Are Tour de France Racers Cheating With Secret Motors? – Bike Magazine Australia

For months now, a Hungarian named Istvan “Stefano” Varjas has been making increasingly incendiary claims that professional cyclists are cheating by using hidden motors—including ones he invented—to help them win races. Varjas’s statements are now at the centre of a segment on US television’s 60 Minutes programme about hidden motor use in the sport that aired last night. 

According to CBS, a central allegation in the story is Varjas’s claim that in 1998, he sold a motor and exclusive use rights for a decade to an unnamed buyer for $2m, and that he believes the system was then used in pro cycling. While the promo material, at least, does not explicitly name Lance Armstrong as that user, multiple sources say that is the implication in the story, and that viewers might infer that Armstrong was the user. When contacted by our sister website Bicycling, Armstrong acknowledged that 60 Minutes had contacted him for comment.

If true, it would be an extraordinary revelation in two ways. First, it would constitute a massive fraud in addition to the doping that helped Armstrong become cycling’s winningest Tour de France rider and spurred him to fame and wealth before the United States Anti-Doping Agency’s investigation brought him down.” And most sensational, it implies that fraud lay entirely hidden for almost two decades, even as Armstrong’s doping was the subject of widespread rumor and accusation almost since his first Tour win before he finally admitted it.

But did it really happen? And if motors were used almost two decades ago, are they still being used today?

It’s easy to see why a motor would be attractive to a pro cyclist, if you could use one without being caught. A motor could completely evade anti-doping detection while offering a similar performance boost. That’s vital in a sport where the differences between first and 10th—or even 20th place—can be minuscule. 

Take Laurens ten Dam, a Dutch pro who’s raced at the sport’s top level for 15 years, and an early adopter of publishing power output data from races on his Strava account, a signal of transparency to fans about his natural abilities. On the crucial summit finish of Stage 18 of the 2014 Tour de France, ten Dam averaged 370 watts on the 37-minute final ascent to Hautacam, preserving a top-10 overall finish. 

If augmented by even a modest 30 watts of power from a motor and battery small enough to hide in a frame, that would boost ten Dam’s own exceptional, human-powered output by eight percent—roughly the same increase that some studies have shown to be possible from powerful drugs like EPO. If he’d had that kind of motor assistance for a few crucial stages like the Hautacam ascent?

“I would have won the Tour instead of finishing ninth,” he said.

What is striking about Varjas’s claims to CBS and other media outlets is that they predate the first known accusation of this kind by more than a decade. In 2010, Swiss time trial and classics specialist Fabian Cancellara came under scrutiny when, at the Tour of Flanders, he took a curiously timed bike change and then went on to win by accelerating away from his competitors with disconcerting ease. A video investigation by an independent Italian journalist not long after focused on what were claimed to be suspicious hand movements, like hitting a start button for a motor. Cancellara has consistently denied ever cheating with a motor. But the accusation, and the circumstantial evidence, stuck with the sport.

In later years, other riders stood accused as well, often on similar bases. A 23-second YouTube clip from the 2014 Vuelta Espana, for example, shows Canadian pro Ryder Hesjedal crashing in a roundabout:

As his bike comes to a stop, the rear wheel appears to keep spinning, turning the bike in a lazy circle. It’s been viewed over 550,000 times online. Hesjedal also denied using a motor.

Circumstantial evidence aside, cycling’s governing body, the UCI, was concerned enough to start sporadically X-raying riders’ bikes in 2010. In 2016, it added a more sophisticated test: a tablet-based app that checks for the magnetic fields a motor produces, even when it’s off. The result has been a kind of motor mania among devoted fans of the sport, where every rider is under suspicion and every race live stream is scrutinised for evidence of hidden motors. The media has jumped in as well, with RAI Sport, Stade 2, and other outlets conducting investigations, interviewing figures like Varjas, or filming races with thermal imaging cameras that detect suspicious heat blooms from riders’ bike frames. To date, however, the UCI has only caught a single cheater: a young Belgian cyclocross racer named Femke van den Driessche, almost exactly one year to the day before the 60 Minutes report.

“The shame of a WorldTour rider getting caught? I think it’d be mindblowing if anything like that happened; they’d be shunned.”

There are several types of hidden motors said to be in existence. Of them, the bottom-bracket mounted systems shown in a 60 Minutes promotional video released January 27 are most widely known. But when contacted by Bicycling, Varjas also said he makes even smaller motors that are entirely concealed inside a bicycle’s rear hub. “Motor, battery, electronics, etc. are invisible,” he wrote in a brief email response to our questions. “There is no wire from the bike, and you get 60-200 watts of assistance.” The price? Between 50,000 and 200,000 Euro. Varjas even claims to make the sophisticated electromagnetic motor systems that are rumored to exist.

