The UCI has acknowledged motors as one of the biggest dangers facing the integrity of modern cycling and announced prior to the Tour de France that it would conduct the largest number of checks ever in order to stamp out mechanical doping.
However, according to Istvan Varjas, the Hungarian inventor of the motors, plus Greg LeMond’s wife Kathy, the governing body frustrated French police attempts to conduct the necessary screening to detect motors at this year’s race.
The explosive claims were made by Varjas during the Off the Ball radio show on Irish station Newstalk FM on Wednesday.
“This summer we had a very strange experience in the Tour de France,” Varjas told the interviewer Ger Gilroy. “I was there with the LeMonds, with Kathy and Greg. They came, the Gendarmerie, to interrogate me. I asked them if they really wanted to grab the people using the motors. They said ‘yes, we are ready to fight against it. We want to grab the people who use it.’
“So I just told them what they need to do. They said they would do it. They went to make this kind of check, but the UCI refused to allow them to check the bikes.”
CyclingTips has contacted the UCI. Representatives from the governing body did not immediately reply for comment, but later issued a statement strongly rejecting the claims.
“The Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) condemns the accusations being made in some news reports concerning the UCI’s commitment to tackle technological fraud and the tests made at this year’s Tour de France,” it said in a statement to CyclingTips.
“The UCI carried out extensive bike checks using various detection methods in close collaboration with race organiser, French authorities and French law enforcement.”
Varjas said that he found the Tour scenario to be troubling.
“If the organisation is not allowing to check the bikes…you can say every bad thing about me, but I have nothing to do with these cheaters. If you really want to get those using these motors, you can very easily grab them. I explained them how it is possible.
“The police tried to do this, but from the UCI they were not allowed to do it. They said it was not necessary.”
Varjas, who also uses the name Stefano Varjas, said that the LeMonds would be able to verify his account.
“You can ask Kathy and she can explain the story. I think it will be a big…this is the scandal, not who uses or doesn’t use it. There is an organisation who has to stop this problem and they don’t do it.
“I think they are accomplices or something like this. I can’t accuse, but this happened this summer. I was witness, Kathy was a witness, and the Gendarmerie were witnesses to this thing.”
Contacted by CyclingTips, Kathy LeMond confirmed what Varjas said had happened.
“Stefano did speak with the gendarmes at the Tour this year,” she said. “He explained how the motor doping works and how to catch the cyclists using motors.
“The gendarmes were not able to test the bikes themselves and were relying on the UCI to carry out the tests.
“The UCI refused to test the bikes in the manner Stefano recommended to uncover motor usage. Stefano believes the manner in which the UCI carried out the tests is insufficient to detect motor usage.”
The claims come four months after French TV programme Stade 2 said that a senior UCI official frustrated French police manoeuvres against motors during the 2015 Tour de France.
In a programme released on June 12, the programme makers claimed that UCI technical manager Mark Barfield alerted e-bike maker Typhoon about police plans to investigate suspected hidden motor use in the 2015 Tour de France.
Stade 2 released copies of emails from Barfield and Typhoon director Harry Gibbings.
One, sent at 12.37 CEST on July 11 of last year, appeared to be an exchange between Barfield and Gibbings.
“Hi,” the message reads. “Do you have a phone number I can all [sic] you on straight away, I’m sitting with French police who believe an engineer ‘Hungarian’ is visiting TDF today to sell a bike and visit teams, could this be your guy???”
The message concludes by asking Gibbings to call him on a number which Stade 2 has partially obscured.
Gibbings sent a message the following day to Varjas.
That email read as follows:
“I was doing family stuff yesterday when this mail came in from a guy in the UCI so I didn’t see it until late in the evening. The French police have opened a file on ‘motor doping’ and will prosecute under ‘anti cheating’ laws. I have given no information on Stefano or any of the customers from the past only saying that Typhoon were happy to help in anyway possible to try and detect a similar system in racing bikes.
“My understanding is that I will be contacted again in the future. Nobody has asked me for the names of Typhoon’s engineers yet. Bill doesn’t know about this at the moment, but we are due to meet at some point today when I’ll have to tell him. I don’t need to tell you guys this is a very big and serious mess. As I get anymore information I will pass along to you.”
Varjas quickly left the race, preventing police plans to interview him then.
He had earlier signed a contract in January of last year to work with Typhoon.
Barfield was approached at the Critérium du Dauphiné by one of the journalists involved in the programme. He confirmed that the email in question was sent by him, but claimed that he passed on details of what was a confidential police investigation to others to help that investigation.
However, according to Stade 2, the police have disputed this version of events and said that Barfield did not contact them again.
At the time the UCI responded by saying that they would look into the matter. During the Tour de France CyclingTips asked UCI President Brian Cookson where that inquiry was at.
“I don’t want to comment on any individual member of UCI staff,” he said then. “All I will say is that I have got complete confidence in the staff of the UCI. If some information has been misused elsewhere, then this is something that we and the authorities will continue to look into.”
A senior source previously told CyclingTips that French police requests to weigh wheels at last year’s Tour in order to detect hidden motors potentially contained within them were refused by the UCI.
During this year’s race UCI President Brian Cookson said the body would work with French authorities and others to eliminate the possibility of motor usage.
Varjas says UCI threatened to sue Stade 2 over thermal camera claims
During Wednesday’s show, Gilroy asked Varjas if he was worried by reports prior to the 2016 Tour that the French police wanted to speak with him.
“I was not fear [scared] of this because I didn’t do anything bad,” he answered. “I did it for the development of big bicycle companies, so if after somebody wanted to use the cheating, it is there cheating, it is not my problem.
“I told them how they can catch if somebody uses this motors, like they did in the Stade 2 on France television. They are using the heat camera, Thierry [the journalist who made the programme – ed.] has names of those who are using these bicycles. But he can’t reveal these names because the UCI said to them that if you release these names, we accuse [sue] you because it is not in evidence.
“Okay, not in evidence, but explain why the bicycle became hot?”
Varjas was referring to Stade 2 screening done with thermal cameras at Strade Bianche and Coppi e Bartali races in March.
He said that Stade 2 wanted to verify if using thermal cameras would pick up hidden motors.
“Before they came to me to check my bikes, they wanted to see if their system to detect this system really works or not,” he said. “They were using their heat camera, their thermal camera, and with this they have films of which racers have motors inside. They showed me seven people with motors. Five in the seat tube and two with the hub motors.
“After they wanted to reveal their names, but the UCI treated them…said it was not possible. [Said] if they reveal it, it is a problem. It is not evidence.”
Given the earlier allegations against Barfield, the latest claims by Varjas and LeMond are troubling.
However the governing body is adamant that it cooperated with authorities at the Tour.