Are You Watching the (Virtual) Tour de France?


You’ve almost certainly been watching. We’re a few stages into the Tour de France. Well, a virtual one.

This week’s Virtual Tour de France is perhaps the most ambitious in a slew of online races over the past few months. Reality and circumstance have left the possibility of hundreds of riders and staff travelling across Europe a pipe dream, causing the cancellation or postponement of nearly every event on the calendar and nearly every level of the sport.

Virtual races have popped up, pitting real-world pros against each other from around the world. Zwift and other platforms have reaped the benefits, with cycling fans tuning in on livestream platforms to watch riders like Greg van Avermaet, Michal Kwiatkowski, and dozens of others hop into races not too dissimilar from what any of us can race on Zwift.

The viewership has been mixed, though diehards have found some solace in the close-up action and instant access to metrics like power and heart rate. Way back in the spring, a virtual Tour of Flanders was a glitchy way to get things going, with some of the biggest Classics riders signed up to race. It set the tone, with sponsors packing the riders’ ‘pain caves’ with logos and team colors.

If virtual races keep sponsors happy, then it’s a start. And to be fair, the quality of the events has improved every time. It’s fitting that the Tour comes after three months of practice, and the riders also seem to have learned how to alter their strategy to the digital world. There’s an added benefit to fans, too. Platforms like Zwift allow event organizers to make riding along even more accessible to even more people, giving amateurs around the globe access to a virtual Etape du Tour, a stage race for all abilities.

Financially, it might be a success, but it’s hard to imagine virtual events lasting too much longer than the pandemic. One issue is fairness; former time trial national champion Chloe Dygart raced her favored discipline in the virtual Tour of the Gila against a mix of pros and amateurs...and finished 26th. She was politically correct in her disbelief, but the case highlights the need for some kind of virtual doping controls.

Until we get the real thing in August, virtual racing might just be the best alternative to rewatching old races. But we want to know what you think: do you pay attention to virtual races? Will you watch all of the Virtual Tour?