The Tour de France is dope

The World
Lampre-Merida team riders attend presentation of Tour de France teams.

Lampre-Merida team riders attend the presentation of Tour de France teams.

Jean-Paul Pelissier/Reuters

The Tour de France starts up again this weekend at Mont Saint-Michel. The Benedictine abbey sits atop a rock perch along the Normandy coast.

Riders will depart from there and pedal to Utah Beach, the spot where Allied forces made the infamous D-Day landing in 1944.

It will be picturesque and windy.

But will it also be full of doped-up riders riding doped-up, motorized bikes?

At least a few riders using drugs seems likely.

"I've been writing about doping at the Tour De France since about 1989," says Ian Austen, cycling reporter for The New York Times. "And while I think there are now riders, prominent riders, there who do not dope … the problem has not gone away."

But the bikes aren't clean, either. Austen says the race now has a novel dimension of mechanical "doping." Some riders use tiny electric motors and batteries in their bicycles. Others use magnets inside their wheels to propel them forward. The systems cost thousands of dollars. But they can do wonders if left undetected.

That's why Tour officials will be using thermal cameras to scan bicycles at random points during the race.

"Developed by the CEA [the French Atomic Energy Commission], the method consists of using a thermal imaging camera capable of detecting mechanical anomalies on the riders' bikes. The checks can be made in the race and on the side of the roads," Tour De France organizers say in a press release.

There will also be magnetic testing, both before and after the race.

The hope is to stop mechanical doping before it ruins the sport. For cycling reporters like Austen, all the tricks are incredibly frustrating and disappointing. But he says it's better now than it was when guys like Lance Armstrong, Jan Ullrich and Marco Pantani used a cocktail of drugs to sprint up and down the French Alps. "In that era you had to reach the conclusion that everybody was doping simply, in most cases, to keep their jobs."

Vive le Tour.