Virtual bike races as hard as Tour de France, says expert

Home » Virtual bike races as hard as Tour de France, says expert
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  • Virtual cycle races take place of cancelled road races
  • Big names like Chris Froome have been taking part
  • Cycling data expert says virtual races are proving to be just as hard as the real thing

Virtual cycle racing is proving to be just as hard as road races such as the Tour de France, according to professional riders and a leading sports data analyst.

Races on virtual platforms such as Zwift and ROUVY have filled the void left by the cancellation of professional road races over the past few weeks, with big-name riders like Chris Froome and Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet taking part in events such as the Digital Swiss 5, the Zwift Tour for All and the Team INEOS eRace on Zwift.

Together with a panel of cycling experts from bonusfinder.com, professional cycling coach and data scientist Philipp Diegner – who regularly analyses UCI WorldTour races – has assessed the publicly available performance data from more than 200 efforts made by pro riders in recent virtual races.

Although virtual races are up to six times shorter than road races, Diegner said they have proved to be just as difficult as road races and have caught some professionals off guard. ”The racing is short and particularly intense,” he explained. “It is 45-90 minutes of racing instead of 3-6 hours. The consequence for the riders is that there is no opportunity to save energy like they have in road races, so they have to make prolonged, all-out efforts that push them to their physical limit.

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“Professionals are not necessarily used to this and it can be a shock to the system. Virtual racing is as hard as road racing; it is just that endurance is a more decisive factor in road racing, whereas virtual racing is one hour of pure, intense suffering.”

Pro rider Chris Hamilton, who rides for Team Sunweb, agreed with Diegner when he described one virtual race as “the hardest thing I have ever done”.

Diegner selected the following 10 performances as the most impressive he has seen in the professional virtual races to date.

 

Rider Team Race Time Speed (avg km/h) Power (avg watts) W/kg (avg) Ride Info Source
Chris Hamilton Team Sunweb Digital Swiss 5 Race 5 01:00:13 37.7 393 6.05 Strava
Filippo Ganna Team INEOS Digital Swiss 5 Race 2 00:55:17 48.7 463 5.51 Strava
James Piccoli Israel Start-Up Nation Zwift Tour for All Stage 3 01:41:56 42.7 335 5.2 Zwift Companion
Louis Meintjes NTT Pro Cycling Zwift Tour for All Stage 5 01:23:40 33.3 323 5.7 Zwift Companion
Stefan De Bod NTT Pro Cycling Zwift Tour for All Stage 5 01:23:49 33.3 357 5.4 Zwift Companion
Nicolas Roche Team Sunweb Digital Swiss 5 Race 3 01:12:11 27.9 391 5.51 Strava
Pello Bilbao Bahrain – McLaren Zwift Tour for All Stage 3 01:42:39 42.4 330 5.5 Zwift Companion
Rohan Dennis Team INEOS Team INEOS eRace on Zwift 00:58:01 29.2 373 5.18 Zwift Companion
Tobias Ludvigsson Groupama – FDJ Digital Swiss 5 Race 4 00:48:00 46 428 5.63 Strava
Nicolas Roche Team Sunweb Digital Swiss 5 Race 3 00:54:17 29.4 397 5.59 Strava

 

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Watts per kilogram is widely recognised as the most accurate barometer of effort in pro cycling. It takes the average power a rider produces over a set period of time and divides it by their weight in kilograms. The hardest road races require the winner to produce about 4/wkg over five hours. In virtual races, the winners have been nudging 6w/kg for between one hour and 1hr 45min.

Diegner said: “Chris Hamilton only finished fourth in race five of the Digital Swiss 5 but riding for one hour at 6.05w/kg is world class. He rode the last 12 minutes at 6.58w/kg, which would win him most WorldTour mountain stages.

“James Piccoli’s win on stage three of the Zwift Tour for All was a similarly amazing effort. He rode for one and a half hours at over 5w/kg and then kicked again and rode the last six minutes 25 seconds at 6.46w/kg. That’s unimaginable for amateur riders on Zwift.”

One lesson that emerged from the analysis was that the riders who are most successful on the road, such as Froome and 2019 Tour de France winner Egan Bernal, were not necessarily as effective in virtual races.

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Diegner believes this was because successful road riders did not adjust to the nuances of virtual racing as well as others, but he expects them to start replicating their road success in virtual races with time and experience.

“Take Egan Bernal in the Team INEOS eRace on Zwift,” Diegner added. “He wasn’t competitive. That may be because he did not go all-out and was treating it as a training effort. But ultimately, once a rider with his capability gets used to the intensity, he will start winning like he does on the road.

“It is similar with sprints. Someone like [former three-time world champion] Peter Sagan might not get virtual racing right to begin with, but when he learns when and how to expend his power, he will start winning with the same regularity as on the road. Knowing when to start the sprint and how to reach max power in online races is a skill that has to be developed.”

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