The Cancellara motor is in his legs
So it seems that the idea that Fabian Cancellara has used an electric motor to aid in winning Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders is so fantastical that we cannot dismiss the controversy. We originally linked to the issue in mere passing, but now even Cancellara and the UCI are making statements.
It has to be said that the claims are at least plausible, given that the technology for a nigh invisible electric-assist system exists. Marketed by a European company called Gruber, the system consists of an electric motor housed in a cylinder that inserts into the seat tube. A shaft extends into the bottom bracket shell where a gear engages onto a modified crank spindle.
p> There is some interesting video that samples an Italian former pro, who now works as a sports commentator, speculating about the use of electric motors in the pro peloton plus some footage of Cancellara’s hand movements allegedly activating the motor during his 2 biggest 2010 victories. A few people asked me if I think if he’s using…
First, the Gruber Assist unit is a 31.4mm in diameter cylinder. Simply put, Specialized road bikes including the SL and Roubaix series like what Cancellara rides for Saxo-Bank use 27.2mm seatposts. The seat tube flares out to a larger diameter as it descends to the BB shell, but even if the assist unit could fit in the seat tube, one could not install the unit without splitting the carbon monocoque structure open first. Even if it’s not the Gruber Assist, there would be similar problems with other conceivable systems.
Think about it; this would be a lot more difficult than a major league slugger “corking” a bat. Multiple skilled individuals would have to be involved in the deception including the rider, at least one team mechanic, and most likely several other professional craftmen to handle the fabrication and painting of the carbon bike frame around the assist unit. This isn’t like the days when the only variation in frame construction was whether one used Reynolds or Columbus tubing, nor are today’s bikes using aluminium tubing. Do you know why my frameshop can’t build a Specialized Roubaix frameset? Because Specialized owns the molds and won’t sell us the carbon subassemblies for their bikes. Do you think Specialized would give them to Saxo-Bank knowing the monumental fallout that would occur if one of their bikes was discovered with an electric motor?
Continuing onto the noise issue, other riders would be able to hear the device when in close proximity unless maybe the crowd noise or motorcycles were too loud. Granted, just such conditions existed in the Flanders when Fabian rolled over Boonen like it was nothing, but if another rider suspected Cancellara of cheating using a motor, why wouldn’t he raise a ruckus? This isn’t like doping for which a culture of silence has existed for a hundred years, neither is it likely that cheater’s bikes could stay ahead of detection methods for very long. Thus other riders couldn’t rationally be thinking that they should abstain from leveling accusations in case they might also one day resort to these devices. No, the other riders would have too much to gain by exposing the cheater and nothing to lose.
And how difficult would it be to detect these motors? You’d have to be daft to think that you could hide such a bike if someone was actually looking for it. The system weighs at least 900gr in the company literature, which in the reality outside of manufacturers’ claims probably means over a kilo with accessories and mounting. Add another kilo for the battery. I pick up a lot of bikes, and I can easily sense the difference of a kilo on bikes below 9kg. A skilled person should at least become suspicious of a heavy bike that should weigh less based on the component spec. I don’t know the exact rules of when UCI can inspect a bike, but I do know that UCI technical inspectors have a lot of power in the field. You don’t need to submit a bike to a certified laboratory using a rigid diagnostic protocol; you just pull a seat post out of the frame and look inside.
If I had to come up with a quick check method, I’d give each official a palm sized rare earth magnet. A modern ProTour bike has so little ferro-magnetic material in it besides the spokes, hub/pedal/crank axles, and the chain, but it’s hard to make an electric motor without something that would attract a magnet. A hand-held magnet that would stick to a carbon frame’s seat tube or down tube would be a dead giveaway.
Is it possible that an electric motor has been used in a ProTour race? Eh, I wouldn’t doubt it, but I can’t see it being a prevalent problem either now or in the future. Do I think Cancellara used one? No. Do I think that he’s racing clean otherwise? I’ve got no opinion on that.