But installing a hidden motor in a bicycle is no easy feat. There are significant technical restrictions. Some commercially available systems, like those from Vivax, require a minimum seat tube size (31.6mm) which is larger than those of frames from many bicycle brands. To hide battery packs, frames may have to be modified with sophisticated carbon-fiber repair techniques. “You could do that; it wouldn’t be too hard,” said Craig Calfee, a pioneer of carbon-fiber frames who also runs a frame repair service. (Calfee adds he’s never been asked to help a rider cheat.) But it would require a skilled composites expert like Calfee or his staff to ensure the structural integrity of a modified frame. 

By contrast, hub motor systems could be used on any frame, but would require even finer concealment inside relatively small hub shells already packed with axles, cartridge bearings, and freehub clutches; none have ever been publicly demonstrated. Most exotic are the electromagnetic systems. It is literally child’s play to build a simple electromagnetic, or homopolar, motor with a magnet and a battery. But getting that technology powerful enough to propel a bicycle, and then conceal it? To date, just one company has managed to do this publicly: German wheelmaker Lightweight and parent company CarboFibreTec, which showed a city bike with a functional prototype electromagnetic drive at Eurobike in 2014. It cost the company 2.5 million Euros to develop, said engineer Simon Thanner, who doubts that fully concealed systems exist. “In our opinion, it’s not possible to minimize the motor components to be invisible,” he said. “To make it so small that it can’t be seen on a road bike, the costs would explode, and it still wouldn’t work.”

Weight would be another concern. Even with the UCI’s mandatory minimum-weight limit of 6.8kg pounds offering some help, some of the lighter team-issue race bikes today aren’t much less than 6.3kg (mechanics add weight back in various forms). Even the smallest motor system would likely add at least 0.5kg. In Armstrong’s day, bikes were routinely above the weight limit. According to longtime US Postal Service team mechanic Geoff Brown, Armstrong’s 1999 Trek OCLV road bike weighed about 7.5kg. Even in 2002, with lighter parts and a new 5900 Superlight model with a special blend of carbon fiber, the bike barely approached 6.8kg. If there’s one thing racers hate, it’s carrying an ounce more weight than necessary.

To install and maintain a motor would require a team effort: a rider might purchase a motor through a middleman to conceal its end use, but he’d need carbon-fibre repair specialists to install and conceal it, and team mechanics to maintain the bike; even coaches and team directors might know about its use.

In other words, you’d need a conspiracy. And a man like Varjas would be essential.

When asked about his background, Varjas told Bicycling he won a youth physicist competition in Hungary several times, but claimed no formal training as an engineer or physicist. “I did my own research and study as an autodidact,” he wrote, adding that we would “learn his real history soon.” But he has thin ties to cycling. None of the current professional riders we spoke to knew of him, or even knew of Sandro Lerici, an associate who’s listed as a contact on the site where Varjas advertises his systems under the EPowers name. (Lerici is an Italian former pro who had several short stints as a team director, most recently at Lampre-Merida from 2011-2013; he also sells natural pet food.)

In an online interview published last February, Varjas said he was inspired to make his motor to help people ride bikes again who’d been disabled, particularly in wars. But he did not respond to Bicycling’s question about why the system would then need to be hidden: Why not just make a normal e-bike? He’s not yet demonstrated his claimed hub or electromagnetic systems—while props of a wheel system appear in the 60 Minutes story’s promotional video, and Varjas claims French TV will soon demonstrate his hub system, it’s unclear if 60 Minutes will show working versions of either—and his EPowers company only advertises crank-based systems. Varjas holds several European patents on motor systems for bicycles (some for such elements as dual-battery systems for more power), but the oldest of them dates back to 2013, some 15 years after his claimed first sale and a full five years after the supposed 10-year exclusive license expired. 

In short, there are a lot of holes in Varjas’s story. When asked if he could show Bicycling documentary proof that his motor existed in 1998, he deflected the question, reassuring us that he had provided it to 60 Minutes and that he needed to remain quiet due to the CBS show and a pending book deal in France.

“They collected all the proof,” he wrote of CBS. “Don’t worry. They would be stupid to publish if not true.”

Hidden motors do exist; that is undeniable. And the sources we spoke with acknowledged that it was technologically feasible to create one as far back as the mid-1990s. But feasible is not the same as proof it happened. And for modern pros, none of the ones we spoke with think that motors are being widely used, if they’re used at all.

“As we’ve seen, where there’s a will there’s a way,” said Brent Bookwalter, a longtime pro on BMC Racing. “I have a hard time saying adamantly without doubt that no one has ever used a motor. But I’ve also never seen anything that would lead me to believe that they have.” Phil Gaimon, who raced two years on the WorldTour with Garmin and Cannondale-Drapac, said he suspects Cancellara used a motor “for a few select races” in 2010, but said he’s skeptical of more recent accusations. “Once [the UCI] is searching for it, you can’t do it anymore,” he said.

