In the last few weeks we’ve seen several virtual races held online. Necessity is the mother of invention and it’s been a way for the sport to continue with all the cancelled races. It’s a poor substitute for real racing that serves only to remind us just how sophisticated a real race can be with tactics, weather and landscapes combining to create something special. Virtual racing seems designed for a limited audience but this is the start and there’s space to trial a variety of formats.
Unlike other e-sports, cycling actually involves pedaling and physical exertion. This is the unique selling point… and the problem. We’ve seen football stars playing FIFA and motor racing pros racing in Gran Turismo on their Playstations but all from the comfort of their armchairs and sofas. There are innate skills such as reaction times but arguably a large part of the appeal here is the celebrity element, to see Lewis Hamilton on the same platform as you might have; or the tribal aspect where a football club has such huge support that fans will tune in for almost anything being done by a star player, for example Ronaldo cutting grass or loading the dishwasher could still attract plenty. Pro cycling lacks this, Belgium aside arguably it doesn’t have the same celebrity pull. The physical aspect of having to pedal and break out into a sweat should be a selling point but so far it’s proving to be a leg-press competition that’s lacking drama and highlights how much of road cycling’s appeal comes from the landscape, terrain, weather and tactics as well as sweat and fatigue.
The Digital Swiss races have lacked suspense, typically a rider has taken the lead early and kept it to the end. You could watch in the hope some started too fast and would crack but this hare and tortoise scenario never really happened. This is partly down to the Rouvy software platform, it allows users to have virtual rides via footage of real roads which might be enjoyable for lone users in their basement wanting a virtual ride on a majestic mountain pass but the software gives no aerodynamic advantage if a rider places their avatar behind another one. Drafting is the essence of road racing, so to lose this aspect is to forfeit a lot of the sport’s tactical sophistication.
The Zwift races incorporate the slipstream effect but with more of a gaming experience with virtual landscapes and riders able to deploy various power-ups and so far these have been essential to the two wins in the series on Eurosport in the last two days. It’s an interesting contrast and allows for more freedom and creativity in the format but relies on the audience knowing what these features mean and so it’s presumably confusing for people unfamiliar to Zwift.
Team Sunweb’s Nicolas Roche has been an online success in these races and did a good interview with the Chasse Patate podcast (in French) pondering the equality of the virtual world: does your internet connection matter, are everyone’s trainers calibrated the same and so on? He suggested having all competitors in the same building on the same devices as a theoretical solution. Even then it’d be difficult, right now gathering everyone in the same gymnasium is out of the question, plus power meters from the same manufacturer can vary and teams have different equipment sponsors. This brings us to the structural problem where it’s possible to get a peloton on the start line for a real race but how to do this for teams sponsored by Elite, Wahoo and Tacx, and if Geraint Thomas and Mathieu van der Poel are paid to promote Zwift are they contractually excluded from Rouvy? And so on.
But the bigger question is who does this interest? If you’re reading a niche blog here then you’re a hardcore cycling fan but pro cycling works because it reaches the mass market, not you or I. It literally travels to people, visiting towns and even villages that other sports don’t and when it’s on television it attracts millions who aren’t big cycling fans but tune in for the Tour of Flanders, the Giro and especially the Tour de France. This explains why the likes of Sunweb, CCC, Bora, Soudal or Groupama pay millions for title sponsorship instead of Wahoo, Tacx or Powerbar. The virtual Tour of Flanders got an audience of 600,000 compared to the habitual million or more which is good but probably exceptional: this is cycling-mad Flanders, it was a novelty and there was a captive audience locked in their homes and probably won’t translate to the same audience in France or Italy, let alone the UK or USA and isn’t the sort of thing you can imagine on TV or radio in the back of a bar. It’s a few years old now but an opinion poll in France asked what drew people to watch the Tour de France on TV and it wasn’t the race: the largest segment of the audience tuned in for the scenery. As such the Tour de France doubles as a travel program, as do other races, and this segment of the audience is lost automatically to e-racing. If anything e-racing is doubling-down on the niche within a niche element as it’s a blunt version of sport that stresses on-screen displays of watts and power-weight ratios while only a subset of cyclists use power data. Still if the sport can’t reach the mass market today then tapping into the loyal base is still of interest, especially to some technical sponsors.
As a work-in-progress there’s a blank canvas, if something isn’t working today it could be fixed for tomorrow. Ideally a virtual race should have drafting as this is the essence of road racing but there’s a chance to import other aspects from cycling and beyond to make online events more exciting, for example copying a track elimination race where, say, the last rider in the bunch each kilometre gets cut from the race. Perhaps we embrace the idea that these events are no copy and instead try “wacky races” whether it’s a further gamification of the races with more bonuses, virtual patches of oil that cost riders virtual time or even Pellos-style monsters brandishing giant hammers. There’s a lot to think about, fundamentally should e-racing mimic road racing or use the freedom of a virtual world to offer something completely different? Both formats can co-exist and appeal to different audiences.
Virtual races are no substitute for the real thing, whether as entertainment for fans or reaching the mass audience that team sponsors crave. These online races seem designed to appear to a subset of hardcore cycling fans but reaching them is still worthwhile and hopefully it doesn’t cost too much to develop, promote and broadcast these races and in turn help make side sponsorship deals with indoor training suppliers more valuable. The formats need work but this is a new concept that didn’t exist two months ago and there’s a blank canvas ahead with open questions about whether to make online racing even more like the real thing or to use the virtual experience to make the racing completely different.