Outdoor

The Tour de France goes digital

For the first time since the end of the Second World War, the Tour de France no longer takes place in July. There will still be some world class bike races; It just won't be on the streets.

As with other sports, the real world race was stopped in March when the corona virus was serious and had not yet returned. (The planned pro-cycling restart is in late July, with a newly planned tour in September.) As a result, virtual races have tried via mass multiplayer online platforms to fill the competitive gap for drivers and fans. Next week, the young discipline will become the biggest showcase of all time on a kind of virtual Tour de France on Zwift, the biggest player in the growing online racing world.

As you can imagine, teams that suffer from competitions are very interested. 23 top men's teams and 17 women's teams will participate. The confirmed names for the men's event include the last three tour winners: Chris Froome, Geraint Thomas and Egan Bernal, all the Team Ineos power pack. For women, triple world road champion Marianne Vos, Olympic champion Anna van der Breggen and current time trial world champion Chloe Dygert are intended for CCC Liv, Boels-Dolmans and Team Twenty20.

"I am motivated to win everything and everyone," says Dygert. "It's great to have this opportunity for us, whether it's a pandemic or not."

(Photo: Courtesy of Zwift)

There are significant differences to the traditional tour: six instead of 21 stages, which all take place on weekends; The teams specify four drivers per stage and can exchange drivers for different stages. and while the jerseys of the well-known leaders remain, the race is essentially contested by teams with a points system rather than a single winner according to time (which means that after the real race in September we won't have two more tour winners overall for 2020). The biggest change, however, is that although elite women complete a lean one-day real life race (la Course), on Zwift they do all six stages on the same routes over the same distances as men.

"Whenever we have the same opportunities as the men, the main field of women and the racing fans of women are very excited," says current US national champion Ruth Winder, who will drive at least two stages for her Trek Segafredo team. "And I think this could have more viewers because it's the tour and it's July and people will miss that."

The idea for a virtual tour is not entirely new. In December 2018, Zwift co-founder Eric Min set the courageous goal of turning virtual races into an Olympic demonstration sport by 2024 after a massive donation round, some of which aimed at building an elite racetrack, and showed interest in virtual tour stages to hold.

What the virtual tour really made possible, Min says, was the Tour for All competition in May, a five-day series of Zwift races for top men and women teams that aired on the Eurosport cable channel. "The tour operator, ASO, convinced them that we can be the platform to help them create a virtual tour," he says.

Zwift has hosted other elite online races, including an officially approved World Cup last fall. But it approaches the virtual tour a little differently. The first two stages take place in Zwift's existing game world Watopia. Zwift and ASO also wanted the stages to take place in virtual versions of the real routes of the race, including the legendary finish on the Champs-Elysées. With just under two months to expand the race, Zwift couldn't do everything they wanted. The Mont Ventoux stage, for example, stops short of its unique treeless summit. But, says Min, the new creations are as true as possible. "What you will take with you is that it feels like the French landscape," he says.

The broadcast strategy is also far more ambitious than the Tour for All. The footage is slated to be shown in over 130 countries, including NBC Sports in the United States (broadcast times are TBD.)

tweaks(Photo: Courtesy of Zwift)

So how will it be? In my previous experience with elite Zwift races, tracking the action can be a bit dizzying as avatars bounce up and down on the screen and the busy leaderboard is constantly shuffled as the camera angles seem to change randomly. Min says that Zwift has worked this time to offer its broadcast partners a cleaner and easier feed, but it remains to be seen what the final broadcast product will look like.

To be honest, the race is completely unknown. The stages, which are approximately one hour long, are much shorter than real courses, which can last more than six hours. This means that the physical intensity is higher and there are fewer opportunities for an outlier.

Previous virtual races generally saw slightly smaller fields and less big names in the sport. The presence of top drivers who have had such a long break will definitely lead to spirited races. But they will compete in an environment that is almost completely foreign. "It is a completely different animal," says Trek Segafredo racer Kiel Reijnen, who will be driving several stages and admits that he struggled his teeth in the first Zwift races he tried. "There are nuances that really need experience, and most of us don't have much of it," he says, because most professionals train almost exclusively outdoors.

The strategy in virtual racing is similar to that of street racing, according to Holden Comeau, Zwift's best racing driver and member of Saris-The Pro's virtual closet team. "The entire strategy is transferable," he says. "However, it is very difficult to master the game well enough to run it." Tactical elements like controlling your position in the digital package are different from personal races. It is an advanced, digital-specific skill that takes time to learn. Drivers have to anticipate and respond to terrain changes in a completely new way, otherwise there is a risk that they will be dropped. "When you get out of the main group in Zwift, it's difficult to get back in," says Dygert. "In the real world, a gap of two bicycles opens up and you think," Oh, it will come back. "At Zwift you have to jump on it and go back to the group."

With real races postponed and drivers struggling to adjust their training programs to an uncertain calendar, fitness levels will vary widely, a problem that is exacerbated by geography. Some drivers will drive for a pleasant midday hour. others are forced into the early morning or late evening start times. Some will be at sea level; others, such as Bernal, who lives in Colombia, will be comparatively disadvantaged at high altitudes.

All of this could lead to surprising results. Dygert, the current time trial world champion, recently took part in the three-stage Joe Martin Virtual Stage Race on Zwift and was beaten in the first stage, a five-kilometer time trial, despite her long experience in virtual racing. "I built the strength I would normally have, and I think these women were just stronger than me that day," she says. Then an early power cut on the second stage broke off her internet access the next day and ended her race prematurely.

Don't be surprised if big stars fall quickly, if they're not prepared, and if lesser-known drivers shine. About the only thing we can expect? The first virtual Tour de France will be an unprecedented affair where anything is possible.

The details:

  • Saturday, July 4th – Stage 1 – "Watopia" 36.4 km hilly stage
  • Sunday, July 5th – 2nd stage – 29.5 km long mountain stage "Watopia"
  • Saturday, July 11th – 3rd stage – 48 km flat stage "NE France"
  • Sunday, July 12th – 4th stage – 45.8 km hilly stage "SW France"
  • Saturday, July 18 – Stage 5 – 22.9 km long mountain stage "Mont Ventoux", summit end
  • Sunday 19 July – 6th stage – 42.8 km flat stage "Paris Champs-Elysées"

US coverage: NBC Sports Cable Network; Broadcast times: TBD

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Main photo: Courtesy of Zwift

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