The “Patron” of the peloton, he knows the rules.
His nickname shows he is loved.
Weighed down with expectation, he is the nearly man,
The “Eternal Second.”
Still he battles on against them all, against history.
A part of the landscape that formed him.
—Rapha Racing Ltd.; Inside Stories: A Collection of Rapha Labels
Every July, I watch Le Tour de France; but, given the current landscape, not this year. You see, this year, we can all watch the Tour.
And, for the first time, we can all ride it.
Scroll down to see more images and read more about Virtual Tour de France on Zwift.
Le Tour de France or “The Tour” is the World Cup of professional cycling. It is a three-week grand tour of France, with sometimes a few jaunts into neighboring countries, comprised of 21 stages with two “rest days,” occurring every July with Bastille Day celebrated approximately during the middle of the schedule. Even though The Tour is a French event and a national celebration, it is an international competition. Without The Tour, there might not be enough to sustain professional cycling.
This year, given the current landscape, The Tour was postponed until late August, fingers crossed. Since many (including the pros, of course) need the Tour every July, Zwift, a massive multiplayer online training platform, and Amaury Sport Organization (ASO), the organizer of Le Tour de France, partnered to create the first ever Virtual Tour de France, a six-stage event for top tier professional cyclists. The stage races were scheduled on Saturdays and Sundays for three consecutive weeks. Identical editions for women and men were produced. Live and replay broadcasts were made possible through the partner sponsorships of: Continental, LCL, Skoda, E.Leclerc, and Krys. Exciting commentating and expert analysis were provided by Matt Stevens and Hannah Walker.
Zwift is arguably the leading online training platform for cyclists and runners. Immersive worlds with stunning animation and sounds, coupled with the challenges of everchanging gradients and surface textures add to the realism of training outdoors, but achieved indoors via a bicycle, a smart trainer, and a mobile device or desktop platform running the Zwift application. The endless social interactions add to the fun and playful competition for everyone, including amateurs and professionals, many of whom take advantage of Zwift’s exceptional training benefits.
Many “worlds” exist on the Zwift platform, such as the fantastical island of Watopia, which includes a GPS accurate recreation and artistic reinterpolation of Alpe d’Huez, the mecca of cycling, known in Zwift as Alpe du Zwift. Other worlds include London, Innsbruck, New York, Richmond, Harrogate, Bologna (event only) and Crit City (event only). Innsbruck and Richmond were former sites of the UCI World Championships with their respective courses recreated with impressive GPS accuracy. The newest map is France with the chance to ride on the Champs Elysees and climb Mont Ventoux.
For the uninitiated, Mont Ventoux is the second most iconic place in all of cycling next to Alpe d’Huez. It is known as “The Bald Mountain” for its moonscape upper elevation. Many years ago, the mountain was deforested and the result is an otherworldly lunar surface top of white rocks and bare sides. Because of the brilliant white surface, the July temperatures can reach scorching figures, often high enough that the finish line of the Tour stages ending at the top of Mont Ventoux are moved far below the uppermost elevation to avoid the dangerous heat. And if the heat weren’t enough of an environmental nemesis, the Mistral Winds can sometimes make an appearance off the Mediterranean to the tune of 200 mph, strong enough to bend metal and push vehicles.
If you were wondering if anyone has ever died from any of these environmental hazards during The Tour, in part, there was one. In 1967, noted British cyclist Tom Simpson succumbed to intense heat and a mixture of substances in his system. He collapsed not far from the finish, and was tended to when he was reported to have said, “Put me back on my bike.” He resumed riding and continued a short distance further when he collapsed again, this time spent motionless. There is a well-loved monument to Tom Simpson, a pilgrimage for all cyclists. And there is a saying that goes around, “Hate the crime but don’t hate the individual.” It means that sometimes we are all unwitting victims to the system in plain ignorance to the disadvantage. Zwift faithfully recreated Mont Ventoux with GPS accuracy and highly detailed realism to the entire climb, including the memorial to Tom Simpson.
Watching the professionals race for three consecutive weekends in virtual France was too much but never enough. I wanted to ride these same roads. With two events presented by Zwift, I could and I did. Virtual L’Etape du Tour de France was a three-stage event open to everyone. Successive stages occured over three consecutive weekends. The third stage offered the only opportunity as scheduled to climb to the top of Mont Ventoux. A good time was a mark of 90 minutes or less. I crossed the Vent-Top finish at 85:16 on my first go. It was the hardest ride I ever did, outdoors or indoors. I’m sure without the heat and wind the Zwift recreation was not as hard as the real Mont Ventoux, which makes me respect it even more. The effort needed to summit Mont Ventoux in Zwift gives me a great appreciation for anyone who touched the radio antenna in real life.
The other event was the Virtual Tour de France Discovery Rides, a six-stage event that mirrored exactly the Virtual Tour de France raced by professionals. Every week for three consecutive weeks, two stages were offered. It was a mindjob to ride the same courses that I watched professionals race, and also ride over the interior countryside of France. The “living the dream” moment was riding on the Champs Elysees, feeling the resistance of the pavé, coursing over the false flat toward the Arc de Triomphe, and circuiting around the Place de la Concorde. This is the final stage circuit for The Tour every year. It is a marvelous spectacle of sport, culture, beauty, and history. To ride the same circuit as the pros that I watch every July at the conclusion of every Tour was something that I never expected to do. Zwift and ASO made it all possible with the Virtual Tour de France.
I never liked the proverbial phrase, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” I agree with the sentiment but it just doesn’t inspire me. For me it might be, “When real life stops you, go deeper and find your road.” That gets me moving.
To learn more about Virtual Tour de France on Zwift, visit Official Virtual Tour de France 2020 – Cycling Race | Zwift
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