What’s missing from the dialogue about the Van den Driessche Scandal
There are two phenomena common to almost every type of scandal: ubiquitous moral outrage over the basic facts of the incident and the media’s (both social and news) unrepentant habit of repeating those selfsame facts ad nauseum. Enter Femke Van den Driessche and her Vivax Assist-equipped bike at the recent Cyclo-cross World Championships. The woman used a hidden motor to win money in a bike race. It’s deplorable. It does horrendous damage to the sport of cycling at large at a time when its reputation, still suffering the bruises left by the Lance Armstrong case, can ill afford more bad PR.
People who cheat in this way are no better than those who cheat by sticking needles in their arms or throwing pills down their gullet or, for that matter, throwing a box of tacks on the road behind them.
The drum of fair play has been loudly beaten, but now is the time for that drum to soften its noise and give way to the broader orchestra of thought. It’s clear what should be done. Van den Driessche was caught red-handed. Whether it was her bike or her friend’s, it’s inconceivable that she obtained such an unfair advantage over her competitors, engaged it, won a race with it, and then disengaged it such as to prevent its discovery as unwittingly as she claims she did.
She risked not only her own reputation, but that of the entire sport, and through both her act and its discovery she did great emotional and financial harm to her fellow competitors, some of which likely called her a friend. She should be banned for life.
Notice I didn’t say anywhere in that paragraph “for using a motor.”
In all fairness, our outrage is more sound than fury, with a second-part harmony to the tune of “we knew this was bound to happen.” Indeed, no sooner had the revelations of Van den Driessche’s treachery hit the public than Claudio Ghisalberti of Gazzetta Dello Sport wrote a feature on a potentially more advanced wheel-based electromagnetic drive. Whether the claimed €200,000 drive is real or a Tesla-esque fantasy is hard to know, but history tells us that the only cheaters we catch today are the ones using yesterday’s methods.
Cheating and technology are banded by a common mantra: where there’s a will, there’s a way. So long as there are cheaters and technologists the development of means and the avarice for ends shall persist. And just like illegal performance enhancing substances and medical practices, the technologies will emerge from the most unlikely and innocent of places.
Keep in mind that the inventors at Vivax never intended their device to be used in competition. Of course, the realization that it could didn’t stop them from offering their creation to the world. We’re never going to decouple means and ends. But we can break the link between the technology and the cheaters. Remember, we’re not angry at Van den Driessche for using a motor. We’re angry at her for doing it when the rules said not to.
Submitted for your consideration– an “open class” of bike racing where motors and magnets are welcome. Frame modifications allowed. May the best man and machine win. Does this offend your sensibilities somehow? Is this a rabid fantasy of a corrupt future for cycling? If so, then please continue riding your good (very) old fashioned UCI-approved double diamond frame with prescribed wheelbase and seat heights. But Robert Egger and I shall continue to indulge in fantasy.
What end do all these fantasies and proposals serve? The benefit of all of cycling, of course. The path to stopping technological cheating (“mechanical doping” is a stupid term and we should discourage its use as much as the practice it describes) offers a boon to the cycling industry at large. There’s a reason that the Vivax Assist weighs less than the actual amount of printed money (approximately €3,000) it takes to purchase it. It’s the same reason that Specialized’s Turbo Ebike costs more than a Venge Pro, or that the Tesla Wheel (I’m going to run with that term) is only available to cycling Illuminati while the Copenhagen Wheel took nearly six years to go from concept demonstration to first production run.
It’s because cycling is a languid industry with a crippling break in its sectors unlike any other. Look at the automotive industry. The biggest advances in our modern cars have been wrought from auto racing. If the FIA or NASCAR put new restrictions on engine size or kinetic energy recovery systems, then the engineers at Mercedes and Ford get to work figuring out how to recoup the lost milliseconds.
The process of challenge and response has enhanced the strength of automotive engineering knowhow exactly the same way as years of training on a muscle. The result is 2-liter engines that still push you back into the seat when you hit the accelerator and grocery-getters that can survive a drop off Mt. Rushmore.
