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The pandemic has delayed Tour de France, the world’s most watched bike race, to last August this year. Until then, there is a heavily watched virtual race every weekend with world class bikers and teams racing against each other from home in what looks like a video game. Eric Min, the CEO of Zwift, the company hosting the event and racer Lauren Stephens join Hari Sreenivasan to discuss.
For more than 100 years, the middle of the summer has signaled the Tour de France annual bike race across France. This year due to the pandemic, the world's most watched bike race is delayed. But there is a heavily watched virtual one going on every weekend.
We look down then on the avatars of the riders in this virtual Tour de France.
World class bike riders and teams are racing against each other on their own bikes at the same time often from their homes and the world is watching them bike and play what looks like a video game. I recently spoke with Eric Min the CEO of Zwift, the company enabling this virtual tour, and racer Lauren Stephens, a professional cyclist who recently won the second stage of the virtual Tour de France.
As they make their way across the line, who takes it? It looks to me like Lauren Stephens I think may well have taken the stage.
First of all, congratulations. You're a winner of this stage of the Tour de France. You don't get to say that very often. Most people don't understand what's happening here. You're riding in Dallas, Texas, where you are now, and you're competing in a virtual race. How does this work?
So our bikes are set up on what we call a trainer.
Think of it like a treadmill for a bike.
And what that does is give the resistance to our bike. So if we go up a hill, it's going to put more resistance on our bike. And if we're going downhill, we'll get less resistance.
So everybody is feeling the hills, so to speak.
Right. The other component is at the crank of our bike where we pedal. It measures our output.
So there's basically a video game representation of you riding in a race against video representations of everyone else. This has to take some getting used to considering what you grew up doing was riding a bike against real people in the real world.
Yeah, it's definitely a lot different than riding outside.
Riders are racing from all over the world at the same time, some from New Zealand at 2 in the morning, many from their basements or garages. You can see how hard the riders are working, how many watts their legs are generating and how fast their hearts are beating to do it.
You can't feel your opponents, can't see if they're getting tired or if they're slowing down. Everyone's avatars, you know, or look happy and fast and full of energy. So it's a lot of internal motivation in your living room. The other thing on Zwift is you're pedaling 98% percent of the time where outside you know you go down a hill or you're coming to a stop like you ease off. But on Zwift, you're pedaling all the time.
Virtual racing means Stevens has had to learn a thing or two. When you got on this platform, you were competing against people who are not pros but are still pretty good.
When I first got onto the platform is there's people I've never even raced outside or they haven't even raced outside and they're racing on this virtual platform. And at the beginning, you know, they're beating me. And I had a lot to learn. So this was a new discipline for me and I think I've figured out a lot of it now.
So they all use some power ups and Lauren Stephens is the winner of that stage.
We have the liberty of doing something you can't do in the real world, for example, having these special powers.
This is Eric Min, the CEO of Zwift, the company that connects all the bike treadmills together.
You can go through different gates within the circuit of our maps and collect these random power ups, and they can make you faster for a short period of time. They can make you lighter. In other cases it takes away the ability for the riders behind you to take advantage of your draft. And sometimes you can go invisible for 10 seconds and you have to use these power ups very strategically. So if you know how to play the game, you have a huge advantage over someone who thinks they're just strong. So just being strong is not enough to do well on Zwift.
How many people are watching this virtual Tour de France on television?
We have 20 broadcasters around the world covering about 140 countries. The same broadcasters that would have covered the Tour de France during the month of July is covering the virtual Tour de France. So it's in the millions.
So millions of people are watching what looks like a video game play out. What what are you learning from that?
The fact that you can, you know, compete on a global scale from the comfort of your home. The fact that there's no travel and time wasted to get to your events. On balance, it's an incredibly affordable, accessible global sport that we're creating.
You know, we talked to Lauren Stevens this morning, but, you know, one of the things that is hard to replicate is being able to figure out whether that rider next to you is getting tired or not. Whether they look like they have more in their legs or whether maybe you should try to pass them now, because this is it. They're weak. They're on the ropes.
We're not trying to replicate outdoor you know riding or racing, we're trying to create a whole new version of it. It's not a six hour bike race. It's a one hour race that's much more intense. As a viewing proposition it's much more dynamic and exciting.
Unlike the real Tour de France, where women only compete in the last stage, these virtual race days all have women's races, same courses, same difficulty. It's something both Min and Stephens see as a positive sign. Lauren Stephens still has stages left to race in this year's virtual tour. We wish her well. Last night's women's race was won by Tonja Erath, a doctor from Germany who became a professional cyclist by winning a competition with the academy.
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