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The inaugural Virtual Tour de France has rolled into its second weekend. Depending on your tolerance for e-racing, that’s either a welcome distraction, or the source of a lingering sorrow at what we’re missing this July.
However, it’s the closest thing we’ve got to a Tour de France right now, so I guess I should probably tell you what happened? OK, cool.
After last weekend’s opening gambit on the fictional island of Watopia, stages three and four of the Virtual Tour de France were in a pixelated version of more conventional terrain – namely, Zwift’s simulation of the actual France.
On stage three, the riders took in such iconic sights as Mont-Saint-Michel and Pont du Gard on a flat(ish) 48 kilometre jaunt through the French countryside. (Of note: if you’ve been inspired by the Virtual Tour de France to visit Actual France, these are in fact a breezy 10-hour drive apart.)
In the men’s race, NTT’s Ryan Gibbons was riding in yellow, thanks to his team showing impressive form thus far in the race. There were some big names in the starting line-up, including a brief cameo from a smiley Egan Bernal (winner of the lesser-known Tour de France), who shortly afterwards got unceremoniously spat out the back.
Trek-Segafredo’s Alex Kirsch had a spirited attempt at a breakaway, but to no avail. Soon after, Edvald Boasson-Hagen (NTT) took the intermediate sprint and showcased a terrific pain-face in the process. By stage’s end, however, it was a surprise winner, with Canadian rider Matteo Dal-Cin (Rally Cycling) taking out a hard-fought sprint ahead of Jake Stewart (Groupama-FDJ) and Callum Scotson (Mitchelton-Scott).
That was a wonderful moment for Dal-Cin, but the real highpoint of the men’s race was when the entire Astana team pulled the plug on the remainder of the Virtual Tour de France, thanks to debilitating internet issues (yes, really).
In the women’s race, Tibco-SVB started the stage in yellow, this time on the shoulders of Kristen Faulkner. As the race went over the Pont du Gard – which is flat in real life, but was, for reasons unknown, the KOM point – stage one winner April Tacey (Drops) took the points to secure the lead in the QOM classification by day’s end.
The peloton slowly diminished, with fancied riders including green jersey Nina Kessler (Tibco) cracking on the approach to the finish line. Faulkner and Tacey were the first to start their sprints, 400 metres out, but Canyon-SRAM’s Tanya Erath – who broke into the professional peloton as the winner of the Zwift Academy in 2017 – put her Zwift experience to good use, taking the win ahead of World TT champion Chloe Dygert (Twenty20) and Tacey.
The flatter terrain of the day before was replaced with the Casse-Pattes course – which roughly translates to ‘leg breaker’. The 45.8 km route featured two laps of a circuit with two third-category climbs on each lap, with the Pont du Gard trotted out again.
In the women’s race, the same big hitters from last weekend were all up in contention: Joss Lowden (Drops), Sarah Gigante and Leah Dixon (Tibco), Chloe Dygert (Twenty20) and April Tacey (Drops).
Lowden scored a bunch of QOM points, taking the maximum number on offer across all four climbs, and splintering the peloton behind her.
With 1.5 km to go, just 11 women remained. Dixon put in a valiant sprint for the line, but got swamped. It was April Tacey who came through with the goods, claiming her second stage of the Virtual Tour ahead of Anna Henderson (Sunweb) and Lauren Stephens (Tibco-SVB).
Tibco retain the yellow jersey heading into the final weekend of the race, with Drops well placed in second overall.
In the men’s race, NTT was a kaleidoscope of colours, holding three of the four classifications, and with Michael Valgren in yellow. However, it was Israel Start-Up Nation that put in the first big attack of the day, with Daniel Turek taking off on the first climb.
By the end of the first lap, it was a compact group of 18 at the front of the race, from which Ryan Mullen (Trek-Segafredo) slipped free to build a gap of 10 seconds over the chasers. This move was ill-fated, however, and Mullen was caught 16 km from the finish.
In the dying metres of the race, Mullen’s teammate Will Clarke dropped a power-up as he shot off the front of a group of eight riders, but it wouldn’t be enough. Freddy Ovett (Israel Cycling Academy) snuck past for the win, ahead of Nick Schultz (Mitchelton-Scott) and Valgren.
The Virtual Tour de France ambles to its denouement next weekend, with the race’s queen stage on a simulation of Mont Ventoux on Saturday, and laps of an uncanny, deserted Paris on Sunday. It’s been a trip.