Virtual racing for all: cycling’s professionals, legends and fans

July without the Tour de France doesn’t seem like it’s July. But Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), Zwift and the world’s top female and male riders have the world’s cycling enthusiasts covered in these times of pandemic. Even though the main event will have to wait until August 29th, the are offering a virtual edition of the race with six stages to be contested across weekends in July.

Team Tibco-Silicon Valley Bank lead the way in the women’s race after two stages dominated by April Tacey (Drops Cycling Team) and Lauren Stephens (Tibco-Silicon Valley Bank). In the men’s race, a stage victory for Ryan Gibbons set NTT Pro Cycling Team on the right track and they held on to the overall lead after Julien Bernard (Trek-Segafredo) outpowered everyone on day 2. Racing will return on July 11th.

Organisers of other major races including the Tour des Flandres (with Bkool), the Tour de Suisse (with Rouvy) and the Giro d’Italia (with Garmin) have already taken their events to online platforms, creating “lockdown editions” while awaiting their postponed ‘real world’ events.

“Virtual races have been a great way for riders to continue racing and to maintain the form they had built for the Spring Classics and other real-life races,” explains Hannah Walker, a former pro rider with Team WNT (now CERATIZIT - WNT Pro Cycling). She’s kept close to the peloton since retiring from racing, and commentating on Zwift races is one of the many things that keeps her busy. “Over the last few months, we’ve worked on the Zwift Classics, the Tour of Watopia… It’s been great to see the transition of riders coming from the road, or other sports like triathlon, into the world of Zwift.”

2018 French National Cyclo-cross Champion Steve Chainel, who also raced on the road until he left Cofidis (a UCI WorldTeam) in 2015, was much less familiar with virtual racing before the lockdown but he quickly updated himself to commentate the Zwift Tour for All on Eurosport. “I watched the first virtual races because I figured Eurosport would follow that path and the other pundits Jacky [Durand, winner of the real Tour des Flandres in 1992] and David [Moncoutié, winner of six Grand Tour stages] are not the most fond of watts and videogames,” he explains. “It was difficult at the beginning and then I got into it, as a rider and as a commentator, and it’s been lots of fun using elements like the watts and the percentage to decipher the riders’ efforts in a playful environment.”

Virtual racing may not have seduced the whole world of cycling but it has certainly capitalised on the situation created by the restrictions recently imposed on public events. “There was no sport of any kind, and no cycling on TV, so people gave it a go and they really enjoyed it,” said Hannah Walker. “In this time, it was something to take the public’s mind off what was going on and see bike riders. Going forward, even when real life racing resumes, I think virtual racing can still have a big platform.”

With platforms accessible for many fans from their homes around the world, organisers engage with professionals and amateurs. At the end of the Giro d’Italia Virtual by Enel, RCS Sport reported more than 10,000 riders participating in their events which were ridden by today’s stars (including Italian Elia Viviani and Great Britain’s Lizzie Deignan) and legends of our sport (such as Italians Alessandro Ballan and Ivan Basso). Their content on social media generated 2.5 million video views as the event aimed to support the vital actions of the Italian Red Cross by raising funds.

“It’s amazing to be able to compare a 16-year-old kid with a 60-year-old adult, pro and amateur riders, triathletes…”, notes Steve Chainel. “Virtual cycling can be a discipline on its own, for people who just want to be able to race and have fun some evenings when they come home from the office, and for specialists. Imagine if a sponsor brings money and decides to build an international series with big prize money, it can attract very strong riders and be very interesting for TV and for the sponsors.”

Steve Chainel was especially impressed with the performances from Switzerland’s Stefan Küng (Groupama-FDJ) during the lockdown and also noted the Tour for All was the same for women and men. “It can be an inspiration for road race organisers,” he says. “Ashleigh Moolman Pasio was incredible on the Tour for All, after spending hours and hours on Zwift because of the lockdown in Spain,” Hannah Walker noted. “It’s something Zwift has always done, with men’s and women’s series throughout the year. It’s always had equal production and equal coverage. It paves the way for equality.”

Until July 19th, the virtual Tour de France will follow the same path with 1-hour stages for men and women who can’t race side by side in the ‘real world’ right now but can still face each other online and entertain the fans through virtual events.