Tour de France: Will we ever see a “Virtual Stage”?

Let’s dig into this because it’ll be thrown around sooner rather than later. What if they were to run a stage of the Tour de France on Zwift? How would it work? What would the challenges be?

It’s a marketing dream which I’m sure has been thought about, maybe already pitched. 

However once we look closer at the logistics and requirements, things become complicated. VERY complicated. 

One big reason this will be a difficult task is that a virtual stage requires more overheads than a standard real-life stage. Providing the virtual racing environment means event organisers need to provide that virtual reality to every single rider, individually. 

In real life there is one reality. On a virtual cycling platform such as Zwift, each individual has their own reality simulated locally that interacts with all the other interconnected realities. Physics is replaced with an algorithm. The interactions between riders and the terrain is mathematical. 

The second issue is the current lack of certification standards with power meters and smart trainers. 

In the outdoors, power meters are used to measure and monitor effort. Power is an observed metric only. If a rider’s power meter drops out, or reads incorrectly, this has no physical impact on their reality. The Tour de France has been won without power meters for many years, and likely won more recently with power meters that weren’t reading accurately. 

In virtual cycling, power meters have a very different role. The power number is CRITICAL. Without power your virtual self stops, unclips, and moves towards the roadside. The accuracy, reliability, and security of the power number is imperative. 

In regard to smart trainers – They claim to simulate real-life riding physics in SIM (simulation) mode. Without a certified measurement standard, 10% on one trainer may be a different physical experience to 10% on another. Even though power is the primary metric that determines in-game speed, how riders generate those watts needs to be equalised in terms of the physical simulation provided by the trainer. 

As you can see, there’s a lot more to it than “Just hold it on Zwift”. Let’s look at the other details…. 

Requirements

– A location to stage this event with live viewing for the public, including broadcast coverage.
– 176 virtual cycling ‘station’ setups. eg. iPads / AppleTV + screens + fans.
– 176 backup virtual cycling stations setups. (Just as teams have spare bikes, they need spare stations)
– 176 certified smart trainers + spare trainers / power meters / power supplies, batteries, etc.
– Secure and reliable communications between equipment.
– Certified accurate power source. (Cycling power, not the electricity type). 
– Team mechanics proficient in the technology used. 
– A UCI certified virtual cycling software platform. 
– Rules and regulations adapted from the UCI rules that take into account virtual racing. 

That’s just the tip of the iceberg in regard to hardware and logistics. I’m not saying this is impossible. I’m saying there’s a LOT more to it than people think. 

Other Considerations

Virtual riders of the same weight and height have the same virtual aerodynamic profile. That simplifies reality too much. The equipment they use (or choose) in real life has different physical properties. These provide teams with a competitive advantage. Will these properties be modelled in the virtual world. Would companies disclose this information to software developers to model?

In current virtual cycling worlds there is no wind speed. No crosswind, no tail wind, no echelons, no in-the-gutter action. Just modelled consistent air resistance. A simplified virtual environmental reality.

There’s currently no bike handling skill required in virtual cycling, a skill that wins or loses stages, and Grand Tours. The drafting effect is also different to what riders may expect. They’d all have to learn how to ride and interact with the platform before it should be considered. 

Contractual Problems 

All teams are contracted to use particular brands. They’re paid to use specific trainers, power meters, other equipment. Lack of industry certification of power meter accuracy and smart trainer resistance simulations means this is a problem. It won’t be a level playing field unless this is addressed. 

Will a certified stand-alone Smart Bike solve this issue? Maybe. Some teams are sponsored by companies who make Smart Bikes. This could be a sticking point.

So will this work?

That will be determined by how well the problems above can be addressed, and ultimately acceptance of this by the fans and the public in general. It’s their attention the sponsors rely on. If a virtual stage in a Grand Tour isn’t supported by the fans (or the riders), it’ll never happen.

And finally, why? We don’t see CX stages in a road tour. Why is holding a virtual stage different?

Is trying to replicate real cycling the wrong way to look at this? Should these complexities be pushed aside in place of a NEW cycling reality. A more gamified one?

It might just be virtual cycling stands alone as a discipline in its own right. Maybe a Grand Tour Virtuel and Grand Tour Virtuelle.

1 reply

  1. Running a full stage would be a technical nightmare no doubt! I guess you could possibly do a short prologue style TT stage of 20-minutes or so, where each team rode one after another (not staggered, but one finishes then the next put their bikes on the trainers and go). Still a nightmare but possibly less so, also possibly quite boring to watch over and over.

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