If there are sources who can confirm Varjas’s claims, they haven’t stepped forward yet. (It’s not yet known if 60 Minutes has that confirmation.) But it’s worth remembering that even the earliest whispers of Armstrong’s doping  began not long after his 1999 win, and came from multiple sources associated with him. Bicycling contacted two team mechanics who worked for Armstrong’s US Postal Service and Discovery Channel teams: Brown (1997-2007) and Dave Lettieri (2000 Tour only). Neither said they saw any suspicious signs on the bikes. “I handled various Lance bikes from 1993 through 2005 on a consistent basis, and never saw anything or was involved in anything suspicious,” Brown said. When Armstrong began winning Tours, Brown recalled that sponsor equipment began to flow in. “There was no need to economize parts,” he said. “If the bottom bracket wasn’t worn out after three days of racing, it didn’t matter; we replaced it anyway.” Brown said it “was impossible someone would be able to put a motor in a bike without anyone noticing.”

Bicycling contacted three former teammates—Jonathan Vaughters, Frankie Andreu, and Christian Vande Velde—who were variously present during Armstrong’s first three Tour wins. None recalled Armstrong discussing motors, or had any suspicion that anything was amiss. “It’s not something I was ever concerned about as a rider or manager,” said Vaughters of the motor rumors. Vande Velde answered, succinctly, “No, not remotely,” when asked in an email if he’d ever noticed or suspected in his 17-year career that a rider used a motor in a race. All three riders testified against Armstrong in the USADA anti-doping case; Vaughters and Andreu in particular have for years had strained relationships with their former teammate. Vande Velde, at least, is friendly again with Armstrong; the two will race on a team together at the upcoming 24 Hours of the Old Pueblo mountain bike race. Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton did not respond to requests for comment. 

Contacted by Bicycling, Armstrong denied ever having used a motor in a race, and said that his legal representatives had recently spoken with Varjas. “He confirmed to us that he never sold that technology to me, to anyone on the team or to anyone associated with me,” Armstrong said, and asserted that such information had been provided to 60 Minutes. Michael Rey, one of the two producers on the 60 Minutes piece, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

If Armstrong—or anyone—did use a motor prior to 2015, the prospect for punishment is unclear. Race results could be stripped by the UCI, but it wasn’t until the 2015 season that the organization specifically addressed what it calls technological fraud in its rules on discipline. 

Those new penalties are extremely harsh, and not only for the rider. Van den Driessche, the Belgian cyclocrosser, elected not to contest the charges and was banned for six years. But unlike doping, where typically only the rider in question can be punished, whole teams can be sanctioned for motors. Any team with a rider caught using a motor can be fined as much as one million Swiss francs, and banned from competition for a minimum of six months. Pro team finances are already perilous, with short-term sponsor contracts that have clear moral turpitude clauses. That kind of penalty could easily be a death sentence for a pro team. 

Past that, the reaction from riders themselves would likely be swift and harsh. For decades, doping was endemic to the sport of cycling, which created a kind of omertà, or code of silence. A rider caught doping was rarely criticized by his peers, because most of them were also doping.

But if motors are or have been used in the sport, the challenge and complexity of pulling off suggests that it’s been rare. So the riders themselves would also see it as cheating, and condemn it as such. “The general idea is that it’s so morally wrong to do that that nobody believes it’s happened,” said ten Dam. Gaimon agreed: “The shame of a WorldTour rider getting caught?” he said. “I think it’d be mindblowing if anything like that happened; they’d be shunned.”

Van den Driessche was caught the very first time the UCI deployed its magnetic field detection system. Since then, not a single motor has been found despite many checks—3,773 at last year’s Tour de France, for example. So either the approach is working and no one today is using a motor, or they still are, and the method is flawed. The UCI has said thermal imaging of the type used in media investigations is not a reliable detection method, started using the technique some in 2016.

If the UCI seriously believes that motor use is a problem, and it seems it does, then stopping it is not rocket science. In addition to its magnetic detection efforts, the UCI could continue to conduct physical bike inspections at the finish like it did to Alberto Contador’s bike at the 2015 Giro d’Italia, much like how riders are randomly selected for post-race anti-doping measures. Crankarms and seatposts can be removed in seconds for visual inspection. Weight can be a clue as well: As part of their marketing efforts, bike and component manufacturers often list detailed weights for their products; media and retailers tend to do the same. That information could be databased to perform a quick comparison when weighing bikes and wheels at the finish line. Deviations of more than a handful of grams would send a bike on for further inspection—essentially confiscating the item for disassembly.

Traditional doping has always been extremely difficult to root out, in part because it mostly took place in training, rather than at races, and the physical evidence sometimes came down to a biochemist’s judgment call on whether a level of a natural substance in a doping sample is suspicious. 

Technological fraud is not like that; either there is a motor in a rider’s bike at a race, or there is not. If they are there, finding them is only a matter of looking hard enough.

Copyright © 2016 Rodale Inc.