Tour de France Turns to Nuclear Researchers to Fight Cheating

  • French state funded research for new detector for ’clean’ race
  • CEA research center tests nuclear reactors, supercomputers

The fight against cheating at the Tour de France is going nuclear.

At the government’s urging, researchers at the French state-owned nuclear research center developed highly sensitive infrared cameras that can detect changes in bicycles to expose the presence of hidden motors or batteries. 

The detectors will be used for the first time at the 103rd Tour, which kicks off Saturday at Mont Saint Michel on the Atlantic coast. The French government is keen to clean up the event, which has been plagued by doping and cheating scandals.

“This is a special project that was commissioned by the sports and research ministries,” Patrick Kanner, the sports minister, said Friday on France Info radio. “The state and the international cycling federation want France to be exemplary.”

Researchers at France’s Commissariat a l’Energie Atomique, or CEA, enhanced consumer-quality infrared cameras to increase their sensitivity, enabling them to detect irregularities in the temperature and density of materials with more accuracy. 

Magnetic Field

“Scientists of CEA have adapted the image processing for optimal detection,” the nuclear research center said in a statement. “It is well-calibrated and sensitive to the heat from little motors or batteries which could be hidden in the tubes or crankset of a bike.”

That’s a departure from the CEA’s usual work, which ranges from research on the nuclear reactors used in French submarines to the gigantic nuclear fusion reactor project ITER to supercomputers and the radioactive atoms used in cancers treatments.

Neither the CEA nor the Tour de France would say how many cameras will be used. The international cycling federation is in charge of overseeing the controls.

“We are very happy to have this new tool, as we have long asked for more controls,” said Titouan Tiberghien, a spokesman for the Tour de France.

The CEA is already working on a method to foil the newest technique among cheaters: a magnet that helps the wheels turn faster. The scientists are creating a device that would test a bike’s magnetic field.

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