Belgian Racer Accused of “Mechanical” Doping

If cyclists aren’t boosting their blood, now they’re adding motors to their bikes.

Femke Van den Driessche, Doping
Yorick Jansens/AFP/Getty

Think Lance Armstrong was bold? Meet Femke Van den Driessche, a 19-year-old cyclocross racer from Belgium. She’s accused of using a hidden motor within her bike during the World Championships this past weekend, earning the dubious distinction of becoming the first rider caught mechanically doping.

Van den Driessche is the current Belgian and European under-23 champion in cyclocross, which mixes elements of mountain biking and road riding, and requires a great deal of power. It’s less about endurance than, say, the Tour de France; pro level cyclocross races are never much longer than an hour. That could explain how something like a small e-motor would help a rider cheat.

The battery tech for assisted “townie” bikes has been shrinking. For a pro looking for a small edge, even just a few watts of propulsion to help turn the pedals, the machinery already exists from a bike builder called Typhoon. Developed with Formula 1 engineer Gary Anderson, the electronically-assisted race cycle delivers up 250w of juice and weighs less than four pounds. That includes the battery pack, which is concealed inside a water bottle, and the motor itself, hidden inside the bikes frame, in the down tube. Still in prototype form, current estimated costs ring in at over $12,000. Typhoon has sworn they’d out any pros who approached them about the technology, but there’s little to stop a straw purchase.

As for Van den Driessche, she was favored in Saturday’s race in Zolder, Belgium, but failed to finish due to mechanical difficulty. Then, during a post-race inspection, her bike was seized. She has since been accused by cycling’s governing body, the UCI, of "technological fraud” for concealing a small motor inside the bike’s frame. She’s facing a minimum racing ban of six months, plus a fine of up to 200,000 Swiss Francs (about $195,000). Her bike sponsor has also threatened to sue.

Decidedly not in Van den Driessche’s favor is that her brother, Niels, is currently suspended from racing as well. Nothing mechanical about his offense, though—just quant form of doping that Armstrong perfected, juicing his blood.