Can virtual cycling ever match up to the great outdoors? We ask Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet

With the announcement of the Virtual Tour de France, could indoor cycling be the future of the sport after the coronavirus pandemic?

By Ed Knowles

Olympic champion cyclist Greg Van Avermaet crossed the line of the Virtual Tour of Flanders in first place.

It was a moment of true innovation online. In the real world, there were some clear consequences for the Belgian winner.

“I got almost more messages than after my Olympic win,” said Van Avermaet on the Olympic Channel Podcast.

“And then there were real people cheering here in front of my house. The day after I did an easy [training session] outside and everybody was talking about it.”

So why did a virtual race capture people’s imagination so much?

The unexpected benefits of virtual cycling for women

Ashleigh Moolman Pasio went to the Olympics in 2016. She’s a pro-cyclist from South Africa but she lives and trains in Spain.

“We had a very hard lockdown for seven weeks, which meant I was not allowed to go outside to ride.

“It was a challenging time. I decided not to dwell in the negative so I could just embrace it and try to work on some of my weaknesses."

It meant upgrading her indoor setup.

“I've never really ventured into the virtual world of cycling.

“It's not something that I really enjoyed doing before the lockdown. I used to avoid it at all costs. But it was my only option so I gave it a chance.”

She quickly changed her mind and became open to the new opportunity.

One of the biggest companies, Zwift, announced that they will be holding a Virtual Tour de France. It will feature both men and women racing the same stages.

Moolman Pasio has already competed successfully on the platform with some races being shown on TV via Eurosport.

“It was incredible to see the traction you gain from having your race live on TV…. what that did in terms of following on social media and stuff like that.

“So, for me, I really recognised the virtual world as a new opportunity for women's cycling.”

Ashleigh Moolman Pasio competing for South Africa at Rio 2016

The Virtual Tour of Flanders: A successful first attempt

Winning an Olympic gold medal is a special moment for any athlete but winning the Tour of Flanders as a Belgian is a huge achievement too.

“It's a big event in Belgium,” Greg Van Avermaet said. He won Olympic gold in the road race at Rio 2016.

“Everybody comes out. Everybody starts cheering. Or everybody stays home and watches it on TV.

“It’s almost our our ‘national day’. And that's what what makes it so big and what makes it also such a nice to do race as a cyclist.”

Like most sporting events, the Tour of Flanders was put on hold due to movement and social distancing restrictions because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Undeterred some clever people decided to use the new technology that the pro cyclists have access to in their homes to organise a Virtual Tour of Flanders.

A shortened 32km race, that would last about an hour, featuring 13 pro racers. It ended up being streamed globally and on national TV in Belgium.

The Virtual Tour of Flanders: Right thing, Right Time

Just as Europe came to terms with the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Tour of Flanders popped up on TV.

“It was a big relief, I think, for a lot of people because there was nothing on TV, nothing to do,” Van Avermaet said.

“Everybody was at home. And of course, they had also a big good thing that, of course, it was Flanders.”

It’s difficult to overexaggerate the importance of cycling in Belgium. It’s massive and the Tour of Flanders is the pinnacle of elite sport.

“It was it would be really hard to do it with another event.

“It was on the right date on the biggest event that's normally is in Flanders. And I think this made it a really positive reaction. And I think everybody really enjoyed it."

Greg Van Avermaet on winning the Virtual Tour of Flanders

Lining up for a virtual race is completely different to a normal race.

The lack of a routine meant something Greg hadn’t felt in a long time.

“I was quite nervous to do it myself.

“Because everything had to be right. Everything had to work. I was also nervous because it was my first event on on on a platform like this. I didn't know if I was good at it."

Greg Van Avermaet celebrates winning the cycling men's road race at Rio 2016

Even for an experienced rider like Greg, an Olympic champion and Tour de France stage winner, he thought he might just flop.

“I also was a bit scared that was I going to be dropped from the beginning.

“It's a totally different thing. To be honest, I was more nervous than doing a normal race, but in the end it worked out well. I think it was cool to do."

In the end, the nerves served him well. Greg won.

“I think it was something special to do. And I think it was it was really nice what they all did in such a short term to make it that successful.”

Up close and personal with the professional cyclists

The people behind the production decided that the cyclists would send in a video feed, via their mobile phones, of themselves on their indoor bikes as they competed.

It added an extra dimension of drama to proceedings. It meant the expression on a cyclist’s face was more visible than ever as they hit the final phase of a race.

Without a helmet or sunglasses you could tell: Greg is not one to race angry.

“I think that if you act in anger, you make mistakes.

“I think it's more being in peace with yourself and just let it float.

“I think, for me, I let my body do the work. And I don't think too much. Make the right decisions. And I think that's the most important. Being a rider, you just have to go and you have to feel the moment.”

Virtual cycling vs outdoors cycling: how can you replace nature?

Whatever the weather, amateur cyclist Wim Sweldens of Belgium likes to put himself to the test in the great outdoors.

Cold temperatures, rain, sleet, snow – it doesn’t matter – Wim embraces the challenge.

Sweldens is also one of the tech gurus who came up with the idea of the Virtual Tour of Flanders.

The event was a massive success but can indoor cycling really replace the feeling of cycling outdoors?

“I'm not sure you can really solve that,” Sweldens admits.

“I think you just have to realise that indoor cycling, it's just something different.

“I'm not sure that there is a technology that could bring 3D wind and rain to your living room."

Sunflowers at the Tour de France

Safety and confidence: Easier for indoor cycling

Ashleigh Moolman Pasio agrees that it’s never going to replace the feeling of going outside for a race

“I think that's one of the nicest things about road cycling - just to be able to get out and be in the fresh air and see the different scenery and just take it all in.”

But the indoors could be an easier first step.

Perhaps more people will build their confidence indoors before venturing outside – especially in places like South Africa.

“It's really difficult because it's not safe. If I'm in South Africa, I wouldn't usually go up training on my own. I'd have to find someone or a group to ride with.

“I think that the virtual world really presents a great opportunity, especially for women in a country like South Africa, for them to have a safe environment, to train and to be able to to develop as a cyclist.

It's also just opened my mind to some some new opportunities in terms of what I could do from afar - Moolman Pasio on virtual cycling

“Being based in Spain, how I could play a role in developing the sport in South Africa. So having the virtual world as a platform, I can actually get onto my indoor bike and train with young riders who are based in South Africa.

“I could lead workout sessions, I could race with them online and mentor them along the way."

Greg Van Avermaet wearing the yellow jersey at the Tour de France

Virtual racing: A taste of the future that is here to stay

There are plans for cycling races to return in 2020 with the cycling federation, UCI, announcing a curtailed calendar.

Greg Van Avermaet is convinced that the cycling landscape has changed and indoor events will be taken more seriously - even when outdoor races start happening again.

I think the virtual world will exist and will stay - Greg Van Avermaet on the future of cycling

“It was also already quite big before, I think, with its platforms like Zwift.”

The biggest weakness for indoor cycling remains the lack of connection with nature.

Although that problem will, perhaps, never be solved, Moolman Pasio believes the two disciplines can exist in tandem.

“I think to continue to motivate yourself indoors is, I suppose, the biggest challenge.

“To be able to get a combination of the two is the ideal because definitely outdoors is where we get all our inspiration.”

This article was adapted from an episode of the Olympic Channel Podcast. Subscribe for inspirational interviews every Wednesday.