When it comes to cheating in sports, cycling is the king and everyone else is playing in amateur leagues. I love cheating in cycling. Not doping — doping is passe. Anyone can find some illicit substance and inject their body. What I’m talking about is ingenuity. Bike modifications, route changes, outside help — the kinds of things that happen in Saturday morning cartoons. I know we shouldn’t celebrate cheating because it’s wrong and morality and all that jazz, but I can’t help but smile every time I read a story about a cyclist doing something ridiculous to win.
If doping is computer generated effects in a movie, then the kinds of things cyclists do are the practical effects in Star Wars. The best part is that this kind of cheating has been a tradition for over 100 years, proving that we’re no less moral than our forebears.
A bike, a cork, some string and a spiked bottle of lemonade
The first Tour de France was held in 1903 and immediately, there was cheating. Incredible, mind-boggling cheating. Much of it centered on one man, Hippolyte Aucouturier, who looks like a stereotypical Warner Bros. cartoon from the 1950s.
Aucouturier was easily the favorite in the first Tour de France. On July 2, midway through the race, he was forced to withdraw due to illness. For years people speculated that it was a result of not eating enough, or perhaps a combination of too much wine and sniffing ether (apparently a hobby for him) had felled Aucouturier, but a 2016 article by Cyclist magazine uncovered the real culprit.
Hippolyte Aucouturier, retired with fearsome stomach cramps on the epic 467km opening stage from Paris to Lyon having been handed a spiked bottle of lemonade by a roadside spectator.
Aucouturier’s camp constantly maintained their rider was suffering from food poisoning, which many didn’t believe at the time. It took over 100 years for the spiked lemonade to be revealed as the culprit, which took the favorite out of the race.
Fast forward a year. Aucouturier is back in the Tour de France after being robbed of his chance to win due to a bottle of bad lemonade. The experience has corrupted him, and the cyclist takes the “turnabout’s fair play” approach and decides to cheat himself — which he does in the most delightful way.
Aucouturier was among the bad guys, being spotted on one stage taking a tow from a car by means of a length of string attached to a cork that he gripped between his teeth.
For miles he was dragged behind a car with a cork in his mouth, just to win. He would have gotten away with it too, but the car pulling him drove too fast. Aucouturier reached the end of the stage just minutes after race officials, who were also riding by car.
Itching powder and gang attacks.
This is Maurice Garin.
Maurice Garin’s claim to fame was that he was a very good cyclist. His second claim to fame was that he smoked all the time while cycling, purportedly always with a cigarette hanging out of the left side of his mouth.
People loved Maurice Garin. He was a chimney sweep turned cyclist, who I can only imagine was the John Daly of his time. I say this because he once won a 24-hour race in 1893 and credited the win to what he ate and drank while riding, which included:
- Lots of red wine.
- Eight cooked eggs.
- Five liters of tapioca.
- 19 liters of hot chocolate.
- A mixture of coffee and champagne.
- Two kilograms of rice.
- Seven liters of tea.
- 45 chicken cutlets.
Now it’s 1904, and the second Tour de France, the same year Hippolyte Aucouturier was dragged by his teeth by a car. Garin is the people’s champion. He wins the race, much to the delight of fans — but in an ensuing investigation it’s found that Garin and several other top competitors also cheated and were forced to vacate their placings.
After four month the depths of their improprieties were uncovered. The riders had taken a train for part of a stage, put itching powder in competitor's shorts, and had conspired with a group of his supporters who attacked rival riders with sticks, as well as showering the road with broken glass and tacks to puncture competitors tires.
Cheating was so rife in the 1904 Tour de France that it was unclear if the race would ever happen again.
Don’t drink the “water”
Jean Robic was a small man. He was only 5’3 and weighed 130 pounds, which caused fans to give him the nickname “Kid Goat.” Later his nickname changed to “Leather-head,” because he was forced to wear a leather helmet (unheard of at the time) in order to protect a steel plate inserted in his skull following a bad crash.
Robic was the first man to win the Tour de France following World War II, which was held in 1947. He still holds the title to this day, but it was later found out that Robic’s team had an ingenious tactic used throughout his career to ensure his small stature didn’t serve as a disadvantage.
Every time Robic reached the summit of a mountain his crew would hand him a water bottle. It was assumed he needed hydration following a difficult climb, but in reality there was no water in the bottle. Typically it would be filled with mercury or lead, designed to increase Robic’s weight in the ensuring downhill section — at which time he would jettison the bottles and continue to race.
This tactic was adopted by other riders, and soon the practice of weighted bottles became commonplace in cycling.
The old fake route trick
Pat Boyd was one of the toughest cyclists of the 1950s, but his bike wasn’t quite so resilient. During a road race in Belgium the Englishman was battered by rough cobblestone streets, causing his bike to puncture a tire and force a repair. This left Boyd at the back of the pack, and seemingly out of the race.
Boyd mustered all his effort to try and catch up, finally joining a lone rider. The cyclist was a local, unable to keep up with the peloton, so the pair rode together and became fast friends, or so Boyd thought.
The local rider, knowing Boyd was once considered a favorite, told him that he knew a shortcut down a narrow alley that would allow them to both catch up. From here the story is outlined in Cycling's Strangest Tales.
“Pat’s new pal indicated an unassuming little alleyway, intimating that the secret shortcut was their only hope, the pair pedaled furiously down the passage. When they emerged at the other end of the alley, the peloton was suddenly and tantalizingly within sight. Pat was in business; he caught the leaders and remained in the pack for the rest of the race to register the top-10 finish he craved.”
Cool ending, right? Wrong. The local had led Pat into the peloton, to be sure, but it was an entirely different race happening in the same town at the same time. Race organizers registered Boyd as a finisher in their race, but placed him last because he never actually started the race AND Boyd finished last in the race he was trying to win.
Rise of the motor-bikes
Money, attention and technology have moved us away from the golden age of practical cheating in cycling. No longer can you pull a person off their bike and beat them with sticks, or scare off a race official and deny a rider to sign their name on a time ledger.
With more eyes on race routes and more people watching this kind of cheating is dead, but it’s given rise to ingenious new inventions: Hidden motors. It’s called “mechanical doping,” and is the latest practical issue cycling is trying to correct.
Early prototypes came into existence in 2010, but it’s only in the last few years that these concepts have been perfected. Essentially a small motor is hidden in the seat tube of the bike, which isn’t large enough to power a bike — but it is big enough to provide assistance to the cyclist.
In 2016, Femke Van den Driessche was forced to withdraw from the under-23 race at the cyclo-cross world championships after a motor was found in her bicycle during a post-race inspection.
Now there’s a new incident, this time in Italy following a Master’s race. A 53-year-old rider was found with a motor in the seat tube of his bike and disqualified after a heat gun found the problem.
“We had some precise information and we proceeded accordingly. We looked, we saw that in the seat tube of one rider it looked as though there was a fire.”
It’s only a matter of time before cycling finds a way to shut down mechanical doping, and that will be a great thing for the sport. Not because it will bring back the sanctity of the sport, but because it will force a new era of ingenuity to determine the path of cheating in cycling.
One door closes, another one opens ... maybe to a pocket dimension where you push your rival cyclist. Or so we can hope.