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Forget doping, Greg LeMond thinks Tour de France riders could be cheating with tiny motors

Team Sky rider Chris Froome (in yellow) takes on the French Alps on Thursday. (Benoit Tessier/Reuters)
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Retired cyclist Greg LeMond is used to speaking his mind, especially when it comes to cheating in the sport. The three-time Tour de France champion spoke out about Lance Armstrong long before it was popular to do so and now he’s alleging some cyclists could be gaining an unfair edge in major races like the Tour de France by installing tiny motors in their bikes.

“I believe it’s been used in racing, I believe it’s been used sometimes in the Grand Tours,” LeMond told the Associated Press on Wednesday. He did not specify whether he thought any riders in this year’s iteration of the race have been using the technology, but he did accuse the sport’s governing body of “not doing enough” to ensure racers don’t use the technology. He said the International Cycling Union’s (UCI) pre-race equipment checks are “fluff” and “all words.”

UCI President Brian Cookson, however, says his team takes all accusations of cheating seriously, including “mechanical doping” as it’s coming to be known.

“We understand that although this subject sometimes causes amusement and derision we know that the technology is available: we have seen examples of it in laboratory conditions,” Cookson told AFP last week after Cedric Vasseur, a former cyclist-turned-analyst on French television, commented Tour de France leader Chris Froome’s bike looked to be “pedaling itself.”

“We’ve done some testing already for concealed motors,” Cookson said. But the testing has only been done periodically.

“[W]e’ve done testing at Milan-San Remo, the Giro (d’Italia), Paris-Nice and from time to time we’ll do tests during the rest of the season,” he said. “We have no evidence that it has been used in competition yet but sadly we do know that in competitive sport sometimes some people will try to find ways of cheating. This is one way that would be very damaging and dangerous to an individual’s reputation, a team’s reputation and to the sport’s reputation, so we’re taking it very seriously.”

The miniscule motors may sound more like science fiction than reality, but the technology does seem to exist — at least on television.

During the 2010 Giro d’Italia retired cyclist Davide Cassani demonstrated how the motor works on Italy’s Rai television.

Hidden in the bike’s tube, the battery-operated motor is controlled by a switch located near the bike’s brake levers. Once the motor gets the back wheel spinning on its own, the pedals start to go and a rider presumably just needs to go through the motions while the motor propels him at up to 31 mph.

“I tried the bike, and I can tell you that with this bike and its engine, I may win a Giro stage although I’m 50 years old,” Cassani said.

Italian journalist Michele Bufalino later backed up Cassani’s claims in a video of his own, in which he showed one of the motors being installed. He also then accused cyclist Fabian Cancellara of using it during both the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.

Cancellara, who now races for Trek Factory Racing, denied the allegations at the time.

“It’s so stupid I’m speechless,” Cancellara, then of the Saxo Bank team, told the Telegraph in 2010. “I’ve never had batteries on my bike.”

The UCI never brought a case against Cancellara, but the organization also had no evidence.

LeMond says if any type of cheating in cycling should be easy to decisively determine, it should be this, though.

“It’s simple to check for, much easier than doping,” he told in May. “You need a thermal heat gun, you can use it in the race. It can be seen from meters away if there a difference in the heat in the bottom bracket. I’d recommend that to the UCI.”

LeMond, who claims to have met the inventor of the motorized bikes, also suggests UCI ban cyclists from changing bikes during the race “unless you have a real mechanical problem.”

“I know that motors exist, I’ve ridden a bike with one. … If people think they don’t exist, they’re fooling themselves, so I think it’s a justified suspicion,” he said. “It seems too incredible that someone would do it, but I know it’s real.”