'Mechanical doping,' the biggest scandal to rock pro cycling since Lance Armstrong, is very real -- here's what we know so far

Femke Van den Driessche caught with motor in bikeYouTube/Het Laatste NieuwsFemke Van den Driessche.

Pro cycling was shocked with the recent news that a 19-year-old Belgian cyclist, Femke Van den Driessche, was caught during the cyclocross world championships with a bicycle that had a motor hidden in the frame.

It was the first official case of “mechanical doping,” and the news quickly caught fire in the world of cycling before making it into the mainstream media.

Van den Driessche has denied she was knowingly in possession of a bike that had a motor, and her case has been handed to a disciplinary commission.

But it’s already quite the scandal, and it could become one of the biggest the sport has faced since Lance Armstrong was busted for using performance-enhancing drugs and stripped of his record seven Tour de France titles.

But whereas Armstrong cheated by blood doping, cycling’s governing body describes this newest form of cheating as “technological fraud,” though many are referring to it as “mechanical doping” or “motorised doping.”

Whatever it’s called, using a motor in a bicycle during a race is cheating, and riders and teams that commit such fraud face not just disqualification but suspensions and huge fines. It’s already looking like the story of the year, to many people’s dismay.

Here’s what we know about cycling’s mechanical-doping scandal so far:

What has Van den Driessche said?

Van den Driessche denied she knowingly had a bike with a motor in it.

'It wasn't my bike -- it was that of a friend and was identical to mine,' a tearful Van den Driessche said, AFP reported.

According to Dutch news site Sport Wereld, a man named Nico Van Muylder, who claims to be a friend of Van den Driessche, said the bike is actually his. He hasn't said much else so far.

Van den Driessche has kept a low profile since appearing on TV.

This could become the biggest cycling scandal since Armstrong's great fall

Nike / YouTube
Armstrong in a TV commercial for Nike.

The news was a fresh blow to a sport still recovering from the Lance Armstrong doping scandal after the disgraced American cyclist admitted to cheating throughout his career in 2013 following years of denials and ruthless attacks on his accusers, AFP noted.

Related: Where are they now? The Lance Armstrong team that dominated the Tour de France

How did the officials find out there was a motor in the bike?

As said, the UCI has not revealed much about the actual motor used, who made it, how it works, or how it even detected a motor. It basically just said it had found a 'concealed motor.'

An Instagram video post, shared by a mechanic for a top US racer at the race weekend in question, shows a similar check being conducted with a tablet (click to play):

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On February 12, another video appeared on Instagram, apparently showing a UCI official testing a bike for a motor using a tablet device (click to play):

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What might a hidden bicycle motor even look like?

The Vivax Assist 'hidden' bike motor.

There's an Austrian company that makes one: It's called the Vivax Assist.

The motor goes into a bike frame, down the seat tube and into the bottom bracket, and then, through a gear system, it powers the cranks. If you stop pedalling the cranks still turn. You use a button, installed on the handlebar, to turn the motor on and off.

Business Insider spoke with a representative of Vivax, Ulrike Treichl. She said she was shocked upon hearing the news that a competitive cyclist had been caught with a hidden motor in her bike, but made it clear that Vivax has no idea whether or not the motor used was one of its own.

'We can't say if she used our motor, but of course maybe she used it,' Treichl said. 'We don't know. For us it is very disappointing when a product that can bring great benefit to many customers is used for other intents, for that is really unacceptable.

'The system is not intended for use in competition,' she added. 'This was not in the mind of the inventor. And we'd like to say we condemn the use of the Vivax Assist system in competition.'

Treichl said Vivax sells 1,200 motors a year and is the only company in Europe that makes such a product. Vivax does not deliver to private persons but works strictly through distributors.

No one connected to the cyclist had purchased products from Vivax, Treichl added.

(Read more about the Vivax Assist here.)

How much does a 'hidden' motor cost?

The Vivax Assist, for example, costs $3,000. It weighs about 4 pounds and can produce up to 110 watts of power. That's a lot of power, and can be the difference between finishing first and finishing last.

What happens if you get busted for mechanical doping?

As stated in its rules and regulations and excerpted above, the UCI takes technological fraud seriously. Penalties include disqualification, a minimum six-month suspension, and a fine of up to 200,000 Swiss francs (about $195,000).

Teams could be fined 1 million francs ($977,500).

How does the scandal make the sport and the UCI look?

Bryn Lennon/Getty Images
UCI President Brian Cookson at the UCI headquarters in Aigle, Switzerland, June 22, 2015.

While this scandal is a blow to cycling, all in all the testing and the bust make the governing body look pretty good. There had been a lot of speculation over the past few years about whether so-called mechanical doping even existed or was happening at cycling's top level.

At first the UCI took some ribbing from fans and riders, who joked about such fraud, as if it was a conspiracy theory. But the UCI kept testing and testing, and now it has shown it exists.

But clearly the governing body has a lot of work to do going forward.

How pervasive is mechanical doping?

Bart Daems.

Tough to say. But Business Insider did speak with a Belgian distributor of the Vivax Assist motor, Bart Daems. He said he's sure there are at least some amateur racers using a motor in their bikes.

'I think in the amateur circuit, for sure there will be some guys that will use (a motor), because there are no UCI,' he said.

Meanwhile, the cyclist's father and brother face charges of stealing birds

Femke Van den Driessche's father, Peter.

If Femke Van den Driessche wasn't already dealing with a lot, Belgian website HLB.be reported that her father, Peter, and brother, Niels, and their friend are facing charges of stealing two exotic parakeets from a pet store in 2015. The store's manager, who turned them in, said it was only after reading about the cycling scandal, and seeing the cyclist's father in the news, that she recognised him from the store's video footage.

If found guilty, they could go to prison and be given fines of several thousand euros. What's more, Niels, a cyclist, is already serving his own doping suspension, Sport Wereld reported.

What happens next?

On February 10, the UCI said it had sent Van den Driessche's case to its Disciplinary Commission, which will hear 'all relevant parties in the weeks to come.'

'Working independently from the UCI, the Disciplinary Commission is the body in charge of imposing sanctions for breaches of the UCI Regulations,' it added. 'No other statement will be made until a decision has been rendered.'

Stay tuned.

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