The first rider has been caught with a motor at a UCI race. Until now thoughts focussed on whether technology and logistics, such as how would a motor work, the possible gains and whether anyone would be reckless enough to try it. Finally someone has been caught and it opens up a range of moral and ethical questions. Is a motor worse than EPO?
Over at cyclingtips.com Neal Rogers says the UCI should give out lifetime bans for using motors but this got me thinking, should we give lifetime bans for a motor when dopers “only” get four or less? Everything else being equal this incentives a cheat to take EPO. Rogers makes the point that the UCI’s arms are tied by the WADA Code when it comes to anti-doping but it can decide what to do with motors as it’s specific to cycling and he’s surely right to be want to rid of anyone reckless enough to use a motor in competition.
The Shock of the New
There are views that using a motor is a more heinous form of cheating. There’s a cultural aspect where we’ve been conditioned to pharmaceuticals and blood doping. As thinkers from Herodotus to Hume might suggest, inductive reasoning leads us to see each EPO bust as just another case, a continuum rather than an individual act of cheating, see the “meh” reaction to Jure Kocjan’s A-sample suspension this week. Now we’ve found a motor at a cyclo-cross race it’s shocking because it’s new but perhaps our reaction would be different if ten more people are caught? Of course whether the sport would exist by then is another matter but let’s explore the thought rather than pesky practicalities…
Doping may make you faster but in order to win a race there’s still suffering, sacrifice and training along the way too. To exaggerate to make the point a motor just allows someone to softpedal to victory, conjuring visions of a rotund derny rider slow churning their legs as they overtake a redlining pro.
In reality the use of a motor is not quite so advantageous. Anything small enough to fit inside a frame cannot offer huge power to enable an untrained novice to win a World Tour race. As things stand it seems the gains offered by a motor are small and come with drawbacks like the weight of the unit plus battery. Certainly motors can alter a race but the user has to pedal hard.
“It was only a small motor”
Yet the type or power of the motor will make no difference. We graduate our response doping both on formal and moral levels. Someone caught using heavy methods like EPO or banking blood can expect a four year ban and public opinion brands them as cheats. Someone else who takes a cold remedy that contains a banned substance and puts their hands up for the idiotic failure to check the ingredients will get a shorter ban and maybe some sympathy. With a motor the performance gain might be small but the reaction is likely to be black and white, nobody will care for the battery’s Ah rating nor the max torque of the motor. Again to exaggerate to make the point if someone showed up on Kawasaki motorbike in a bike race nobody would be arguing whether it was a 250cc or a 750cc engine. Instead anyone getting caught is likely to get instant pariah status and possibly even occupy a level in Dante’s inferno that’s below to Riccardo Riccò or Richard Virenque. A motor may bring small gains in reality but it’s pre-meditated cheating of the first order.
Another aspect to consider is the shock of finding a motor, it is outrageous and embarrassing. Just when cycling was starting to do a better job with its public image along comes this story that’s part tragedy, part Buster Keaton slapstick. Even the staff in the IAAF must have had a good laugh over the weekend. Part of people’s reaction is disgust and the wish for it all to go away so many want a long or even a lifetime ban as a way of distancing ourselves from this.
Why doping is worse
So far it’s been suggested that using a motor is premeditated cheating on a grand scale and so embarrassing it cuts to the sport’s credibility. Hopefully you agree. Yet as idiotic as using a motor is, doping has to be worse. Anti-doping regulations arguably became institutional follow several deaths, including those of cyclists Knud Enemark Jensen and Tom Simpson. They were drafted and enforced to protect athlete health rather than try to level the playing field. It continues today and EPO isn’t just performance-enhancing, it’s so carcinogenic it comes with “black box” medical warnings like cigarette packets indicating the dangers, abusing steroids and hormones substantially increases the risk of cancer too and that’s before we get to substances like GW501516 a drug that “rapidly causes cancers in a multitude of organs” according to New Scientist. If that’s not bad enough, doping often involves criminal conspiracy, whether crooked prescriptions, stolen medicines or flouting the law in countries where doping is a crime. Fit a motor and the only dangers involve going so fast you crash or injuring yourself with a wrench in the workshop and it’s only illegal during competition. So doping is cheating and dangerous which surely makes it worse. If you’re still not sure, ask yourself whether you could imagine trying a course of HGH for fun in the same way you might try an e-bike.
The peril here is relativism. We’re comparing two wrongs rather than rather than good and bad. Both doping and “technological fraud” share plenty of traits: they’re pre-meditated and involve deliberate and blatant cheating so the penalties ought to match. But the process and risks are different. Doping is worse for the athlete because of the damage it can do to health while motors perhaps are more damaging to the image of the sport because they destroy credibility at the flick of a switch.
Now for the good news
There is one large difference to end this piece on a good note: motors can be detected very easily. Anti-doping tests that involve toxicology are black and white, positive or negative but it’s not always so simple as we worry about riders gaming the bio passport system with tall stories and microdoses and getting away with it. If we want we can use tools as comprehensive as an X-ray scanner or as simple as a hex key or even apps for your smartphone that use the compass feature to detect magnetic fields. You could even use a scale to weigh a bike or frame. In short motors are easily detectable and the simple solution is to look and for the UCI to be seen looking with bikes regularly given the mechanical equivalent of strip-search. Ideally we’d do this like an anti-doping test where the winners and random picks alike are controlled daily.
What’s worse, motors or doping? Both. It’s a false choice and chances are that someone reckless enough to use a motor could well to resort to doping too if they’re that desperate.
Use of a motor is shocking for its novelty. The UCI doesn’t need to take its cue from WADA when it comes to the length of any ban so it can go for a lifetime exclusion on the first offence. Still incentives matter and comparisons with “only” four years for doping do matter too. Yet instead of comparing the tariffs imposed by officialdom the stronger solution is to work towards a culture than rejects all form of cheating. This can sound like politician speak and when it comes to controlling blood doping we’re still searching for the right tools. With motors we can start with hex keys.