Thermal cameras will be used to detect mechanical doping at the Tour de France this year after the French Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) provided the technology at the request of the French Ministry for Sport.
Thierry Braillard, the Minister of State for Sport, announced the measure at a press conference in Paris on Monday morning, which was also attended by UCI President Brian Cookson, Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme and French Cycling Federation President David Lappartient.
The CEA thermal camera is portable and can be used either aboard of a motorbike or from the side of the road. The new technology will be used in conjunction with the UCI's existing magnetic resonance screening for motors, which is carried out using iPads at stage starts and finishes.
Lappartient noted that the CEA thermal camera had already been used during the French national championships this week and claimed that he was satisfied with its efficacy. "These tests were conclusive. Even a stopped motor could have been detected," Lappartient said, according to AFP.
The new measure was welcomed by Prudhomme, who had already called on the UCI to avail of thermal cameras in testing for mechanical doping, or technological fraud. Reporters from French television programme Stade 2 claimed in April that they had detected suspected cases of mechanical doping by using a thermal camera from the roadside at Strade Bianche and the Settimana Coppi e Bartali. As recently as early June, however, it had appeared that the UCI was reluctant to add thermal imaging to its testing protocol.
"It's an announcement that should bring us some serenity. The fact that the French government and secretariat of sport have invested and asked the CEA to provide a thermal camera to check for technological fraud, in addition to the measures already put in place by the UCI, is something very important," Prudhomme told the France Info radio station.
Rumours of the use of motors in the professional peloton have been in the public domain since 2010, but the first case of technological fraud to be verified occurred at this year's Cyclo-cross World Championships, when Belgian under-23 rider Femke Van Den Driessche was found to have a motor in one of her bikes.
Van Den Driessche was later banned for six years and fined 20,000 Swiss Francs, although she declined to attend the disciplinary hearing.
"I think the cycling world had an electro-shock in January because what had previously been only a rumour was confirmed by a positive case. It's been a race against time since then. What I like is that there's been a collective effort," Prudhomme said.
During Monday's press conference, Braillard also announced that the French government is preparing legislation to make technological fraud a criminal offence.
When the UCI held a demonstration of its magnetic flux density screening process in May, the governing body's technical manager Mark Barfield appeared to reject the idea of using thermal imaging. The Briton suggested that it would be possible to fit a thermal shield to prevent detection and also voiced concerns that motorbike-borne testing during a race might pose a safety risk.
On Monday, however, the UCI president supported the use of thermal imaging. "It is very important that we detect cheating," Cookson said, according to AFP.
Earlier this month, another report on Stade 2 showed that Barfield had alerted Harry Gibbings of the e-bike manufacturer Typhoon about a police investigation into the use of hidden motors on the 2015 Tour de France. Gibbings has served as a consultant to the UCI on technological fraud. The UCI immediately stressed that it had "full confidence" in its technical staff, but pledged to investigate whether Barfield's email had been forwarded to a third party.
In a separate statement issued by the UCI on Monday morning, Cookson expressed confidence in the governing body's own screening process, and pledged to carry out between 3,000 and 4,000 tests during this year's Tour.
"Since the beginning of the year, we are sending a clear message which is that there is literally no-where to hide for anyone foolish enough to attempt to cheat in this way," Cookson said. "A modified bike is extremely easy to detect with our scanners and we will continue to deploy them extensively throughout the Tour and the rest of the season."
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