Culture and Cycling

A good rule in life is that anything that has value is being faked. People in the collectibles business just assume everything is fake until proven otherwise. A fun book to read on art forgery is called The Art of the Con. Some of the scams described are rather outlandish, which makes it  fun read, but the theme throughout is always the same. If it has value, someone will find a way to fake it.

Of course, this is true everywhere. Baseball had a steroid scandal because there was money to be made in getting bigger, faster and stronger through any means available. If a drug could make you taller, then basketball would have a problem with it. Endurance sports like soccer and tennis have problems with players using drugs to increase endurance. The drug Sharapova used was to increase her cardiovascular capacity.

The thing with cheating is that the risk-reward relationship does not always make a lot of sense. In the art world, forgers will fake relatively cheap prints that make a small profit for them. They face the same risks as with faking a Rembrandt, but the rewards are relatively small. In sports, athletes will use steroids even though they are already at the top of their game. How much of a boost did Ryan Braun get from cheating versus what it cost him?

Some sports seem to have a culture of cheating, while others do not. Cycling and track and field are riddled with cheating. There are more great cheaters than great champions in those sports. Everyone cheats and that’s just the way it is. Golf on the other hand, has little cheating and actually relies on a rather austere honor code. Players have lost tournaments because they volunteered their own rule violations.

The thing that fascinates me is the cheating in cycling. No sport has the level of exotic cheating that we see here. It’s not just the Tour either. They cheat down in the minor leagues too.

A professional cyclist has been banned for six years after it was discovered she was racing with a hidden electric motor. Femke Van den Driessche was caught at the UCI Cyclo­cross World Championships in January, during an inspection of her pit area. A magnetic resonance scan, which Road.ccreports was conducted with a tablet, allowed officials to spot a battery and Vivax motor in the seat tube. Van den Driessche could have activated it using a Bluetooth switch concealed under her handlebar tape. She denied the allegations at the time, claiming the bike was given to her by mistake.

That’s complete nonsense, of course. Here’s a pic of how the motor was hidden in the bike.






The technology involved here is not something you do in your garage with some simple hand tools. The down tube is 31.6 mm in diameter so slipping a motor and battery into it required some smart guys with access to high quality machine tools. There is a company that makes this device, but it would not fit a racing bike. That and it costs $3000 for the cheap model. This level of sophistication is closer to $10,000.

The puzzle here is why would they go to these lengths? Cycling is not sport where the pros make big money. Even at the top level, the typical pro is simply living on an allowance of sorts. Their room and board is covered and they get to keep prize money, which is not a lot. They make more money selling their spare bikes and parts than they make off the tour.

At the cyclocross level, it’s a hobby, even though it is called professional. The sponsors cover the travel costs, room and board. They supply the bikes. This woman could expect to take home a few bikes after the season and sell them for enough to buy a used Toyota. Even if she was the greatest cyclocross rider in history, she was never going to make big money. Maybe she could hook on with a manufacturer one day in the marketing department.

Despite this reality, she and her team went to great lengths to find a tiny advantage. Realistically, how much of an edge could this device give her? The size limitation means the motor produced little power. The weight of the thing added about 10 kg to the frame, which makes a huge difference at this level of racing. Maybe the cheating helped this woman a tiny bit, but was it worth the lifetime ban and humiliation?

It’s another example of how any system that relies on humans acting rationally or purely in their self-interest is doomed to failure. Some people like cheating. Some people get off on the thrill of breaking rules. Every society has free loaders. More important, people are not always very good at discerning their best interest. Walk around my neighborhood on a summer day and you see that fact in living color.

There’s also the fact that culture is very hard to change. Cycling has been plagued with cheating for decades. Draconian punishments for drug use have only made the riders more clever at taking drugs. Track has a similar problem. There’s something about the people in the sport that leads to the rampant rule breaking. Barring imposition of a 24×7 surveillance of everyone involved, these sports will be riddled with cheating.

That’s the lesson here. Culture is not a collection of rules drawn up in a committee hearing. The rules of a society are the result of the culture, not the other way around. If you want an orderly society or an honest sport, populate it with orderly, high trust people. The results will follow. Similarly, introduce a bunch low-trust people and order will break down quickly. In the case of cycling, its biggest problem is it is full of cyclists.

21 thoughts on “Culture and Cycling

  1. I haven’t thought it through but I wonder if cheating, utilizing any advantage, is part of our genetic makeup? The first guy who figured out that hitting someone with a rock instead of his fist was much more likely to pass his genes on to the next generation.

    Until quite lately it wasn’t sport, it was practice, practice to win, period.

    Anything that gave you a better edge, bronze over stone, iron over bronze, etc., assured your and the fruit of your loins survival.

    Even today I’m sure most of us have had a coach say something like ‘It’s good to be a good looser but it best to be a winner!’ and/or that ‘Football (or basketball or baseball, etc.) is a metaphor for life.’

