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Photo: Chris Lanaway

The Giro explores “virtual” prologue for 2020

The Giro d'Italia could launch a virtual prologue in 2020; finishing times would not count toward GC

VERONA, Italy (VN) — Pro cycling’s embrace of virtual racing is no longer just a rumor.

Giro d’Italia boss Mauro Vegni confirmed to VeloNews that Giro owner RCS Sport is considering incorporating a “virtual” stage into the Italian grand tour, possibly as soon as next year.

“We are working on it,” Vegni said. “A public that also in a virtual way can compete against the champions that ride the route every day. Why not?”

Why not, indeed. Online racing platforms such as Zwift have been quickly embraced by a sizable portion of the cycling populace. According to Zwift’s 2018 user statistics, more than half a million cyclists have used the platform since its launch in 2015. In early 2018 the platform’s users pedaled, in aggregate, one million total miles per day. And Zwift has launched its own racing leagues, where riders compete with each other on a regular basis.

But is professional cycling ready to cross that line from real racing on open roads to virtual competition via a computer screen? And should a race as big as the Giro d’Italia be the first to embrace the new style of racing?

It appears as RCS Sport is testing the waters.

Discussions are ongoing, but sources have confirmed that the Giro organization is in negotiations with a major virtual racing company to create a real-time stage to coincide with the actual race. Zwift is the logical partner for such a plan. Prior to the 2018 Giro, Zwift created a virtual course of the race’s opening 8.2km prologue in Bologna, and had four UCI Professional Continental squads conduct a virtual race on the course.

During the first three days of the Giro, Zwift invited riders to race on the course, and then awarded a signed maglia rosa to a participant.

In a statement provided to VeloNews, Craig Edmondson, CEO of Zwift Esports said the company is “developing plans” that will be unveiled in the future. Edmonson said that Zwift’s prologue race was a “great success.”

“The Zwift prologue exhibition event provided a small indication of what could be possible in the future,” Edmonson said. “Importantly, though, it provided a means for hundreds of thousands of cycling fans globally to experience the Giro for themselves and ride the Bologna course.”

Some of cycling’s other major players—from the UCI and race organizers, to pro teams— are also said to be involved in launching virtual racing programs.

The Giro effort is just the first step of a what’s a larger push to create an integrated, virtual racing league that would include major races and gran fondos around the world.

Details are still emerging on a project that remains in the development stage. One idea on the table for next year’s Giro includes having a “virtual” prologue, set to begin in Hungary with three stages. The entire Giro peloton would complete a designed route via the “virtual” software platform, and the fastest time would claim the Giro’s first pink jersey. Fans could also compete against the field and compare their times to the Giro peloton’s top stars.

Right now, discussions suggest that times from the “virtual” prologue would not count toward the official GC. Instead, the GC battle would start at the following day’s road stage.

That’s just one idea, and officials are trying to work out a solution that would be acceptable to teams and racers.

Vegni said he sees the project as a way to engage the sport with the larger public, with a special emphasis on younger cyclists. Just as fans can ride up such climbs as Alpe d’Huez, the concept would be that fans can “race” against the Giro’s peloton in a real-time scenario from anywhere in the world where they have a connection to the Internet.

“We have to look to the future,” Vegni said. “And by doing so, we are looking to bring a younger public closer to cycling.”

Not surprisingly, the suggestion has elicited a mix of reactions from riders and teams across the peloton.

Purists insist the idea of crossing the line from real racing to virtual is one too grievous to consider, and that it would belittle the skills required to win a race and devalue the dangers that professional racers must confront every day.

“I am very, very, very much against that,” said American Chad Haga (Sunweb), who won Sunday’s final time trial at the Giro. “There is a place for virtual rides and it’s really cool that people can simulate the courses that we do, and it can bring more people into cycling. But bike racing is a sport, and it’s not just wattage.”

Others riders told VeloNews that they like the idea. Virtual training and racing programs give recreational riders and amateur racers a way to experience what it might be like to climb Alpe d’Huez or compete against elite athletes. It’s a kind of a spin class, with a virtual race against a series of opponents either in the same room or linked up anywhere on the globe.

VeloNews polled riders and sport directors over the final weekend of the Giro peloton to take the temperature of what could be cycling’s next frontier. Riders were somewhat mixed on the idea; team management seemed more supportive.

