There has been a great deal of controversy this year about cyclists using illegal, hidden electric motors in their bicycles, a practice goofily known as “moto-doping.” Currently, any cyclist found to be doing this is considered cheating, because moto-doping is very much against the rules of Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), where they call it “technological fraud.” That’s bullshit. It’s time for cycling to embrace moto-doping.
I know to many purists – well, really, probably to most people – this seems like a terrible betrayal of what the sport of cycling is supposed to be. But I’m not so sure it’s really all that bad at all.
Cycling has been in the modern olympics since the first modern Olympic games in 1896. Bicycles were relatively new and novel back then (the same-size wheeled “safety bicycles” became popular in the 1880s) and is one of the few Olympic games, along with sailing and the various kinds of sled-like things, to use a vehicle of some kind.
The bicycle is already a machine. Yes, it’s a human-powered machine, but it’s fundamentally a human performance-enhancing machine. It’s already moto-doping, but instead of using electric motors it uses low-rolling resistance wheels and gear ratios. That’s already using a technological enhancement to improve athletic performance.
If we think of the baseline high-speed human-powered method of travel as running, then we can think of cycling as the moto-doped version of human locomotion, and it’s wildly more efficient, by a factor of five or more.
The idea that it’s unethical to develop bicycles even further by adding some electric assist motors—most current ones make only about 0.6 HP at the most—is, at best, a pretty artificial ethical line. It’s only unethical because some people are doing it and not others, which makes it fundamentally unfair. That’s why I think the UCI should accept moto-doping, and create a category of competitive cycling where it’s allowed and encouraged.
Now, I think there should be some rules and restrictions because that’s what makes things interesting, and there’s no reason to let cycling slowly turn into what would effectively be lightweight electric motorcycle racing.
It should still be a primarily human-powered endeavor, but with motor assist. To keep true to the outlaw history of moto-doping, I think one of the restrictions should be that the motor units and all related equipment should remain as invisible as possible. That’s one of the most fascinating challenges current, illegal moto-doping has had to contend with, and I love seeing the clever solutions.
By forcing the motor systems to be easily hidden and light, that would promote some interesting R&D into smaller and more energy-dense battery technology, motors that are small and efficent, or even more solutions where the motor is integrated into the overall design and structure of the bike itself, like those electromagnetic wheel motors.
Cyclists can have assist motors, but they won’t be easy to design or build. And that’s what’s going to turn moto-doped-cycling into a team sport like you’d see in motor racing.
In a moto-doped-cycling, there’s the cyclist and his or her bicycle-building team, and they’re equal partners in winning races. We’d see all kinds of innovative and experimental development work happening, not unlike what Indy racing was like in the ‘60s with its turbines, or CanAm racing, or even F1 in the era of things like the Tyrell F1 six-wheeler. It has the potential to be great. It’s time to embrace moto-doping, and start enjoying a new era of crazy fast electric-assisted cycling.
For those of you still balking at the idea, let me echo what commenter QuadPole suggested in the comments: what if the motor-assist unit’s capacitors or batteries have to start depleted, so all energy that goes into charging them ultimately comes from the cyclist? Then, a moto-doping setup is truly just another form of assist to the rider. In that situation, how is it any different than getting an advantage from mechanical gearing, or rolling wheels?
Here’s hoping it’ll be at the 2020 Summer Olympics, which I’m predicting will be in either Lansing, MI or Fresno, CA.