to make available to national cycling federations.
So is mechanical doping a problem in cycling mad SA? Van Heerden says: “Without the technology to detect mechanical doping we cannot determine whether this is a problem in SA. However, we will be taking steps to ensure that if it does exist it will be exposed and dealt with severely.”