LONDON (Reuters) - The Tour de France peloton should have rolled in to Loudenville in the south west of the country on Saturday, instead a virtual version began with riders tackling a 36km computer-generated stage on their home turbo-training bikes.
Cycling on the popular Zwift training platform, the men’s race featuring 23 pro teams and the women’s race, featuring 17, began on the same course.
Many of the top names in cycling are racing in the inaugural virtual Tour, devised to fill the void left by the actual race which usually captivates the world in July but has been put back to the end of August because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It was a couple of lesser known riders who grabbed the limelight on the first of six stages taking place over three weekends.
South African champion Ryan Gibbons won the first stage of the men’s race, edging out the likes of Mathieu van der Poel and Greg Van Avermaet in the sprint finish.
While the opening stage of the women’s race was won by 19-year-old British rider April Tacey of the Drops team.
Tacey beat a star-studded field that included American world time trial champion Chloe Dygert.
Gibbons said he was “overwhelmed” to have secured the ‘virtual’ yellow jersey for his NTT Pro Cycling outfit.
“I’m truly overwhelmed and this is quite special,” he said. “Every race our team lines up for, whether it’s out on the road or virtual, we do so with a lot of planning, structure and goals. No doubt we will be going to the next five stages trying to replicate today’s success.”
The first stage took in four laps of the 9.1km Watopia hilly reverse course, set on Zwift’s own virtual volcanic island and featuring some characteristics of the Nice stage that will host the Grand Depart on Aug. 29.
Viewers in 130 countries could tune in.
While there is still no women’s version of the actual Tour, the virtual one, backed by Tour organisers ASO, is providing the perfect showcase for their talents. As well as Dygert, Dutch great Marianne Vos is also involved.
Amateur riders will also be able to get involved during the event through the online L’Etape du Tour mass participation races, raced on the same Zwift courses as the pros.
Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Pritha Sarkar