Alice Barnes says Zwift's virtual 'Tour de France' is a 'massive opportunity' for women's cycling

Tom Cary
The Telegraph
Screengrab from Zwift of a virtual tour de france - Zwift
Screengrab from Zwift of a virtual tour de france - Zwift
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British champion Alice Barnes has hailed a new collaboration between online e-racing platform Zwift and Tour de France organisers ASO, describing it as a “massive opportunity” for women’s cycling.

Zwift and ASO confirmed on Monday that, with the real Tour de France postponed this year due to coronavirus, they were planning to host a 'virtual Tour de France’ beginning this weekend for 40 professional teams (23 men's teams and 17 women's teams). 

The stages will be broadcast in over 130 countries worldwide.

Zwift CEO Eric Min told Telegraph Sport that if the event went well it could be expanded into a full three-week virtual women’s Tour de France next year.

This year’s event, which will run over three consecutive weekends in July (two stages each weekend, each stage lasting one hour) will feature star riders including Chris Froome, Geraint Thomas and Egan Bernal on the men’s side, and Marianne Vos and Chloe Dygert on the women’s. 

Each team will be made up of four riders who will swap from weekend to weekend. No male rider will be allowed to ride more than two stages, and no female rider more than four.

The parcours will include a virtual recreation of Mont Ventoux (albeit only as far as Chalet Reynard) as well as the iconic Champs Élysées finish in Paris. And riders will be awarded the famous yellow, green, polka-dot and white jerseys. Amateur riders will also be able to get involved through the online L’Etape du Tour mass participation event. 

A screengrab of Mont Ventoux on Zwift - Zwift
A screengrab of Mont Ventoux on Zwift - Zwift

While they will not race at exactly the same time, the fact that the men and women will compete over the same stages, with the same television coverage, is appealing to Barnes. 

“It’s nice that we have the same routes, just so you can kind of compare how the racing is and see the different styles,” said the reigning British road and time trial champion, who will be competing for Canyon-SRAM. “And it will be massive for our sponsors. They pay us money to show them off and they aren’t getting that at the moment. So for them it’s obviously huge.”

E-racing has been derided in some quarters as being gimmicky, but it is a rapidly-growing phenomenon. Zwift’s Tour For All at the start of May generated viewing figures running into the millions. 

“I know Mitchelton-Scott already told us that they got more exposure from Tour For All than they did from Paris-Nice,” Min told Telegraph Sport. “If that’s true for Mitchelton-Scott it’s probably true for all teams.”

Min added: “The whole idea of a virtual Tour de France is something I always thought we’d deliver on, I just didn’t think it would be this year. But the circumstances have allowed for it. The Tour for All proved that our sport was a broadcast proposition and it was off the back of that that ASO first approached us about creating something for the Tour de France in July.”

UCI president David Lappartient has already said that he plans to try to incorporate e-racing into the official calendar and eventually the Olympics. Lappartient is head of the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) e-sports Liaison Group.

Barnes said that while she was not personally a huge fan of e-racing, she could see the appeal. “Zwift is a great tool for training,” she said. “Especially living in the UK I use it a lot in the winter. Personally I prefer riding my bike outside and having the wind in my hair and enjoying the scenery - the actual elbow to elbow racing is what excites me. But I know a lot of people love racing on the turbo trainer.

“I think there are a few different ways to look at it. Virtual riding and racing has been huge in lockdown and everyone has got into it. Obviously there are some riders who have been locked down completely in Spain and other countries. Without it, they would have lost the plot a little bit.”

Sports Briefing
Sports Briefing

Min said if the race went well, he could imagine a scenario whereby Zwift hosted a ‘full’ virtual women’s Tour de France next summer. There is currently no women’s Tour de France, with the one-day race La Course by Le Tour ASO’s only concession to the women. ASO has said it is looking at a multi-stage race starting in 2022.

“I don’t want to be presumptuous but there is no women’s Tour de France next year,” Min told Telegraph Sport. “And with Covid-19 and all the mess that has created, I’m not sure they are so committed to 2022 either. 

“I’m sure we can be a solution. We can be that bridge. I don’t want to speak for ASO but if this goes well why wouldn’t we want to do more? I feel that the women’s peloton has embraced Zwift racing even more than the men. They don’t have as many races, and they can see the benefit for their sponsors.”

Min stressed that a 'full' virtual Tour de France would still not see stages of more than one or two hours per day. 

“I don’t think there’s any benefit in forcing riders to sit on their home trainers for four or five hours every day,” he said. “It’s harder than sitting on your bike. I think two hours is the max."

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