Mechanical doping and the future of e-bikes

Electric bike, Road 19 8

I posted about lightweight e-bike designs back in April. At the time, I jokingly remarked in a discussion group on LinkedIn that, “the way I am riding this spring, I could use a little electric boost to bridge the gap in the local Tuesday night training rides”. I may have been kidding, but apparently I wasn’t the only person thinking that way.

Listening to the May 20th episode of the Velocast podcast, I first heard the term “mechanical doping” used to describe a hidden electric motor in the seat tube of a racing frame. In the podcast, they mentioned that the UCI was investigating allegations that lightweight Gruber Assist motors may have been used in bikes raced at Paris Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders. Over the weekend, an article in Bike Biz discussed the matter further, quoting a former pro who claims to have “ridden a 10 kg pro bike with an electric motor housed in the frame at the crank.” After the Bike Biz story broke and a video surfaced, rumors that Fabian Cancellara may have ridden the Spring Classics with a motor in his bike spread quickly on the web. Today, even Cycling News and VeloNews are addressing the issue. The latter even has a statement from Cancellara about the accusation- “It’s so stupid I’m speechless, I’ve never had batteries on my bike.”

This blog is about bikes, not racing, so I generally avoid mentioning the various scandals that seem to plague cycling as a sport, and in this case I am certainly willing to give Cancellara the benefit of the doubt. In a post over at Cozy Beehive, Ron points out a few of the reasons that he does not believe that Cancellara used a motor to cheat. I’ll let others discuss whether he did or didn’t, but what interests me out of all this mess is the technology that makes the accusations believable. To learn a bit more about the Gruber Assist motor, you can download a PDF document from the website. The product, which is billed as an “invisible ascent aid”, promises “200 watts more motor power” and “up to 100% performance increase for 100 min. maximum.” The motor is suitable for retrofit in any bike with an inner seat tube diameter of 31.6 mm. An external battery pack is required, but it is certainly conceivably that a cylindrical NiMH battery could be hidden somewhere in a carbon frame making the system completely invisible from the outside.

My first thought upon hearing these latest rumors was…what does all this mean for electric assist bikes? Certainly if the “mechanical doping” (I still love that term) stories are true, it is bad for the sport of cycling. Lets face it though, pro racing has its share of other problems at the moment, so the possibility of a new way to cheat shouldn’t really come as that big a shock. Applied to other types of cycling though- commuting or even recreational riding for instance- a product like the Gruber Assist motor could be helpful for some people. Someone who wants to get out and ride for fun and fitness but is intimidated by the hills might feel more confident knowing that he or she can get a boost of speed with the simple push of a button. Likewise, a lightweight motor could appeal to a potential bike commuter, who might want to speed though one section of his or her route quickly to avoid traffic or hills. Those are just a couple of examples. The reasons that this type of technology might appeal to some beginning or “non-enthusiast” cyclists could go on and on.  So I am wondering…if pros really are now using e-bikes to cheat, will that change the perception of electric bikes as a category among hardcore cyclists? Will the most elitist roadies no longer sneer at “geeks” who speed by on electric bikes? Maybe this whole mechanical doping scandal is just what the electric bike industry needs to finally catch on in the U.S. market? OK…I am not being completely serious, but you do have to admit that this latest pro cycling scandal does cast electric bikes in a different light. Outside of the word of sports, the idea of saving energy to cover more ground at a greater speed might be not be such a bad thing for some people. It certainly beats the idea of taking EPO for the morning commute.

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19 Comments

  1. Champs June 1, 2010 at 7:58 pm -  Reply

    Ignoring the fact that he had multiple bike changes at Flanders, are 200W ever worth it for a pro to drag an extra 3kg?

    One technical problem: the stock Tarmac and Roubaix use 27.2mm seatposts.

    • James T June 2, 2010 at 8:29 am -  Reply

      Saving 200 watts for a few hours of a race would be a huge gain for a pro rider, though I seriously doubt the 200-watt claim. On the flats, I would think it would definitely be worth the weight penalty.

    • Tim June 12, 2010 at 12:44 pm -  Reply

      wow let me save 200 watts for a while and see what happens. i don t think 100 mins is possible but i would think 15 or 20 is plenty to kill the pack

  2. eric June 1, 2010 at 9:52 pm -  Reply

    While I think it is highly unlikely that this particular technology has the power-to-weight ratio make it worthwhile for a bike racer, I am intrigued by the idea of power being introduced into cycling as sport. At Kalkhoff, the leading e-bike manufacturer in Europe, we are offering bikes with power for the non-sport segment. Our bikes appeal to athletes and non athletes alike but not for their training session rather for the trip to the store or night out on the town.

