Get ready for a virtual Tour de France

This version will feature 6 stages of approximately 1 hour each over 3 weekends starting Saturday


PORTLAND • The organiser of the Tour de France will hold a virtual version of the event starting this week as cycling grapples with maintaining interest in a sport that was already in trouble before the pandemic hit.

Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) will partner with the virtual training platform Zwift Inc to put on the first-ever Virtual Tour de France. Instead of snake-like formations of sinewy riders coursing through the idyllic French countryside, 92 men and 68 women from a total of 40 teams will race each other from home trainer setups, wherever in the world, they happen to be.

Unlike the three-week, 21 stages real-life event, this one will feature six stages of approximately one hour each over three weekends, beginning July 4. It will be broadcast in more than 130 countries and raise money for five global charity partners: Emmaüs, Secours Populaire, Jeugdfonds Sport and Cultuur, BiJeWa and Qhubeka. And it will also be the first time men’s and women’s editions of the event are held together.

“It’s not a backup” in case the actual race doesn’t happen, said ASO media director Julien Goupil. “It’s something different. July without the Tour de France is not really July.”

The historic, outdoor version of the event was delayed by the ongoing pandemic, and is currently scheduled to be held between Aug 29 and Sep 20.

Riders, sponsors, race organisers and fans alike are eagerly anticipating the resumption of the professional calendar, which was largely halted in mid-March because of the virus. The sport is heavily reliant on sponsorship dollars, and those companies make the most return on their sponsorship investment during the Tour.

“Not having a tour would hurt a lot of the stakeholders in cycling. That would be a huge blow,” said TimVanderjeugd, director of sports marketing for Trek Bicycles Corp, which will enter both a men’s and women’s team.

The ultimate decision to hold the physical race is up to French authorities. Zwift CEO Eric Min acknowledged the possibility it may not happen this year. “If I were ASO, I’d say yes, we should do this because the real Tour de France may not happen,” Min said of the virtual race. “I would use this opportunity to hedge against the Tour being postponed further, or cancelled.”

Zwift built entirely new digital worlds for the event, modelled on both the French countryside and Paris. Examples include Stage 5, or the “Queen Stage”, one focused on riders who specialise in climbing — it will require them to ascend a digital replica of the famed Mont Ventoux. The final stage will mirror the traditional conclusion in Paris, with racers navigating a digital version of the cobbled Champs-Élysées, the Arc de Triomphe looming in the background.

Most important for the teams and the companies that sponsor them: Zwift also replicated the event’s branding. To viewers, it will look eerily like the real thing. Rider avatars will be wearing their identifiable team kits (except for those wearing the traditional yellow, green, white and polka dot leader’s jerseys) and the start/ finish lines will carry the names of major sponsors.

The digital version also allows for amateur participation. Cycling enthusiasts will be able to ride the same course as part of Virtual l’Etape du Tour de France, a three-stage virtual event spread over the same three weekends.

Virtual racing, of course, is significantly different than the real thing. It’s certainly safer: There are no corners, potholes or stray dogs. And riders don’t have to worry about navigating the close quarters of the peloton, where the slightest mistake by you, another rider, a team car, motorcycle camera operator or overeager fan can cause instant road-rash, dislocated shoulders and broken limbs.

In the virtual world, all a rider has to do is expend energy as carefully as possible. Zwift constantly measures how many watts a rider is producing and calculates their speed and race position based on a variety of factors including height (which can affect aerodynamic drag), weight, equipment used and where they are in the peloton.

The most important metric for casual fans to track is rider watts per kilo (w/kg), or how much power a rider can produce compared to how much they weigh. Top pros can produce more than 6w/kg for up to an hour. A middling amateur might be able to producejust3w/kg over a similar time period. The higher the number, the faster a rider will go in both the real and virtual worlds.

“Zwift is largely based on power output, which is the only thing they can really measure indoors,” said Ella Harris, who races for the Canyon-SRAM team. “It’s just a grind the whole time. You can never stop pedalling.”

Just as the physical stresses are different, so too are the mental and strategic stresses. Instead of making split-second calls while navigating hairpin turns at 40mph, competitors must adapt old racing strategies to the virtual world.

Zwift offers all riders momentary advantages called power-ups to use at their discretion. One makes you lighter for 15 seconds, allowing you to maximise the speed of climb. Others give you more aerodynamic advantage or prevent other riders from drafting you. Another makes you invisible for 10 seconds, allow- ing for an attack where a rider can break away from rivals before they become aware.

You need “slightly different skills and tactics”, Min said. “But many elements of bike racing are the same.”

Knowing when to use a power-up, and communicating your intentions to teammates to take full advantage, can be the difference between winning and losing a virtual race. Team riders and directors will be communicating with each other just like in the actual race, using a voice-chat platform of their choosing. Unfortunately, viewers will not be privy to those conversations.

Team directors will also be faced with choices almost unheard of in cycling: Substituting different riders in for different stages.

During normal racing, a team lines up with the same riders each day. If someone crashes out, they cannot be replaced. The format forces climbers to hold on during fast sprint stages and big sprinters to suffer through the mountains during the actual race. In the virtual tour, directors can start any four riders they wish for any stage.

The suspension of bike racing has also suspended (somewhat) regular anti-doping tests for professional riders, as coronavirus lockdowns and travel restrictions took hold. When asked by Cycling- about the apparent lack of testing in late April, the Cycling Anti-Doping Foundation conceded “the current situation has a significant impact on the number of tests conducted”, but added “it would be inaccurate to assume that testing has come to a standstill”.

Zwift has its own rules and regulations to ensure riders aren’t cheating or doping. Competitors must submit previous power files and accurate weight before each event, which allow the company to make sure an individual’s performance is within the realm of their known physical capabilities.

If a rider lies about their weight to boost their w/kg, the company will flag the performance and ban the rider. The company also requires riders to calibrate their home-trainers before each race, to ensure accurate data.

The event is the first time ASO has held a women’s Tour de France on par with the men’s race, an omission for which they have been previously criticised. The Virtual Tour will see all riders tackling the same courses over the same distances and receive the same amount of live airtime during broadcasts.

Racing will be broadcast around the globe by both traditional partners such as Eurosport, Sky Sport and NBCSN, as well as new digital partners including Global Cycling Network. Each network will be building their own broadcast from a master feed provided by Zwift, which includes live camera views from both inside the platform’s virtual world, and live feeds of the riders pedalling in their basement or garage. Broadcasters will also be able to share live rider data, including power and heart rate.

“The women’s Tour de France has been more of an exhibition event” in the past, said Harris. “Last year, they just had a singular road race. On Zwift, it’ll have equal coverage and equal distances,” she said. “It’ll be exciting that we can get the same publicity as men.” — Bloomberg