Davide Cassani is a cycling commentator for Italian TV and is a former pro road cyclist, a then team-mate of Claudio Chiappucci and Stephen Roche.
He is a credible witness. And he today claims that ‘mechanised doping’ is real. Two weeks ago, Italian newspapers reported that riders in the Giro were using bikes fitted with small electric motors. By the end of the stage, to escape capture, the riders would be on standard bikes.
A retrofit downtube-fitted motor has been available since 2007 but the £1800 Gruber Assist of Austria needs an obvious battery pack, usually fitted in a saddlebag. It offers 100 watts of additional power for up to 45 minutes. The Gruber Assist is an off-the-shelf retrofit kit: it’s very public, it’s not top-secret. In 2007 the product won an ISPO Award and a Eurobike Award.
With Floyd Landis recently admitting he spent $90,000 a year on doping products it’s feasible a pro team could afford to perfect Gruber Assist technology and hide the battery pack. And this is what Cassani claims in today’s L’Equipe newspaper.
He said he has a ridden a 10 kg pro bike with an electric motor housed in the frame at the crank.
"An agent sent me a message: if you want to try the rigged bicycle, I can help. He gave me the whereabouts of the designer, I contacted him and he gave me the bike."
The e-drive unit is from Hungary, said Cassani (in fact, the Gruber Assist is from the Tyrol, Austria).
There are no obvious e-bike protrusions: "Nothing stands out," said Cassani. "The buttons which operate the motor are hidden under the rubber brake levers."
The power to the pedals is significant, said Cassani:
"It’s unbelievable. You push the button and this gets the bicycle up to speed, no need to pedal, just make it look as though you’re pedalling. You can ride at 50 kmh without forcing, without fatigue."
The motor produces a low hum, but not loud enough for bystanders to hear, especially in the middle of a pack of riders.
"The mechanism saves at least 50 watts," Cassani told L’Equipe.
"That’s huge. It’s worse than doping! It’s a motorcycle in the peloton."
In yesterday’s Spokesmen podcast, a number of industry members marvelled at the ‘mechanised doping’ rumours – including myself – but concluded that Gruber Assist, which needs saddlebag batteries, was not yet powerful enough over a decent enough timeframe to be of genuine use.
However, in a video on YouTube, Cassani is shown with a road bike fitted with Gruber Assist and hidden batteries. The ‘motorbike in the peloton’ is not used continuously, it’s used to give short speed boosts.
The bike has no saddlebag so the batteries in the video bike must be hidden in the frame.
With standard doping, samples are stored, and could be tested in the future, when better tests have been developed. With ‘mechanised doping’ – a poor name for motor-assisted pro cycling – there’s no chance of testing after the event, although the video above makes button-pressing claims about famous riders in key races, including pointing out motorbike-style seated accelerations.
If a Gruber-style propulsion unit and, most of all, a slim battery pack has been improved enough to quietly catapult a pro rider a significant distance, mainstream e-bike manufacturers will want this technology because it seems too good to be true.