When the Tour de France Went Virtual, It Was an Instant Winner

Professional cyclists competed in this bike race from home, making this a first of its kind.

Jul 23, 2020

Imagine watching avatars biking up steep mountain roads at break-neck speed. On the side of the screen, a human cyclist mightily pedals on a stationary bike. What looks like a competitive video game is actually the 2020 virtual version of the Tour de France. This newly inspired race is a winner; it is a gender equal opportunity, raises funds for the poor, brings the world together, and reduces the global carbon footprint.

Some traditions don’t get older. They get better. The Tour de France, the biggest sporting event in the world, began in 1903 and is held every July for 23 days of exciting cycling on the most scenic and challenging roads in France. It is a much anticipated and loved bike race that is watched by millions of viewers worldwide.

This year, the summer of novel corona, organizers decided to postpone the classic race until the end of August. Amaury Sport partnered with Zwift, a biking and running app used by athletes training indoors. Using this advanced esport technology,  they designed a race ideally suited for these times: a virtual sporting event where international teams of men and women cyclists compete.

Although the 2,200-mile Tour de France has principally been a men’s sporting event, 2020’s July race was the big equalizer. This year, 16 women’s teams and 23 men’s teams recently competed. Although they were racing separately, they covered the identical course for the first time.

This year’s virtual race started July 4 and just ended on July 19, with the final score now in. Tour de France scores are not as easy to understand as points won in a basketball game; teams win points for many classifications, as well as winning by time in each section. Overall, the South African NTT team took the lead for men, while the Team Tibco-Silicon Valley Bank team won overall for women.

It was a fun and creative race to participate in and to watch. Adding ingenuity to this new creation, the six-stage event had cyclists riding through an imaginary world called Watopia on the first two days. The remaining four sections took riders along routes that simulated the sunny Mediterranean as well as the classic mountain passes and, of course, the classic ride on the Champs Élysées.

Competitors from all over the world stayed home riding their bikes on top of a smart trainer. In front of each rider a screen displayed the terrain, and as they ascended, their bikes felt the resistance just like they would on a true incline.

To the audience, the cyclists pedaling in a pack looked like avatars wearing competitive jerseys. At times, spectators could see the individual rider pedaling at home and view their vital statistics and speed as the cyclists pumped away on the pedals. The effect was like a video game, but this one came with real sweat. There was also an opportunity for amater cyclists to join the L’ Étape du Tour de France and ride the same roads as the pros on Zwift. 

Even though the competitors were riding stationary bikes in their homes, the race garnered incredible appeal. Since the first section opened on July 4, it was publicized by 23 broadcasters in 150 countries and millions of people tuned in.

The Tour de France is also a huge fundraising event.  Money is being raised until the live competition ends in September and will be going to five charities to help children and underprivileged people in Belgium, France, the Netherlands, and South Africa. Tour de France is also holding a bicycle drive across France with the goal of donating over 5,000 bikes to the needy, especially important in these times.

This race was devised to protect people’s health, but it has since shown many other benefits. Eric Min, CEO of Zwift, told PBS News that by using this app, the athletes and spectators of L’ Étape du Tour no longer have to travel great distances to get to the race. Spectators travel to their couch, while athletes are competing in their garages, basements, and living rooms.

Watching the race from home, Min explains, also saves time as it takes minutes and you’re at the starting line. What has always been a prestigious event is now affordable and accessible to all. It was an incredibly successful event and fans are hoping the live version will see cyclists taking to the road in Nice on August 29.

In this virtual race, technology and goodwill converged to create an equal opportunity event enjoyed by millions globally. With each summit ascended, these cyclists inspired others, and they still climb as they raise money and awareness for an incredible cause.

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NICOLE NATHAN BEM, CONTRIBUTOR
Nicole is an editor, blogger and author who has recently left her urban life in order to be more connected with nature. In her spare time, she’s outdoors hiking in the forest, mountain biking or tending to her new permaculture garden.