PARIS (Reuters) - Elite women riders are still deprived of an actual Tour de France in which to showcase their talent but over the next three weekends they will share the road in the inaugural "virtual" version of the event.
With cycling's most prestigious race shifted from its traditional July slot to August because of the coronavirus pandemic, online training platform Zwift, together with Tour organisers ASO, has helped fill the void.
The event, featuring six specially-designed animated stages lasting around an hour, will see the likes of world time trial champion Chloe Dygert and Dutch great Marianne Vos racing on the same course as the men -- even if not in direct competition.
In all, 23 men's and 17 women's professional teams are confirmed with four-times Tour champion Chris Froome joined by his Team Ineos colleagues Egan Bernal, the reigning champion, and 2018 winner Geraint Thomas.
Stages one and two this weekend will be held on Zwift's fantasy volcanic island of Watopia, including additions inspired by Nice, the Grand Depart host city in August.
Other stages include familiar French terrain including the fearsome Mont Ventoux on Stage Five before the traditional finish on a virtual Champs-Elysees.
In recent years the world's best female road cyclists have had to make do with La Course -- a single stage sideshow held during the men's Tour de France.
But Zwift CEO and co-founder Eric Min hopes the next three weekends accelerate their bid to have their own multi-stage version of the world's greatest cycle race.
"ASO has already made a commitment for a women's race as early as 2022 and we see this as an opportunity to accelerate that journey," Min, who said the project has been put together in the space of six weeks, told Reuters.
"I've seen what they are doing on Zwift and the numbers the women are producing are right up there with the best men. They are incredible."
Each team will be made up of four riders who will swap from weekend to weekend, depending on whether the stages suit climbers or sprinters. No male rider will be allowed to ride more than two stages, and no female rider more than four.
The traditional yellow, green, polka dot and white jerseys will be worn by one member of the leading team in each of the categories -- or at least by his or her animated character.
Viewers in 130 countries will be able to watch the action.
With professional cycling suspended by the COVID-19 pandemic since March and even local club group rides outlawed in cycling's heartlands, online racing has seen a boom.
Now it will help fans and riders starved of their usual July fix. "I cannot imagine the month of July without cycling," said Christian Prudhomme, Director of the Tour de France.
"Thanks to the virtual Tour de France, which will be widely broadcast on TV, the champions and their fans will fill in the void left by the Tour de France, which will reunite with
the public in Nice on 29 August."
Amateur riders will also be able to get involved through the online L’Etape du Tour mass participation events, raced on the same Zwift courses as the pros.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Ed Osmond and Christian Radnedge)