    It’s true that history is written by the winners and it’s also true that future generations, and their abilities, are created by the winners, even if they cheat to win.

    As noted, I’ve not given it much thought but I do find the concept intriguing, though like Charles Murray’s and Herrnstein’s ‘The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life’, valid or not, it may not be an ideal suitable for exploration in today’s society.

  2. Bike racing in the US is a luxury upscale sport where cheating – for most of the racers – is just something that they might do to get ahead. In much of Europe, bike racing is like boxing used to be for city kids. It’s a way out of a grinding life working in a factory or for a girl waiting tables until a lower tier civil servant or cop marries them up and gets them pregnant. Many European racers are desperate to get ahead, desperate to win a contract, desperate to avoid a life of quiet desperation. Because Everybody Cheats, they have to cheat to beat the amateurs, cheat to turn pro, and cheat to get to the top and stay there.

    And, as in track and field, the cheating is prevalent because the sport is a direct test of muscular capacity to do work. It’s not about judgment, when to swing at the ball, when to dodge… Cheating in these sports pays off. It’s a bit like why Willy Sutton robbed banks…

  3. The benefit is greater for cheaters in cycling, track, or swimming, because the margins are so minute. A fraction of one percent is the difference between winning and losing, two percent puts you in a different world. In baseball, not so much. Five percent will gain an advantage, ten is even better.

  4. Pingback: Will China Clash With The U.S | Anything Great Online Found On Damn Stuff

  5. I read The Art of the Con after seeing it mentioned on this site. I enjoyed the book thoroughly, so “thank you Z-man.” Though it is obviously non-fiction, the author writes in the style of a novelist with elements of mystery and suspense. One of the great takeaways from the book is that con men in any area of life rely upon the fact that so many people are willing to suspend their common sense when they want something to be true that is clearly too good to be true.

  6. It’s about standing on the top step of the podium while the crowd cheers. And beating all those other guys.

  7. The rewards of cycling may seem small to most of the world but on continental Europe (less so in the UK) the praise and limelight afforded to cyclists is huge. The cheating woman may in time have become a media and social star in her own part of the world, so maybe she thought being patted on the back and getting free drinks at the local cafe was worth the trouble.

    I saw a TV report on this bike: it did make difference because it made getting up hills easier and the battery lasted for 90 minutes, we were told. I expect she could afford to turn it off on the downhill sections.

    But I also think some people are attracted to cheating because it is a challenge to see how long one can get away with it. However I liken this to what I call ruler bending. At school the kids eventually got plastic rulers and they could bend so far before they snapped into several pieces. This made kids see how far they could bend the plastic before the inevitable happened. It may have been an experiment with only one outcome but the little ones were continually fascinated by the ‘test.’ So maybe the woman thought the inevitable would happen one day, but was happy to see how many miles/kilometres she could do before the end.

  8. “Anything worth having is worth cheating for.” W. C. Fields.
    As you said, sometimes it’s for the prize, but often it is a large part of the goal

  9. “The rules of a society are the result of the culture, not the other way around. If you want an orderly society or an honest sport, populate it with orderly, high trust people.”

    Yes indeed, but where are they (high trust people) to be found, particularly when money is involved? I can attest to the fact that being scrupulously honorable has its rewards, aside from being a reward in itself, but I’m well aware that younger people find it kind of quaint and eccentric behavior attributable to religious fanaticism, age, an antiquated kind of upbringing and hopelessly naive in today’s world. Trust no longer comes as a premium; it comes as a windfall.

  10. “A good rule in life is that anything that has value is being faked.”
    If you build it, they WILL come,

  11. Great post, as usual. Some slight corrections from a (former) bike nerd.

    The Vivax unit is a bit less than 2kg, which ain’t nothing, but it’s not in the running gear (wheels, crank-arms, chain) so it’s not such a big deal. Plus it is very easy to get a bike that is too light to be UCI legal, so I suspect that 2 kg turns into “no difference.”

    Also, the Vivax claims to provide 200W for an hour. I bet people have figured out how to make that stronger and longer. In any case, 200W is a *lot* of power to add to a hill climb. Pro riders can push 375W forever and the best can do 400W. So it is a big assist – it could easily take a middle-pack rider to victory.



    • I think I must have read the weight wrong. That seemed like a lot to me. My road bike does not weigh that much.

      What I’m unclear on is how this could deliver anything close to the rated power. The frame is not designed for it so the motor would want to spin inside the down tube. Even adjusting for it by putting some bracing inside to keep the motor locked in place, an awful lot will be lost on the flexing of the down tube.

      Of course, as you point out we’re looking for tiny improvements so I could be all wrong here.

