Prepare for a Virtual Tour de France

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(Bloomberg) – The Tour de France organizer will be hosting a virtual version of the event starting this week as cycling tackles with keen interest in a sport that was already struggling before the pandemic.Amaury Sport Organization (ASO) will partner with the Zwift virtual training platform to organize the very first virtual Tour de France. Instead of formations of muscular riders resembling snakes that cross the idyllic French countryside, 92 men and 68 women from a total of 40 teams will compete from configurations of trainers at home, wherever they are in the world.

Unlike the actual three-week, 21-stage event, this one will include six stages of approximately one hour each over three weekends, beginning on July 4. It will be broadcast in more than 130 countries and will raise funds for five global charitable partners: Emmaüs, Secours Populaire, Jeugdfonds Sport and Cultuur, BiJeWa and Qhubeka. And it will also be the first time that the men’s and women’s editions of the event have taken place together.

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

The historic outdoor version of the event has been delayed by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and is currently scheduled to run from August 29 to September 20.

Runners, sponsors, race organizers and fans are eagerly awaiting the resumption of the professional calendar, which was largely interrupted in mid-March due to the virus. Sport is heavily dependent on sponsorship funds, and these companies make the most return on their sponsorship investment during the Tour.

“Not having a tour would hurt many cycling players. It would be a big blow, “said Tim Vanderjeugd, director of sports marketing for Trek Bicycles, which will be part of a men’s and women’s team.

The final decision to organize the physical race belongs to the French authorities. Eric Min, CEO of Zwift, has recognized the possibility that this will not happen this year. “If I were ASO, I would say yes, we should do it because the real Tour de France may not happen,” said Min of the virtual race. “I would take this opportunity to protect myself against the postponement or cancellation of the Tour. ”

Zwift has built entirely new digital worlds for the event, modeled on both the French countryside and Paris. Examples include Stage 5, or “Queen Stage”, a stage focused on riders who specialize in rock climbing – they will need to mount a digital replica of the famous Mont Ventoux. The final stage will reflect the traditional conclusion in Paris, with riders navigating a digital version of the cobblestones of the Champs-Élysées, the Arc de Triomphe looming in the background.

Most importantly for the teams and companies that sponsor them: Zwift also reproduced the brand of the event. To viewers, this will look strangely like the real thing. The riders’ avatars will wear their identifiable team kits (except those wearing the traditional leader’s yellow, green, white and polka dot jerseys) and the start / finish lines will bear the names of the main sponsors.

The digital version also allows amateur participation. Cycling enthusiasts will be able to travel the same route as part of Virtual l’Etape du Tour de France, a virtual event in three stages spread over the same three weekends.

Virtual racing, of course, is significantly different from reality. It’s certainly safer: there are no corners, potholes or stray dogs. And riders don’t have to worry about navigating the neighborhoods closest to the peloton, where the slightest mistake on your part, another rider, a team car, a motorcycle camera operator or an excessive fan can cause an instant rash, dislocated shoulders and broken limbs.

In the virtual world, every rider has to do is spend the energy as carefully as possible. Zwift constantly measures the number of watts a cyclist produces and calculates its speed and running position based on various factors, including height (which can affect aerodynamic drag), weight, equipment used and their position in the pack.

The most important measure that casual fans should follow is the number of watts per kilo, or how much power a cyclist can produce relative to their weight. The best pros can produce more than 6 w / kg for up to an hour. An average hobbyist could produce only 3 w / kg over a similar period of time. The higher the number, the faster a cyclist will go through 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 runs for the Canyon-SRAM team. “It’s just a grind all the time. You can never stop pedaling. ”

Just as physical constraints are different, so is mental and strategic. Instead of making calls in a fraction of a second while navigating hairpin turns at 40mph, competitors must adapt old racing strategies to the virtual world.

Zwift offers all pilots momentary benefits called power-ups to be used at their discretion. One makes you lighter for 15 seconds, allowing you to maximize the climb speed. Others give you more aerodynamic advantages or prevent other runners from writing you. Another makes you invisible for 10 seconds, allowing an attack where a rider can detach from his rivals before they become aware.

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

Knowing when to use a power up and communicating your intentions to teammates to take full advantage of it can be the difference between winning and losing a virtual race. Runners and team managers will communicate with each other as during the race, using a voice chat platform of their choice. Unfortunately, viewers will not be aware of these conversations.

Team managers will also face almost unknown choices in cycling: replacing different riders for different stages. In a normal race, a team lines up every day with the same runners. If someone breaks down, they cannot be replaced. The format forces climbers to hang on during fast sprint stages and tall sprinters to suffer through the mountains during the actual race. In the virtual tour, the directors can start the four riders they want for any stage.

The suspension of bicycle racing has also (somewhat) suspended regular doping tests for professional cyclists, as coronavirus blockages and travel restrictions have taken hold. Asked by Cyclingnews 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 performed”, but added “it would be inaccurate to assume that the tests came stopped. ”

Zwift has its own rules and regulations to make sure that riders do not cheat or dop. Competitors must submit accurate feed and weight files prior to each event, which allows the company to ensure that an individual’s performance is within their known physical capabilities.

If a runner lies about his weight to increase his weight / kg, the company will report the performance and ban the runner. The company also demands that runners calibrate their home trainers before each race, to ensure accurate data.

This event is the first time that the ASO has organized a women’s Tour de France on par with the men’s race, an omission for which they have already been criticized. The virtual tour will see all runners tackle the same routes over the same distances and receive the same live airtime during the shows.

The races will be broadcast worldwide by two traditional partners such as Eurosport, SKY Sport and NBCSN, as well as by new digital partners, including the Global Cycling Network. Each network will create its own broadcast from a main feed provided by Zwift, which includes live camera views both inside the virtual world of the platform and live feeds from the riders pedaling in their basement or garage. Broadcasters will also be able to share live cyclist 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 will have equal coverage and distances, “she said. “It will be exciting that we can get the same publicity as men. ”

© 2020 Bloomberg L.P.



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