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Competitive Cycling's Latest Scandal: 'Motor Doping'


There's a new scandal in competitive cycling. A French television network says that video shot with a thermal imaging camera during races in Italy showed unusual hotspots on some bikes. Some experts say the heat indicated the bikes were likely equipped with tiny, hidden motors. Now, there's a name for this - motor doping. Early this year, a top Belgian cyclist was the first to be caught using a motor-enhanced bike. We're joined now by Derek Bouchard-Hall. He is the president of USA Cycling, which governs bike racing in America. Mr. Bouchard-Hall, thanks very much for being with us.

DEREK BOUCHARD-HALL: Thank you - happy to be here.

SIMON: These bikes look so skinny so they don't weigh a lot. Where do the motors go?

BOUCHARD-HALL: Well, they sit in the down tube - the tube that is below the saddle that runs down to where the cranks are. And these motors are very, very small, and they're very, very light. And they can fit right inside a frame. And they're incredibly hard to detect.

SIMON: And what do they do?

BOUCHARD-HALL: Well, they add just a little bit of power to the bicycle. They have a battery, and they have some gearing in there that puts it just a little bit of extra power - probably can increase a professional cyclist's sustained power output by up to about 50 percent. In a sport like cycling, where it's all about what power you can put into the bicycle, if you have a little bit of extra through a battery, it can really dramatically change your ability to compete.

SIMON: It is against the rules, right?

BOUCHARD-HALL: Oh, absolutely - I mean, obviously it is clearly against the rules. You know, the sport of cycling has dealt with the issue of biological doping for years. That, everybody has heard about. And now this is another form of doping. And it's explicit cheating. And it's interesting to see the real moral outrage over it. I mean, cyclists are absolutely incensed that anybody would attempt this sort of thing, including athletes who themselves have formerly participated in biological doping - find this to be sort of an unacceptable extreme form of doping. I think it's difficult to make that argument that there's a moral difference, but the sport culturally seems to believe that there is.

SIMON: Just out of curiosity, why do people find this more repellant than biological doping?

BOUCHARD-HALL: Well, that's a tricky one. I think part of it is that it's unequivocal, when you find that motor, that there was explicit cheating going on, whereas biological doping, by the nature of your changing the human engine - there's always that ambiguity. Did somebody really take that drug? Did it really benefit them? Did the sort of strange biological markers that they have that gave a positive test - is that somehow naturally occurring? So there's - sometimes, there's a question, whereas if you find a motor in a bike, there is no hiding from the fact that you're cheating. And there's also something that it's exogenous. You're not changing the human engine, you're changing this mechanical. But you have to go through some difficult machinations to find that there's really a moral difference. Cheating is cheating in my view. But I think that's why people view it differently.

SIMON: You're a former professional racer and an Olympian. Why is there so much cheating in your sport?

BOUCHARD-HALL: Well, I think cycling gets a bum rap. I don't think that there is more cheating in cycling than in other sports. What is unique to us, though, is that some of the cheating methods can so profoundly change the outcome of the event. If you are using a corked bat, for instance, in baseball, you still have to hit that ball. It's not easy. Whereas in cycling, if you are doping, you can directly change your outcome. And it really changes it in a very direct way.

SIMON: Derek Bouchard-Hall is president of USA Cycling. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

BOUCHARD-HALL: Thank you - my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.