For the first time since the end of World War II, the Tour de France won’t happen in July. There will still be some world-class bike racing happening; it just won’t be on the roads.
Like other sports, real-world racing shut down in March when the coronavirus hit in earnest and hasn’t come back yet. (The planned pro cycling re-start is late July, with a re-scheduled Tour in September.) In its wake, virtual racing, via mass multiplayer online platforms, has tried to fill the competition void for riders and fans. Next week, the fledgling discipline gets its largest showcase ever in a virtual Tour de France of sorts on Zwift, the biggest player in the growing online racing world.
As you might imagine, interest is high from competition-starved teams. Twenty-three top men’s teams and 17 women’s teams will participate, and confirmed names for the men’s event include the last three Tour winners: Chris Froome, Geraint Thomas, and Egan Bernal, all of powerhouse Team Ineos. On the women’s side, three-time World Road Champion Marianne Vos, Olympic champion Anna van der Breggen, and reigning World Time Trial Champion Chloe Dygert are slated to compete for CCC Liv, Boels-Dolmans, and Team Twenty20, respectively.
“I’m motivated to win everything and anything,” says Dygert. “It’s awesome to have this opportunity available to us, pandemic or not.”
There are key differences from the traditional Tour: six stages instead of 21, all held on weekends; teams enter four riders per stage and can swap riders for different stages; and while the familiar leaders’ jerseys remain, the race is essentially contested by teams on a points system, rather than awarding an individual winner by time (which means that, after the real-life race in September, we won’t have two overall Tour winners for 2020). Arguably the biggest shift, however, is that while elite women get a meager one-day race in real life (la Course), on Zwift they will race all six stages, on the same courses, over the same distances, as the men.
“Whenever we get equal opportunities as the men, that gets the women’s peloton and women’s racing fans really excited,” says current U.S. National Champion Ruth Winder, who will race at least two stages for her Trek-Segafredo team. “And I think that this could have even more viewers because it is the Tour and it is July and people will be missing that.”
The idea for a virtual Tour isn’t totally new. In December 2018, after a massive fundraising round aimed in part at building an elite racing circuit, Zwift co-founder Eric Min set a bold goal of virtual racing becoming an Olympic demonstration sport by 2024, and voiced interest in holding virtual Tour stages.
What really made the virtual Tour possible, says Min, was May’s Tour for All competition, a five-day series of Zwift races for top men’s and women’s teams that was broadcast on the Eurosport cable channel. “Tour promoter ASO said that convinced them we could be the platform to help them create a virtual Tour,” he says.
Zwift has held other elite online races, including an officially sanctioned World Championship last fall. But it’s approaching the virtual Tour a bit differently. The first two stages will be held in Zwift’s existing game world, Watopia. But Zwift and ASO also wanted stages to take place in virtual versions of real-world courses from the race, including the iconic finish on the Champs-Elysées. With a little less than two months to build the race out, Zwift wasn’t able to make everything they wanted; the Mont Ventoux stage, for example, stops short of its unique treeless summit. But, Min says, the re-creations are as faithful as they can be. “What you’ll take away is that it feels like the French countryside,” he says.
The broadcast strategy is also far more ambitious than the Tour for All, with footage to be shown in over 130 countries, including on NBC Sports in the U.S.
So what will it be like? In my past experience watching elite Zwift races, the action can be a little dizzying to follow, as avatars bounce on and off the screen and the busy leaderboard constantly reshuffles while camera angles swap seemingly at random. Min says that this time Zwift worked to offer a cleaner, simpler feed for its broadcast partners, but it remains to be seen what the final broadcast product looks like.
As for the racing, it’s honestly a total unknown. The stages, at roughly an hour long, are far shorter than real-life courses, which can take upwards of six hours. That means physical intensity will be higher, with fewer opportunities for a breakaway.
Previous virtual races have generally seen slightly smaller fields, and fewer of the sport’s big names. The presence of top riders, coming off such a long layoff, will definitely create some spirited racing. But they’ll be competing in an environment that’s almost totally foreign. “It’s a completely different animal,” says Trek-Segafredo men’s racer Kiel Reijnen, who will race several stages and admits he got his “teeth kicked in” the first few Zwift races he tried. “There are nuances in there that really require experience, and most of us don’t have a lot of that,” he says, because most pros train almost exclusively outdoors.
Strategy in virtual racing is similar to road racing, according to Holden Comeau, Zwift’s top-ranked racer and a member of the Saris-The Pro’s Closet virtual team. “All of the strategy is transferable,” he says. “However, it’s very difficult to master the game well enough to execute.” Tactical elements like controlling your position in the digital pack are different from in-person racing; it’s an advanced, digital-specific skill that takes time to learn. Riders have to anticipate and react to terrain changes in completely new ways, or risk getting dropped. “When you’re dropped out of the main group in Zwift, it’s hard to get back on,” says Dygert. “In the real world, a two-bike-length gap opens and you think, ‘Oh, it’ll come back.’ On Zwift, you need to jump on that and get back in the group.”
With real-world racing postponed and riders struggling to adapt training programs to an uncertain calendar, fitness levels will vary widely, an issue compounded by geography. Some riders will be racing at a comfortable mid-day hour; others will be forced into early morning or later evening start times. Some will be at sea level; others, like Bernal, who lives in Colombia, will be at a comparative disadvantage racing at high altitude.
All that could produce some surprise results. Dygert, the reigning World Time Trial Champion, recently competed in the three-stage Joe Martin Virtual Stage Race on Zwift and was soundly beaten in the first stage, a five-kilometer time trial, despite her long virtual-racing experience. “I was putting up the power I normally would, and I think these women were just stronger than me that day,” she says. Then, an untimely power outage on Stage 2 the next day dropped her internet access, ending her race prematurely.
Whether it’s due to rider power or electrical power, don’t be surprised to see big stars dropped fast if they’re unprepared, and for lesser-known riders to shine. About the only thing we can expect? The first-ever virtual Tour de France is going to be an unprecedented affair where anything is possible.
- Saturday, July 4—Stage 1—“Watopia” 36.4km hilly stage
- Sunday, July 5—Stage 2—“Watopia” 29.5km mountain stage
- Saturday, July 11—Stage 3—“NE France” 48km flat stage
- Sunday, July 12—Stage 4—“SW France” 45.8km hilly stage
- Saturday, July 18—Stage 5—“Mont Ventoux” 22.9km mountain stage, summit finish
- Sunday, July 19—Stage 6—“Paris Champs-Elysées” 42.8km flat stage
U.S. coverage: NBC Sports cable network and Zwift.com; broadcast times: 9-11 A.M. EST