With the 2020 Tour de France postponed until late August, a virtual version of Le Grand Boucle ran in its traditional July slot. For the first virtual edition of the race, the orange of Zwift turned yellow for three weekends in July as the peloton meandered through the virtual French countryside and traversed Mont Ventoux before finishing on the e-cobbles of the Champs-Elysees. Here’s how it went and what we learned from the first Grand Tour held in the virtual world.

THE PETITE BOUCLE

The virtual route consisted of 6 stages over 3 weekends. They took in a French-flavoured Wataopia along with all-new Zwift routes around France, including a Nice circuit and the cobbles of the Champs-Élysées. For the climbers, the queen stage on the penultimate day took the riders up the famous Mont Ventoux.

Stages were short but intense, with the virtual version of the race swapping the six-hour grinds for an hour of fast and relentless all-out racing. With 23 men’s teams and 17 women’s teams taking part, some of the top riders in the world were in attendance.

Prior Tour winners Geraint Thomas, Egan Bernal, and Chris Froome were in attendance along with several other big names including Julian Alaphilippe, Greg Van Avermaet, Mathieu van der Poel, Nairo Quintana, and Romain Bardet. 

In the women’s race, Marianne Vos, Coryn Rivera, Marta Bastianelli, Lisa Brennauer, Kirsten Wild, Tiffany Cromwell, and Lizzie Deignan all took part.

THE FORMAT OF THE VIRTUAL TOUR DE FRANCE

Rather than following the cumulative time format of a standard Grand Tour, the virtual version followed a team points format. With yellow, polka dot, and green jersey disciplines all up for grabs, riders had their points combined and totalled based on placings that contributed to the team order in each category. Four riders from each team took part in each stage, with teams allowed to switch riders in and out on successive stages as they saw fit.

THE RESULTS OF THE VIRTUAL TOUR DE FRANCE

With some of the big names keeping their powder dry, the Virtual Tour provided the opportunity for those a little less known to make their mark.

In the men’s field, NTT Pro Cycling dominated the race and took all four jerseys along with the team classification. With 500 points, they beat Rally Cycling into second in the yellow jersey classification with 267 points, followed by Trek-Segafredo in third with 232 points.

In the women’s event, Team TIBCO-SVB took the honours. They won the yellow jersey with 499 points and took the green jersey, polka dot jersey, and the overall team classification to boot. Team Twenty20 took second in the yellow jersey classification with 306 points, with Drops coming in third with 292 points.

WHAT’S DIFFERENT IN THE VIRTUAL TOUR?

Zwift does a tremendous job of recreating the road conditions, but ultimately, Zwift isn’t the road; it’s its own thing. While many assume that Zwift can be directly compared to the road, the truth is that the nuances that form the Zwift platform make it truly unique in terms of what it offers, and the virtual edition of the Tour served to show us this.

WHY THE VIRTUAL TOUR WORKS BEST WITH A TEAM FORMAT

Zwift racing lends itself to the team approach to racing rather than an individual classification. On Zwift, there’s less focus on bike handling and position, and more emphasis on the gamification elements offered by power-ups. They include aspects like enhanced drafting, aero boosts, and reduced weight for the climbs, and they serve to shift the dynamics of the race towards a team-centric approach.

The online community have come to embrace such features and now see them as the virtual equivalent of sticky bottles, mechanical issues, and shifting winds. Ultimately, those that thrive under such nuances are those who have spent more time riding on Zwift, something that the results of the individual stages suggested.

POWER PROFILES IN THE VIRTUAL TOUR

Zwift races are shorter than standard road races, and most stages in the Virtual Tour ran for around one hour. This meant the pace was high, and riders spent a much higher percentage of time at threshold than they otherwise might. It’s this, coupled with the fact that once you’re dropped on Zwift, you’re unlikely to get back on that made for an insanely high pace.

On a normal flat stage in a standard Grand Tour, many riders will spend considerable time in the active recovery zone (power zone 1) getting sucked along by the peloton. But this is not so on Zwift, something that serves to highlight the difference in the physiological demands between virtual racing and on-road racing.

TACTICS AND HANDLING

Zwift rewards fitness and power above skill and bike handling. While there are rumours of plans to increase the onus on bike handling with more future gamification features, the best bike handlers and descenders in the world currently don’t benefit from their skills.

Right now on Zwift, it all comes down to raw power. After all, you can ride through other riders and churn out the watts in a sprint without paying attention to the line you hold. It’s fun, and it’s different. But it’s not road racing as we know it. It’s Zwift, it’s its own unique thing, and it’s unfair to compare both directly. 

Zwift and other online platforms are still very much in their infancy, and there’s little doubt that what it’ll become years from now will bear little resemblance to what it is now. Remember, eGaming is the fastest growing sport on earth, and with its gamification features, online cycling is also likely going to be very big.

While there are differences that result in a distinct experience, 400 watts is still 400 watts, whether on the smart trainer or the road!

THE BENEFITS OF A VIRTUAL TOUR

The Virtual Tour was a huge win for online competitive cycling, an industry that’s almost certainly set to blossom in years to come. Few sports lend themselves to technological advancements quite like cycling, and the fact that online platforms are attracting many of the big names and race organizers is a sign of what may be to come.

With the actual Tour de France not having a female equivalent, the Virtual Tour was a tremendous boost for women’s cycling. They showed their ability to produce exciting racing throughout the event that was just as entertaining as the men’s event. And when streamed just before the men’s race, it gave them well-deserved exposure in a sport where they continue to ascend and attract more and more public attention.

But while the virtual world showed us that it can produce drama and action-packed racing, the Tour is the Tour after all, and nothing can ever truly replace it. No online event will recreate the atmosphere of a sea of spectators opening up mere metres before the riders on the winding Alpine and Pyrenean roads in the baking heat of a mid-summers day. And for those who want a piece of that, there’s not long to wait until the real event roles off the ramp and the best names in the world battle it out once again on the roads of France!