30 January 2016

It takes a village to allow a cheater

Using a motor in a bike during a bike race is cheating of the worst kind

Today a cyclo-cross racer was discovered to be a cheater by using a motor. Am I surprised? No. Sure we heard the prospect of motorized bikes over the past couple of years surrounding suspicions whether Fabian Cancellara was capable of pedaling so fast (which he is!). But today's discovery that Femke Van den Driessche, of Belgium, had a small motor implanted within the bottom bracket of her bike screams of a great tragedy - it takes a village to allow a cheater.

I have never been naive to cheating. But this news is bad. It's not just the rider (although it has never just been the rider), it is the mechanic, the coach, probably not the parent, probably not the teammates, but maybe. A number of people thought that that motor in that bike on this day was a fine idea. They all cheated. They cheated their sponsors, the race organizer, their fellow competitors, and their fans. And they have distracted much of the CX World Championships media coverage onto the suspicion of motorized bikes. Great. So much for the wonderful Belgium cyclo-cross culture: flags, beers, sausages. crazy die-hard fans, tough courses and tougher racers.

There is no sport more testing of a fan's ability to suspend disbelief than that of professional cycling. Can I just get a solid month (okay a week) to revel in the beauty of this sport without having cheating thrown in my face yet again? Let me just say I love bikes, I generally like most people who ride bikes, I think cycling is good for health, and being a fan of the sport broadens my horizons. But today I am again reminded how ridiculous it is to call myself a fan of professional cycling.

Today an Under-23 age woman rider was caught with a motor on her bike during the UCI Cyclo-cross Worlds Championships in Belgium. Although it is termed "suspected" in news because maybe even bikes get an opportunity for a B Sample. The offense Femke Van den Driessche is charged with is officially called technological fraud (mechanische fraude), or in slang, mechanical doping. To Femke, it was worth cheating to make it further in the sport; she had been one of the pre-race favorites.

Remember when doping was big? Now doping seems a drop in the bucket. We've had news of throwing races (it doesn't only happen in baseball or tennis), of bribing officials, of equipment tampering, of "poisoning" riders to result in positive doping tests or illness, of team cars towing a rider up the road. And now, in motors - real motors!

An advancement in the sport which removes the most important aspect of actual bike racing - doing it yourself.

We know of big budget teams squashing small teams; rider's not being paid for their year of racing; sponsors pulling funding without paying the bills to stage races or to teams; disputes between riders; riders paying other team riders for help (a long tradition); systemic doping programs and tremendous pressure on young riders to conform or get out of the sport. Cycling is certainly not an island with its cheating problems.

Sport is tough. If you wouldn't want your child to play American football because of concussions, would you encourage your child to go into bike racing? Nop. Would you encourage your friend to go on a weekend ride with you and enjoy a bike ride? Absolutely. Do we need pro racing to grow bicycling? Nop. Will the sport of professional cycling continue anyway? Yes. Will there be cheating? Yes. Do we need to accept it? I don't know. But as long as man wants to win, their will be a village to support his means and foe to foil his methods.

Femke Van den Driessche
Femke Van den Driessche, representing Belgium at the 2016 CX World Championships.  Photo by @Belga in Sporza
Femke Van de Driessche - the quickest way to become the answer to the Triva question - "Who was the first rider to be caught for mechanical doping?" Probably not the career she has envisioned for herself since childhood. In a race this past November over the Koppenberg in Belgium, Femke was quoted as saying, "Suddenly I was alone in the lead." "This is the result of growing calm."

Media sources in Belgium are stating quite clearly that Van den Driessche is guilty. Sporza reported from the press conference at the CX World Championships: The Belgian Cycling Federation has responded briefly to the case of mechanical fraud. "The UCI has established technological fraud and we can confirm that this is the bike of Femke Van den Driessche. The UCI will explain more later."

Sporza quotes widely respected Dutch rider Marianne Vos as commenting:
Vos: "Hopefully it's an isolated case."
"I do not get it", says seven-time world champion Marianne Vos at Sporza. "I never thought it would happen around me and I've never seen it. It just does not arise."
"You have to wonder if it was the choice of the rider. Someone must have to deal else, someone from her entourage. Hopefully it's an isolated case. I'm so sorry."

Femke Van den Driessche is 19-years old, she has been racing steadily since 2011: Palmares; Pro Cycling Stats. What is the punishment? If found guilty of cheating a rider faces disqualification, a six-month suspension and a fine of up to 200,000 Swiss francs (180,000 euros, $195,000).

I remain drawn to the locations where pro racing takes place. I am still drawn to watching the very best in any sport compete, to the fun of being on the sideline on race day and to the stories of true struggle to overcome and triumph. I am just becoming more narrow in who I trust and what I believe. And the village scares me.

It is not supposed to be easy! Photo by Karen Rakestraw of Pedal Dancer Photography
Update:

She claims it was not her bike. Caley Fretz of VeloNews explains the punishment.  

It does seem strange to read about professional cycling in Popular Mechanics.

In the written words of John Bradley of VeloNews, on January 31st, "When people are angry at your sport, they’re taking it seriously. When they’re laughing at it, you’ve lost them." ..."To skip the body altogether and hide a motor in the seat tube is to take a flying leap into the moral abyss while flipping the bird to everyone who has ever cared about cycling." Read more on VeloNews. Or a fine piece by Neal Rogers who is writing again, this time his Opinion for Cycling Tips