The Tour de France was started in 1903. It was a rip-roaring success.
But the 1904 event was very nearly the last. Why? Because of the cheating. Don’t think dope, think du train: the top four finishers were later disqualified, some of them for hopping on public transport.
The spectre of motor-assistance is back with us, even if it’s largely hot air. Rumours of ‘motorised doping’ started at the Tour of Flanders a month ago. Two Italian newspapers said pros were riding with motors stuffed in their BBs. There is a product that fits the bill: a £1,800 retrofit e-bike motor from Austria. This Gruber Assist is not top-secret. In 2007 the product won a Eurobike Award. It fits in seat-tubes but needs an obvious battery pack, usually fitted in a saddlebag. It offers 100 watts of additional power for up to 45 minutes.
In the internet firestorm that greeted the news of ‘motorised doping’, the website for Gruber Assist went from few views to oodles and oodles of views. A video purporting to show a top pro using a Gruber Assist during Paris-Roubaix was watched more than two million times in a week.
Conspiracy theorists have been having a ball (Shimano’s Di2 electronic gear changing has been the subject of raised eyebrows). On YouTube.com. ‘KneelArmstrong’ said: “Next thing you know they will be using anal suppositories of CO2 canisters and at the right moment blasting past the peloton.”
Gruber Assist requires a seat-post diameter of 31.6mm. The supposed ‘doped bike’ ridden by a certain top pro, has a 27.2mm seat-post so there would have had to have been some major tinkering with the Gruber gubbins. The company denies any such tinkering.
British Cycling’s Chris Boardman says he first alerted the UCI to the possibilities of boosted bikes last year. “There is not a shred of doubt that the technology exists to cheat in this way and that a rider could get a definite return from such cheating,” said Boardman.
But he poured scorn on the suggestion pros are already riding souped-up e-bikes:
“It would involve so many members of the backup team and staff that although it is possible, it probably hasn’t taken place yet for real. Just because you ‘can’ doesn’t mean to say you ‘do’.”
Pro teams may never have genuinely equipped their riders with boosted bikes but this sorry spectacle has been a brilliant advert for e-bikes. Gruber Assist has gone from an interesting trade show toy to a product in high demand. But demand is from ordinary folks, not pro riders. The Gruber Assist episode has shown people it’s possible to kit out a road bike with motor assist and for the bike to look, well, normal. Aside from a slight noise, you wouldn’t know a bike was so-boosted: phut-phuts without the tut-tuts.
For purists, Gruber Assist is anathema. For those who want pedal assistance, but hate the look of e-bikes, Gruber Assist is a Godsend. Expect more such products in the pipeline.