    • Doug June 7, 2010 at 4:25 pm -  Reply

      Power to weight is not the important thing here. The technology has existed for years to get a bike below UCI legal weight .

      Comments on Article 1.3.019:
      The minimum weight of the bicycle (in working order) shall be 6.800 kg, considered without on-board accessories in place, that is to say those items that may be removed during the event..

      If they decrease the overall weight and then add this motor to bring the bike to legal weight there would effectively be no weight for the power increase.

  3. Ron June 2, 2010 at 1:32 am -  Reply

    James,

    It is now known it was not a Gruber Assist, but a similar kind of motor from another place. I’ll confirm this as and when I find out more.

    • James T June 2, 2010 at 8:30 am -  Reply

      Thanks Ron. You are definitely on top of this story. Keep me posted on what you find out.

  4. Ivan June 2, 2010 at 3:11 am -  Reply

    First of all: THIS SUCKS!!! Man, does an athlete that does chuch a thing says “I won” after a race? this is much worse than drugs dopping.

    BUT: The idea was great! Right now I ride a mountainbike and many times I made a trip to far and got exausted way before getting home. An electric motor would’ve helped lot. Also, here in holland the wind can be a big problem (I had to come back to the first gear to keep pedaling once on a flat street) and once I was struggling agains the wind and there was an old lady with an electric bike just passing me by…

    Your website is great! Congratulations

  5. Ross Nicholson June 2, 2010 at 10:12 pm -  Reply

    Sealing such a motor in the seat tube without exterior switches is entirely plausible. Only a slight impetus would be necessary to improve a racer’s performance. Ultralight motors, even an RC motor, would do fine, eh?

  6. Todd June 13, 2010 at 2:45 am -  Reply

    I was a doubter on the weight penalty issues, but I started running the numbers (see my blog http://www.tronbike.com) and I too think for a flat stage, the motor and batts would be an advantage. Using the “stock” Gruber system, only 10 50g batteries are needed for a 100 watt, 50 minute run time…

  7. Leeroy June 15, 2010 at 5:47 pm -  Reply

    The Gruber Assist and probably similar solutions are noisy when running.

    I don’t know how much soundproofing you can do, but it certainly is a very risky thing for your cover to be blown by the noise of a kid’s remote controlled toy car… coming from your bike! :D

    • paul June 27, 2010 at 10:19 pm -  Reply

      They use sram red lol

      • James T June 28, 2010 at 9:57 am -  Reply

        Not sure I follow…why wouldn’t a system like this work with Red?

  8. Molly June 18, 2010 at 9:44 am -  Reply

    First of all: THIS SUCKS!!! Man, does an athlete that does such a thing says “I won” after a race? this is much worse than drugs doping.

    BUT: The idea was great! Right now I ride a mountainbike and many times I made a trip to far and got exhausted way before getting home. An electric motor would’ve helped lot. Also, here in Holland the wind can be a big problem (I had to come back to the first gear to keep pedaling once on a flat street) and once I was struggling against the wind and there was an old lady with an electric bike just passing me by…

    Your website is great! Congratulations

  9. John Beardmore June 25, 2010 at 4:08 pm -  Reply

    Why dont they have the battery disguised as a water bottle with electrical connections on the bottom? Battery changes would then be possible and at the end of the race the battery could be passed back to the team car to save weight.

    Also why go to the bother of a gear system? Why not design it from scratch and have the motor as the crank spindle?

  10. ebike-easy March 9, 2011 at 10:49 am -  Reply

    I think it’s rather unlikely that pro cyclists would resort to this kind of illegal support but thinking of the impact of doped bikes instead of doped athletes is kind of fun. Wouldn’t the lobby of illegal medical doping distributors go mad after all?

    However, even if there’s no real future for electric support in pro cycling, this might fuel design and enhance quality of electric bicycle motor kits after a while. Already today, it’s not that “geeky” any more to use e-bikes so this is a kind of vehicle that is not limited to the “not so enthusiastic” cyclist any more.

  11. Josef July 14, 2011 at 1:38 pm -  Reply

    Anyone know where to buy?
    I appreciate you sending me a contact.

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