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Thermal imaging cameras will help catch Tour de France cheaters with motors in their bikes

Making sure biking doesn't become NASCAR


AJ Dellinger


Posted on Jul 1, 2016   Updated on May 26, 2021, 12:46 pm CDT

Cyclers participating in the Tour de France know the tests for performance enhancing drugs are stringent and tough to beat, so some have turned to hacking their equipment to get a leg up by any means necessary. Now officials have a way to catch those cheats as well.

Modifying equipment in an illegal way, often referred to as mechanical doping, has proven a new and difficult to detect way for riders to shave minutes off their time. The most egregious example of the act has racers using hidden motor systems built into their bikes to provide a boost.

Bikes with motors housed inside its frame are essentially undetectable, as they look exactly the same as any other bike. But the results achieved by motor-equipped bikes are significantly different from a person simply peddling.

One commercially available system, the Vivax Assist, can be retrofit to an existing bike frame. It adds an electric motor in the seat tube of the vehicle, which is activated via a wiring system that runs to a remote power button hidden under the handlebar tape. The stock version of the system produces 200 watts of additional power for anywhere between 40 to 100 minutes—more than enough to make a significant impact on a rider’s race time.

With this year’s Tour de France set to kick off on July 2, the race finally has a way to detect the tiny, motorized systems that had been slipping through the cracks. A detection method crafted in partnership with the CEA, France’s atomic energy commission. 

Using thermal imaging cameras, the race overseers will be able to spot any oddities inside the mechanical structure of the bikes. Checks will be performed roadside during the race, so bikers may be caught in the act. Other means of spotting cheaters are in place as well, but the organization is keeping them under wraps.

While motors are the primary object the Tour is hoping to keep out of its competition, mechanical doping has quickly become a sophisticated means of cheating. The toughest method to stop, available primarily to well-funded riders, are electromagnetic wheels.

The cheat places a series of neodymium batteries inside the rear wheel, with a coil placed beneath the seat. The system generates up to 60 watts of power using induction force and can be controlled via bluetooth.

Accusations of mechanical systems used to game races have been thrown around since 2010, when Swiss rider Fabian Cancellara managed to accelerate up to blazing speeds to keep the field of racers at bay during the the Tour of Flanders. France’s sports minister Thierry Braillard has described the problem as “worse than doping; this is the future of cycling that’s at stake.”

H/T Ars Technica

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*First Published: Jul 1, 2016, 8:11 am CDT