Racing doesn’t just push the envelope in the automotive industry. It pulls the consumer market along with it. What happens at Daytona doesn’t stay in Daytona. It spills out into the pedigree of every Mustang and Corvette on the highway.
Not so in cycling. The coolest stuff helping us go fast isn’t allowed in the race. We’ve relegated it to the fringe. Advancements in bike design bred from racing are meant to help athletes capitalize on relatively high levels of fitness compared to the average commuter. The aerodynamic advantages of high profile wheels and frames don’t kick in until you reach speeds unreachable by the average Joe. And the electric drives that represent the shaky stepping stones along the bicycle’s tepid progress toward a legitimate commuting option in the U.S. are verboten to the sportive rider.
The result is two separate and unequal bike industries; one that gets all the research and development to support a racing league that is– except for the major Tours and Spring Classics — largely hidden from the greater social consciousness. As a consequence, it markets primarily to a privileged and highly competitive class.
The other industry progresses in fits and shots in the dark while hoping the general public finally decides to take cycling seriously. In short, you have a business model set against itself. The technologies that have the most appeal to the widest consumer base receive neither the attention or the funding necessary to bring them to mainstream distribution.
So once again I hearken you to Egger’s fUCI design equipped with a Vivax drive and recruit the voice of Peter Griffin to ask: WHY ARE WE NOT FUNDING THIS?
Because suddenly every couch potato on the planet will be able to chase down a Peter Sagan breakaway? Because bike splits at Kona will become meaninglessly artificial? No, absolutely not. I have every confidence that the athletic portion of competition will survive the addition of motors’ advanced designs that break with the double diamond.
A quick scan of the Moto GP ranks suggests couch potatoes won’t be taking the maillot jaune if Sagan is on the same equipment. The athletes will need to stay just as athletic. And while we’re on that subject, no, this line of reasoning cannot be used to justify the use of PEDs. Tony Kanaan was WADA-compliant before he took up triathlon. It’s much easier to keep the technological playing field level than the physiological one. All the bike upgrades will mean is that the racing will be faster.
That’s a good thing. Faster doesn’t necessarily equate to easier. What it means is a whole new level of handling skills and tactics in the Pro Tour. It also means that we might actually be able to watch a live broadcast of the Ironman World Championships and then do something else.
Imagine if that something else is to go to your local bike shop where there’s a host of bikes fashioned after Eggers’ design that can not only let you pedal to work comfortably and on time, but with incorporated Bluetooth and live-streaming Strava updates? And now imagine that there are dozens of customers streaming in and out the door looking to make purchases or receive maintenance, because half of all commuters in your city ride bicycles to work.
And what did we lose in the deal? The “soul” of bicycle racing? Gimme a break. The soul of bike racing died when we went to electronic shifting. It died when we started using computational fluid dynamics. It died when we started building the bikes out of carbon fiber, or aluminum, or titanium. It dies every time we do something that tired old people who have been doing this too long and are hanging on too hard collide face-first with change.
You can never shut Pandora’s box. The technology is out there. Van den Driessche is the first to be caught, but not the first to use it in competition. Nor will she be the last. It’s time to embrace that. It’s also time to embrace the people at Vivax and Superpedestrian who are doing the good work to make bikes a more viable transportation alternative.
Ultimately, more cyclists on the road means improved safety conditions and public health. It means a bigger consumer base and reduced costs of top-end bikes. We should all advocate those things. Technology continues its campaign to advance the design of bicycles, and cycling competition insists on clinging to rules and regulations from yesteryear. It’s a losing strategy that, like Van den Driessche’s, holds consequences for a much larger population than the individuals making the decision. And, just like her, they’re being extremely unfair to the rest of us by holding the reputation of bike racing hostage.
Cheaters make the sport look corrupt. The policymakers make it look silly. It’s time to think outside the double diamond and see what happens when we challenge manufacturers to build the fastest bikes they really can. Doing so will usher in a boom for cycling’s industry and culture.
Make the motors legal.