James Gordon, from Northern Ireland, describes himself as a “Cyclist. Observer. Listener. Thinker. Introvert.” It was clear to Neutral Service that he’d given a lot of thought to the ongoing motorised doping case involving Belgian rider Femke van den Driessche at the U23 World Cyclocross Championships and what should be done. Here are his thoughts.
“People do make mistakes and I think they should be punished. But they should be forgiven and given the opportunity for a second chance. We are human beings.” – David Millar, 2012
Text © James Gordon
What is so often forgotten when comment is passed on athletes, or indeed actors or artists or anyone else in an elevated position of fame, is that they are real people. They are human beings. They all experience the same emotions and possess a combination of the same strengths and flaws that the rest of us do.
Cheating is a trait all of us will come across at multiple points in our lives, as a person’s competitive instinct suppresses their moral strength, opening the door which wrongly allows them to justify attempting to gain an unfair advantage over their rivals. We may not like it, but it’s there, it happens. People who follow professional cycling should know that more than most given the sport’s history with cheating.
Another trait that all humans hold is the propensity to make mistakes. Every single one of us make them and we never stop. It’s what shapes and ultimately defines a person; how they learn from previous errors to improve and grow in character. But being able to grow relies on being offered the opportunity to rectify those mistakes; to be given a second chance.
19-year-old Belgian Femke Van den Driessche was last weekend caught competing at the Under-23 World Cyclo-Cross Championships with a bike fitted with a hidden motor. This is the first such case of ‘technological fraud’ being discovered in professional cycling, although whether she’s the first rider to attempt this method of gaining an illegal advantage in competition is doubtful. The explanation given that she had no knowledge of this device and that the bike concerned once belonged to her before being sold to a friend simply isn’t washing with most people. It appears that an extraordinary sequence of events would have to have taken place for the explanation to be true, despite a man coming forward claiming the bike is indeed his.
Irrespective of the explanation given, Van den Driessche will undoubtedly be found guilty in the eyes of the UCI. According to their somewhat vague rule 12.1.013 on Technological Fraud, both the rider and the team carry a responsibility to ensure that the bikes used ‘within the margins of a cycling competition’ are compliant. Where the ambiguity comes into play is in the punishment. For the rider: disqualification, a CHF 20,000-200,000 fine (CHF 20,000 is approximately £13,560, or €17,980 – ed.) and minimum six month suspension. The same applies for the team, albeit with a larger fine of CHF 100,000-1,000,000. The absence of an upper limit on the duration of suspension from competition, combined with a lack of precedent for this form of cheating in cycling, has led to innumerable calls for a lifetime ban for Van den Driessche.
Cycling has suffered from very well documented issues with regards to pharmaceutical doping over almost its entire history as a professional sport. A standard ban for intentional doping is 4 years, with 2 years possible if it can be proved that the presence of the substance was not intentional. Doping is loosely defined as the administration of performance-enhancing drugs to improve performance. Technological fraud, whilst lacking a firm definition, can be interpreted as the use of prohibited technology to improve performance. Notice the similarity? Both are intended to improve performance, to obtain an unfair advantage over the competition, so why should they be treated differently?
To push for a life ban from the sport for Van den Driessche is to hold her to a higher standard than we do for ordinary citizens. If one of us were to make a grave error of comparable scale in our typically ordinary job we would certainly expect to be reprimanded or even suspended from work for an appropriate period of time. But would we expect to be told we will no longer be allowed to work in that line of employment again? In most cases the answer to that would be no.
This is sport. It’s cycling. It’s people riding bikes to a very high level for a living. It is not a heinous crime. It is not life and death and needs to stop being treated as such.
Femke Van den Driessche is 19 years old. Nineteen. By the letter of the law she is old enough to be defined as an adult and will be treated as such, but at 19 it’s hard to argue that she wouldn’t be vulnerable to coercion by an authoritative figure in her life, to be put under pressure to go along with whatever notion is being forced upon her.
References to her brother, Niels, currently serving a ban for EPO use, are an unfair stick to beat Femke with and amounts to guilt by association. However, it may go someway to explaining the culture in which she was raised. It’s not an excuse, but a possible insight into what goes on behind closed doors. (Editor’s note: since the story broke, it’s taken an unexpected turn with a claim from a Belgian pet shop owner that Femke’s father and brother are the men caught on CCTV stealing two expensive parakeets from her shop – which, if true, is further evidence that the rider has been raised in an environment somewhat lacking in positive role-models.)
Of course, there will be justified anger from those who were in direct competition with Van den Driessche, be they those who raced alongside her or those who missed out on selection for races to her. There will be anger from spectators who feel defrauded, from sponsors who have been dragged into this through no fault of their own.
But what has to happen now is due process. Let the facts be presented in the case against the rider and her team. Let those facts be countered or explained, then let a ruling free of emotion and anger be made, with a punishment suitable for the crime. It will be up to the UCI to determine if the rider and team intentionally or unintentionally included a non-compliant bicycle in their selection for the race, and this should have an effect on the length of ban handed down.
Let’s be clear; just because someone has made a grave error in judgement doesn’t mean they are necessarily a bad person. Especially in cases like this, it is so much more obscure than black and white. However, that most certainly does not mean they should be exempt from punishment. What this debate revolves around is the length of the ban, assuming one is handed down.
The arguments in favour of a life ban appear to be centered on the theory that it will make an example of Van den Driessche and deter anyone from competing with a non-compliant bike again, but this is a risky approach to take. What if it doesn’t prevent others from chancing their career? We’ve seen from previous doping cases, albeit with bans typically of 2 years or less, that suspensions are not an effective deterrent in stopping cheating. If someone wants to cheat, they will find a way of doing so and will take the risk that goes with it, regardless of how great that risk is.
A life ban offers no chance at redemption, no opportunity to change. One shot and it’s gone before it ever really got started. Is this really fair for a first time offence? Is it really fair to end the promising career of a 19-year-old for something she was very possibly coerced into?
We all make mistakes, we all make errors in judgement. But we are not all professional athletes and not all of us get publically vilified for our deviations from the straight and narrow. In most cases we are given the opportunity to learn from our mistakes, to change, to be become a better person. A ban of 2 or 4 years, in line with that of those found guilty of doping, would satisfy the requirement for a severe punishment whilst allowing the rider the opportunity to have a career and compete again within the parameters of what is legal.
The ability of a person to change should never be underestimated and a second chance should be afforded where possible. How they use the opportunity to change is what really allows us to see the true nature of the human being. Let’s hope sense prevails and Femke Van den Driessche gets that opportunity.
“Did she consider where she’d end up, as she is now, how she has thrown away her life. Why would you risk that? She can’t show her face in Belgium anymore. Sure, you’re infuenceable at 19 but you still have a choice. Of course her entourage should be there to protect her from [bad influences], instead the opposite seems to have happened. Aside from the penalty she will receive –whether it’s a year-, two year- or lifetime ban– there is no coming back from this” – Marianne Vos speaks to Ella Cycling Tips
“Everything you need to know about the motorised doping scandal” – Cycling Weekly
“Merckx calls for life bans for motorised doping offences” – Cycling News
Concealed motor technology definitely exists, and is of course entirely legal (depending on local laws) for non-competition use.
“Hidden motors for road bikes exist – here’s how they work” – Cycling Tips
“Gruber Assist is a Stealth Electric Bike: No One Will Know But Your Mechanic” – Treehugger
“Vivax Assist – The E-Bike System” – Vivax Assist