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Mechanical doping claims resurface at Tour de France

SAINTLARYSOULAN COL DU PORTET FRANCE JULY 14 Tadej Pogaar of Slovenia and UAETeam Emirates Yellow Leader Jersey and Teammates Jonas Vingegaard of Denmark and Team JumboVisma White Best Young Rider Jersey Wout Van Aert of Belgium and Team JumboVisma The Peloton passing through Col de Peyresourde 1569m during the 108th Tour de France 2021 Stage 17 a 1784km stage from Muret to SaintLarySoulan Col du Portet 2215m Landscape Mountains Fans Public LeTour TDF2021 on July 14 2021 in SaintLarySoulan Col du Portet France Photo by Tim de WaeleGetty Images
The Tour de France peloton during stage 17 of the race in the Pyrenees (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

The spectre of mechanical doping has reared its head once again at the Tour de France following a report citing several unnamed riders claiming to hear "strange noises" in the rear wheels of a number of team's bikes at the race.

An article published by Swiss newspaper Le Temps on Thursday alleged that three separate riders at the Tour had heard noises they had never heard before coming from bikes involving four teams at the race. 

According to the report, one rider told the newspaper during the first week of the race that he was hearing odd new noises coming from the rear of several bikes. During the race, the UCI had announced that no forms of mechanical doping had been detected.

"There is a strange noise. I can hear it while riding. It comes from the rear wheels. A strange metallic noise, like a badly adjusted chain. I've never heard that anywhere," the rider said.

Two days later, the same rider reported back pointing out that the four teams that featured the noises coming from their rear wheel. "Four teams have this little sizzle in the rear wheel," he said.

Another rider said that talk in the peloton isn't about a motor in the crankset or seat-tube – the most popular rumour that has been circulated about possible mechanical doping in the past decade or so. Instead, he talked of an energy recovery system similar to the technology used in Formula 1 cars.

"There is no longer talk of a motor in the crankset or an electromagnet system in the wheel rims, but of a device hidden in the hub," he said. "We are also talking about an energy recuperator via the brakes. The inertia is stored like in Formula 1."

A third rider, not quoted in the article, is also reported to have raised concerns about the situation. One of the riders noted the relative strength of the four teams in question, with 13 of the 19 stages so far having been shared among them.

"Who will dare to speak out? We're not doing anything, and the situation is serious," one of the riders said. "Usually, we have a team that dominates. Or a team that is weaker than the others. That's sport... This year, four teams are far above the rest. The smallest rider who signs with them becomes very strong. If he changes team, he becomes average again. How can you explain that?"

Following Friday's stage 18, race leader Tadej Pogačar, who rides for UAE Team Emirates, denied that his bike was in any way illegal.

"I don't know. We don't hear any noise," Pogačar said in the post-stage press conference. "We don't use anything illegal. It's all Campagnolo materials, Bora. I don't know what to say."

On Monday's rest day, the UCI announced technological testing figures for the first 15 stages of the Tour, with nothing suspicious found after 720 tests had been carried out, including testing with magnetic scanning tablets and X-ray technology.

"A total of 720 tests have been conducted before and after every stage. All tests have come back negative," read the UCI statement.

"Of the tests carried out, 606 were conducted on bikes before the start of each stage using magnetic scanning tablets.  Meanwhile, X-ray technology was used to test another 114 bikes at the end of each stage.

"The UCI underlines that the post-stage testing pool always includes the bike ridden by the winner of that day's stage as well as the leader of the general classification. The remainder of the post-stage testing pool is decided on a two-pronged approach: bikes selected by the UCI based on its information and intelligence, and bikes ridden by athletes selected for targeted anti-doping controls by the International Testing Agency (ITA), the independent body in charge of the UCI's anti-doping activities." 

The statement continued with an announcement that a new form of testing will debut at the upcoming Tokyo Olympic Games, with mobile technology able to scan bikes on the move, rather than just before or after races.

"After the introduction of magnetic tablets in 2016 and mobile X-ray technology in 2018, a new backscatter technology will be used to test bikes at the Tokyo Olympic Games. This relatively compact and light hand-held device provides instant images of the interior of the bike that can be shared in real-time to anywhere in the world via a secure platform.  It will be used in Tokyo at the road, mountain bike and track cycling events."

So far, only one rider has ever been caught and banned for mechanical doping. Cyclo-cross rider Femke Van den Driessche was banned for six years in 2016 after a motor was discovered in a bike with her pit crew at the Cyclo-cross World Championships that year.

In 2020, the French National Financial Prosecutor's Office (PNF) ended a multi-year investigation into mechanical doping at the sport's top level earlier this year without finding any further evidence of the practice.

A tech writer's analysis

Cyclingnews tech writer Josh Croxton gives his thoughts on the allegations:

Having not heard the noise that these anonymous riders are claiming to have heard, it's impossible to say what it's likely to be.

With that said, chains interacting with cassettes and derailleurs all make a noise, some are louder than others, and each setup will likely have a different pitch to the noise.

All four of the mentioned teams use groupsets that have been around for years already. Three of the teams use Shimano Dura-Ace R9170, while the fourth team use Campagnolo SuperRecord EPS 12-speed, and they all use stock components – there are no aftermarket pulley wheel systems attached to derailleurs.

They have all likely swapped out the stock bearings for oiled ceramic bearings, but even so, the noise of the chain interacting with the pulleys and the cassette shouldn't be anything that riders haven't heard before.

One thing that has changed in recent times is the use of waxed chains. It's not a new technology by any means – certainly not new to the 2021 Tour de France – and it's impossible to know for sure which teams are using waxed chains instead of a typical oil-based lubricant, but with the promise of a more efficient drivetrain, it's possible that more teams have made the switch.

One of the named teams, for example, are sponsored by CeramicSpeed and are running the brand's pre-treated UFO race chains. However, for any teams treating chains themselves, these chains need time to 'break in', since the wax dries and hardens. During that initial 10 kilometres or so, chains are considerably noisier than average.

That aside, unfortunately, there's no common denominator between the components used by the four mentioned teams. One team have used Vision wheels, another team has used both Vision and Shimano, while one are on Roval and the fourth team use Campagnolo wheels.

Ultimately, while these claims are very intriguing, there's very little to substantiate them at this stage.