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In ordinary circumstances we’d have been watching the first foray into the mountains of the 2020 Tour de France over the weekend. But while that wasn’t the case, there was some comfort for cycling fans in the form of the first two stages of the first ever Virtual Tour de France, which bring something resembling cycling’s most beloved race to TV screens around the world, via e-racing platform Zwift.
Here’s how it went down.
Saturday’s first stage of the Virtual Tour de France was held on familiar terrain for Zwift users, with a 36.4 kilometre course comprising four laps of a pinchy circuit on the fictional Watopia island, with a decent hill and four intermediate sprints to enliven proceedings.
In the women’s race, Elisa Longo Borghini (Trek-Segafredo) was an early animator, launching stinging attacks on consecutive laps to snag sprint points for her team, finishing the day as the most combative rider.
With 10 km to go there was a select group of 20 riders in the mix, with Chantal van den Broek-Blaak (Boels-Dolmans) trying her luck – unsuccessfully – with a cloaked power-up attack. By the stage finish that group of 20 had been whittled down to just eight riders, with 19-year-old British rider, April Tacey (Drops) winning the sprint ahead of Kristen Faulkner (Tibco) and van den Broek-Blaak.
In the men’s race, a 92-rider peloton got underway with a fierce pace that soon enough diminished the pack to a leading group of 30. Mitchelton-Scott was throwing everything at the stage, sending Daryl Impey off the front for a solo effort that saw him get the points at an intermediate sprint, before getting absorbed back into the pack.
Rafael Valls (Bahrain Merida) gave it a nudge soon after, but the stage was fated for a bunch sprint. From a group of 20, Ryan Gibbons (NTT) took the victory ahead of Pier-André Cote (Rally), with Nick Schultz (Mitchelton-Scott) rounding out the podium.
Sunday’s 29.5 km second stage of the Virtual Tour de France began underwater, but was a foray into more mountainous terrain on Watopia, with a 9 km ascent looming in the middle of the course. That climb averaged a 4% gradient to the KOM point, but kicked on for a steep further climb that nudged over 13% at points, before a descent most of the way back to the finish.
In the women’s race, the Drops team started in the yellow jersey, also holding the polka dot jersey courtesy of Joscelin Lowden. It was Lowden that was an early aggressor, but that pace proved too hot for teammate Elise Marie Olsen, who was wearing the yellow jersey and got dropped early in the climb.
Lowden and Erica Magnaldi (WNT) pushed the pace for a select group on the climb, before the charismatic Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope) launched an attack on the steepest part of the climb.
That splintered the leading group, and as the descent began, there were just five riders left in contention: Kristen Faulkner and Lauren Stephens (both of Tibco), Lowden, Magnaldi, and Ludwig. At the stage end, Stephens won ahead of Lowden and Magnaldi, with Ludwig having to settle for fourth and Faulkner slotting into fifth. Courtesy of an impressive ride from young Australian, Sarah Gigante, Tibco ended the stage with three in the top 10 and ended the weekend in yellow.
In the men’s race, Louis Meintjes was wearing the yellow jersey for NTT, weathering an early attack from Domen Novak (Bahrain Maclaren) and Alexis Gougeard (Ag2R). 2018 Tour de France winner Geraint Thomas (Ineos) almost single-handedly reeled the early move in, before Israel Start-Up Nation’s James Piccoli snagged the KOM points.
Over the top of the climb, Freddie Ovett (Israel Cycling Academy), Tao Geoghegan Hart (Ineos), Michael Woods (EF Pro Racing) and Nicolas Edet (Cofidis) were off the front with a narrow lead over 10 chasers. The catch was made about 6 km from the finish with the two groups combining to form a 14-rider pack, manoeuvring for the finish.
CCC’s Patrick Bevin was first to blink, launching an impressive attack 300 metres from the line, but was swamped in the dying metres of the stage by Julien Bernard (Trek-Segafredo) who won ahead of Ovett, Edet, Woods and Bevin. NTT retained the yellow jersey for a second stage in a row, ahead of Rally Cycling and Alpecin-Fenix.
The Virtual Tour de France now leaves Watopia for the virtual map of France, with stage 3 (Saturday July 11) comprising a fast, flat 48 km through the north-east of the country, and stage 4 (Sunday July 12) taking in a hilly 45.8 km in the south-west. Stages 5 and 6 will be held the following weekend.