Tour de France Goes Virtual

(Image credit: Zwift)

The annual Tour de France, the most famous cycling competition in the world, has been delayed this year to late August due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, fans are getting a preview of the competition through a series of virtual racing events taking place during this month.  

Taking their cue from the likes of Peloton, organizers arranged for a “virtual stage” of racing events taking place on weekends during the month of July. The race itself is still scheduled to be held live in late August. The virtual race is being enabled by Zwift, a developer of online physical training services. NBC Sports is broadcasting the actual race when it gets underway later this summer, but the virtual competition can be viewed online here (opens in new tab).

To compete virtually, competitors have their bicycles set up on a treadmill, referred to as a “trainer” for bicycles, according to racer Hari Sreenivasan, who was recently interviewed on PBS NewsHour. The pedal crank is used to measure competitors’ output. 

“There's basically a video game representation of you riding in a race against video representations of everyone else,” he said. “This has to take some getting used to considering what you grew up doing was riding a bike against real people in the real world.”

Competitors all race at the same time all over the world so some, depending on where they are, could be competing in the early hours of the morning.

“Riders are racing from all over the world at the same time, some from New Zealand at 2 in the morning, many from their basements or garages,” Sreenivasan said. “You can see how hard the riders are working, how many watts their legs are generating and how fast their hearts are beating to do it.”

Separated by their home bases, it’s difficult for the racers to gauge their progress if they can’t see their fellow competitors, he added. 

“You can't feel your opponents, can't see if they're getting tired or if they're slowing down,” he said. “Everyone's avatars, you know, or look happy and fast and full of energy. So it's a lot of internal motivation in your living room.”

Zwift has even added some video-gaming elements to the competition, according to Eric Min, CEO of Zwift. 

“You can go through different gates within the circuit of our maps and collect these random power ups, and they can make you faster for a short period of time,” he said. “They can make you lighter. In other cases it takes away the ability for the riders behind you to take advantage of your draft.”

Min said that 20 broadcasters worldwide are broadcasting the competitions live. 

“The same broadcasters that would have covered the Tour de France during the month of July are covering the virtual Tour de France,” he said. “So it's in the millions.”

Min thinks the experiment could catch on beyond the event, which for the first time is allowing women to compete throughout (in the actual races, women only compete in the final stage). 

“We're not trying to replicate outdoor you know riding or racing, we're trying to create a whole new version of it,” he said. “It's not a six hour bike race. It's a one hour race that's much more intense. As a viewing proposition it's much more dynamic and exciting.”

Tom Butts

Tom has covered the broadcast technology market for the past 25 years, including three years handling member communications for the National Association of Broadcasters followed by a year as editor of Video Technology News and DTV Business executive newsletters for Phillips Publishing. In 1999 he launched for internet B2B portal Verticalnet. He is also a charter member of the CTA's Academy of Digital TV Pioneers. Since 2001, he has been editor-in-chief of TV Tech (, the leading source of news and information on broadcast and related media technology and is a frequent contributor and moderator to the brand’s Tech Leadership events.