“Anything that can take our sport to a bigger and different audience is a positive thing,” said Mitchelton-Scott sport director Matt White. “We still have yet to see the details of what they’re trying to do, but doing an eight-minute effort of a prologue on a bike or a home trainer, why not? It’s something that will be different, and it will attract a lot of attention … It’s the future of sport. I wouldn’t be surprised if that stuff ends up in the Olympics in the not too far future.”

Perhaps it’s no surprise that race organizers and teams could be among the most enthusiastic backers of the idea, especially if they are part of any lucrative deals. The sport is looking for new ways to engage and interact with the racing public.

“Cycling will always be a sport of truth, but I am a defender of the idea that we need to modernize this sport,” said Movistar manager Eusebio Unzué. “I don’t know exactly what is the proposal, but the idea to evolve, to modernize and to bring something new to the public, I will always support that.”

Mixing technology and racing is already occurring at many levels within professional cycling. Power meters, GPS trackers and training software have revolutionized how elite pro cyclists train, prepare and race. Some already worry that technology is already creeping too far into racing, and some critics have accused cycling of becoming too much like a computer game, where riders only react to cues from their power meters and via ear pieces from their sport directors.

These tools, however, do not replace the intensity and skill set required to race on open roads under the vagaries of weather against a peloton of rivals at top speed.

It’s a big step from using tools to complement racing to replace racing with a computer screen.

“I’ve not heard about that. No, I don’t like it,” said EF Education First rider Joe Dombrowski. “I think racing is racing, it’s not just about watts and power-to-weight ratios. A lot of bike racing is about skill and tactics and also luck. There are so many factors that go into a result.

“Don’t get me wrong, I think Zwift is great,” Dombrowski continued. “Anything that gets people being active and riding their bikes is great. If it’s not for GC, it seems a bit more harmless. If it’s something that brings more money and interest to the sport, that’s not a bad thing.”

That feeling permeates around the bunch. Professional racing is facing headwinds at many levels as it struggles to attract sponsorship dollars and remain relevant among a new generation of fans raised on smart phones, social media and constant connectivity.

Teams across the peloton are already integrating technology into every aspect of their operations. Some teams are also developing similar “virtual” racing platforms where fans, perhaps even a pay-to-race model, can compete against their favorite stars.

Unzué, who has led the Movistar franchise for more than 30 years, said he enthusiastically supports any innovation that will help modernize cycling without undercutting its essence.

“Sometimes we are stuck in the past with this sport,” Unzué said. “It seems we are still doing things the same way we did 40 years ago. We seem unable to make innovations. So I would support something like this, though we have yet to hear any concrete ideas.”

And it’s no surprise that the Giro is the first to embrace the idea and test the waters. The Italian grand tour has been on the cutting edge of transforming the look of what a grand tour can be and where it can go. Last year, the Giro was the first grand tour to travel beyond the reaches of Europe with its “big start” in Israel. It’s also helped introduce steep climbs and gravel roads into the grand tour narrative.

Vegni said the Giro will always embrace what he described as innovation, and suggested “virtual” racing could be the next evolution in sport.

“The Giro has always been an innovator in cycling,” Vegni said. “We have new ideas for the future that will be equally innovative.”

Some, however, have pushed back against the idea of racing against a machine. After all, grand tours are won and lost by seconds, and prologues not only award the first pink jersey, but also produce small but important time differences among the GC favorites.

There’s also the larger question of what is racing. Cycling is riddled with riders who have had tremendous natural engines and who could produce huge watts, but could never translate those natural-born assets to the road. Positioning, tactics, racing acumen, bike-handling skills on descents, climbs and narrow roads and simple raw guts cannot be duplicated on a computer screen.

It’s one thing to compete against someone on a trainer, it’s quite something else to climb and descend the Mortirolo in pouring rain and frigid conditions.

“I had to take risks today and that’s the price that I was willing to pay to get the result,” said Haga, who won his first WorldTour race Sunday. “Racing is having your heart in your throat, and being willing to lay it out on the line on a corner at high-speed. I am not as strong as other riders who are here but I [won]. To win means that it all comes together, and that’s bike racing.”

At its purest, bike racing is that unique blend of grit, power, skills and courage, all set against the natural and urban backdrop of racing on open roads.

There’s nothing virtual about racing the Giro d’Italia. At least not yet.