      • First off the title “Mechanical Doping” is a misnomer that is an attempt to tie this form of cheating to pharmacological enhancement. Clearly you’re not a cyclist or an engineer, sorry about that. I laughed about the 22 pounds of extra weight My road bike weighs 14.5 pounds and I’m certainly not a pro (l’ve read your correction) but I’d wager with Ti and lithium battery it could be made to be quite light weight It probably made the seat tube stronger, simply make the motor/batt. unit a very close fit and epoxy it in place. That’s how bikes are made anyway, carbon and epoxy. The weight of most high end race vehicles are usually built under legal weight and then the engineers can add weight to where it’s most beneficial to the handling and performance of the vehicle. As already stated the weight of the wheel/tire combination is by far the most critical, anything that rotates. The cost of this E-assist is zero, so $1000,00 or $10,000.00 is meaningless, it an expense it will come out of an R&D or Advertising budget. A 200w assist is a ton in human powdered sport 746W = one horsepower.. In his day Lance Armstrong could put out 400w for an hour and he was dominate, don’t bother arguing his character I’m saying this to provide a relative measure of power output. I’m always amazed how people are so eager to jump of sports athletes for using enhancement (drugs) a great many Rock & Roller uses drugs to write songs, play, and “focus” when asked why he did heroin Jazz player John Coltrane (twice addicted) said “when you’re on it there’s only you and that note, nothing else matters” In an interview George Harrison recounted how he an John Lennon went to Harrison’s Dentist house for dinner one night and did LSD for the very first time. The next day they wrote a song about the experience and it was a huge hit. How it that any different than Barry Bonds getting jacked up to hit home runs? Oh yeah, money, if your a winning Tour Pro you make money, maybe not NBA money but good paydays. In most pro sports the real money is in endorsements anyway, develop your “brand” and you can live quite nicely. Kobe made more in salary some years than Jordan, Jordan didn’t mind much. One last thing Zman… do you shave your legs? Just kidding.

        • 1) I’ve been riding for over 30 years. I’ll log 2,000 miles this year, despite being an old man.

          2) I’m highly skeptical of the power addition claimed here. On the bench, maybe, but not on the bike. Too much power lost for all sorts of reasons.

          3) As to the cost, Cyclocross is not F1. Yeah, a $10K bike is not cheap, but the bike maker was not behind this. Maybe Vix donated the parts figuring it would be great adverting once she was caught, but that’s a degree of cleverness we don’t see here on earth. That does not explain why the girl would do it, at least from a cost-benefit analysis.

          4) That brings me to a problem I did not address. Who else was involved?

  12. The motor added 10kg? Wouldn’t that roughly double the weight of the bike? I don’t get cycling. Seems like the real challenge is to see who can outwit the rule enforcers. A sport of cleverness maybe.

  13. “Some people like cheating. Some people get off on the thrill of breaking rules.” And, sadly, it’s often the otherwise-best-and-brightest who enjoy it most. In my experience, the dumb guy cheats because he blew the deadline, or just doesn’t care — you fail his assignment, he drops the class; no muss, no fuss. The smart guy, though… he finds elaborate ways to do it. He’ll go through three or four different internet sources, changing *juuuuust enough* words that you can’t bust him outright with a googling, even though he obviously plagiarized. He’ll spend hours texting crap to himself, or otherwise loading things into his iPhone, so that he can look up the answers on the midterm. And then when you bust him, he goes barracks lawyer on you, and will take it all the way up the administration chain, to the very top if he can, until the dean *finally* tells him to go pack sand or face expulsion. All of which has taken dozens of hours *that I know of;* it’s probably much, much longer. Had he spent half the time studying that he did figuring out elaborate ways to cheat, he would’ve aced it anyway. But no — the cheating is the point, and putting one over on the prof is a far juicier payoff than acing the class could ever be.

    • When I was a freshman in college in 1959 everyone had to take English Composition. One of the required texts for the class was a small booklet of the collected BEST essays written by last year’s English Composition class. One of the essays had the name of the student blacked out. A year later I met that student and learned the story. He started his second year and discovered that his published essay, one of circa 30 each student had to write over the course of the year, was the one he had plagerized. He said that he had run out of time and took it from some published work and that it was not nearly as good as others he had turned in. He assumed he would be exposed so he confessed and was made to drop out for a year. We became fast friends and were close the last three years of college. He is now a retired physician.

      He was a bright student and an effortless writer. There was no real reason for him to cheat as he was a natural writer. Most of us had to work hard to get through the course but he had the talent to surpass us all without working up a sweat. My year in that course was a nightmare. I had super high SATs and was placed in a section with equally talented students. The professor teaching it rode us brutally saying we would appreciate it later. No one in the class got more than a B during the year. At the time I was taking Chemistry, Physics, Calculus, Western Civilization, English Composition, and another three credit course for a total of 18 credits each semester. Most of the students in my section of English Composition are now lawyers or social science Ph.D.s. A few of us were STEM students and given our academic load were nearly underwater in that class. None of us skated through that class and that is why I was so impressed with the guy who cheated the year before.

      Dan Kurt

Comments are closed.