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Covid-19: get set for a virtual Tour de France

Instead of the French countryside, cyclists from 40 teams will race each other from home-trainer setups around the world

Unlike the three-week, 21-stage real-life event, this one will feature six stages of approximately 1 hour each over three weekends.
Unlike the three-week, 21-stage real-life event, this one will feature six stages of approximately 1 hour each over three weekends. (Photo courtesy: Zwift)

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

Amaury Sport Organization (ASO) will partner with virtual training platform Zwift 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-stage real-life event, this one will feature six stages of approximately 1 hour each over three weekends, beginning 4 July. 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 coronavirus pandemic and is currently scheduled to be held between 29 August-20 September.

Riders, sponsors, race organizers 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 Tim Vanderjeugd, director of sports marketing for Trek Bicycles, 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 chief executive officer Eric Min acknowledged the possibility that it may not happen this year. “If I were ASO, I would 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 specialize 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 from 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, or how much power a rider can produce compared with how much they weigh. Top pros can produce more than 6 w/kg for up to an hour. A middling amateur might be able to produce just 3 w/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. Instead of making split-second calls while navigating hairpin turns at 40 mph, 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 maximize speed of climb. Others give you more aerodynamic advantage or prevent other riders from drafting you. Another makes you invisible for 10 seconds, allowing 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."

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