Word reaches me of a friend of a friend who was on holiday in Majorca, and was overtaken on a climb by a fully kitted up rider on a nice-looking road bike. It’s happened to all of us, I suppose. The normal feeling is one of slight deflation.
On this occasion the deflation had a rapid reversal, and exploded into outrage when he noticed the rider’s bike was making a distinct whine. The sort of whine that had little to do with badly adjusted bits of bicycle. To be blunt, it was an electric motor sort of whine.
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To be clear, I have no truck with electric motors in races. It is the same thing as doping, as taking a short cut, as checking the durability of the door handle of the team car as it does 40kph up a climb. (“Yes, Mr Vinokourov, it’s really well attached. My compliments to the man who bolts on your door handles.”)
The problem is… it’s a little bit comical. A concealed motor is how Dick Dastardly would cheat in a bike race. If I wanted to get into the business, I’d start the Acme Covert Electric Motor Company.
It’s a form of cheating that’s a bit too on-the-nose. The amount of pharmacology I’ve tried to explain to people over years of discussing doping makes me actually rather grateful for the chance to just say, “You hide a motor inside the bike, and press a button on the handlebars to turn it on.”
It tempts you into making jokes that are, in the context, unwise. “He’s charging,” is an expression that has made a seamless move from pharmaceutical doping to motorised doping, doing nothing along the way except become a lot more literal. It’s funny, except that it’s not.
There is a second issue, rather closer to home for most of us. Is it cheating if you use an electric motor outside the context of a race? The pedantic answer is clearly ‘no’. But does it feel like cheating? I don’t think it’s easy to accept that someone has power they didn’t sweat to get.
If your wife left you because you insisted on turbo-training for three hours every evening, demanded freshly squeezed spinach juice the instant you finished, and made the children wear surgical masks whenever they had a cold, you don’t want someone coming along and rubbing your nose in 100 watts he ordered off the internet.
To put it another way, if you’ve ridden to the top of Alpe d’Huez, you will feel you earned it, that it reflects upon some nobility that resides within your soul. You don’t want someone standing beside you who only earned 75 per cent of it, and pressed a button to get the rest.
What’s odd, in some ways, is that even if you know full well there’s a motor involved, it still feels wrong. My friend’s friend was irate in a way he wouldn’t have been if someone had ridden past him on a motorbike. What clearly upset him was that the other rider had the effrontery to look like something he wasn’t.
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An onlooker might have thought that he was a better bike rider than my friend’s friend. Although when I stop to think about it, I’m not sure that Majorca is really full of spectators who watch amateur cyclists training, and keep score in little notebooks.
Let me tell you how to stop caring. If cycling is full of covert motors, then you should perhaps consider the possibility that every single bike rider who appears better than you has a motor in their bike. If it weren’t for motors, you’d be the best cyclist in the world. You are, my friend, the true heir to Fausto Coppi.
I tell you, it’s just a question of your attitude, and as always, bitter and mean-spirited will win the day.