Geraint Thomas believes the increasing realism of virtual cycling is helping fill the void left by the current sporting lockdown.
Wales’ 2018 Tour de France winner got his competitive instincts sharpened again by taking part in the recent Team INEOS eRace.
The race – highlights of which are being shown by S4C on Friday night – aims to replicate the iconic Alpe d’Heuz summit finish on the famous stage of the tour.
That was the stage won so thrillingly by the Cardiff rider two years ago and which he later revealed cemented his self-belief that he could finish the tour in the yellow jersey and become champion for the first time.
With no outdoor competitive cycling taking place at present due to the coronavirus pandemic, Team Ineos decided to race all 30 of their riders in a virtual challenge using the popular Zwift software.
Professional cycling is due to return at the start of August, with the Tour de France re-scheduled to start at the end of that month and roll into September.
“It’s not the real thing, but it is very realistic,” said Thomas, who had already shown his prowess on a stationary turbo bike rigged up to a computer screen when he rode for 36 hours over three days in his garage to raise £375,000 for NHS charities in April.
That represents £173 for every minute in the saddle.
This time he was not alone, but up against the whole group from cycling’s leading team who included fellow Welshmen Luke Rowe and Owain Doull.
Speaking before the race, Thomas – who is currently training in the south of France – added: “The thing for us at the moment is to try and stay fresh, mentally.
“I feel good, even though it’s strange times. The main problem is not knowing exactly what you are training for.
“This eRace is going to be tough. Everyone goes into it, thinking, ‘yeah, I’m not too bothered.’ But as soon as you start it’s every man for yourself.
“I haven’t ridden it many times before, but every time I’ve done it it’s been brutal – whether you are up the front, winning, or out the back.
“From flat to rising uphill, it gets a lot harder on Zwift and obviously with eight to 10 per cent inclines a lot of the way up it’s definitely a challenge and will get everyone blowing, that’s for sure. But it will be nice to see the hairpins again.”
The eRace starts on gentle slopes as the 30 riders – who are split into five teams – build their rhythm before attacking some major climbs in the stunning virtual world Zwift have named “Watopia”.
Rather than spend four to six hours in the saddle, the simulated race is condensed into around an hour of intense effort.
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It culminates with a charge to the top of “Alpe du Zwift” – a digital recreation of the energy-sapping climb to the summit of Alpe d’Heuz.
Thomas added: “Missing the racing part was disappointing but there was a lot bigger things going on, so you can understand why.
“Everyone’s way of life’s drastically changed, but luckily for us, I went back to Cardiff for 50 odd days in the end, and I was still able to go out on the road and train, and spend a bit of time with the family, which I never normally would.
“And, especially having a young boy at home, Macsen, that was a nice positive from it.
“I’m getting on a bit now, I’ve got maybe three, four, five years left so I just want to make the most of those years and race my bike and enjoy it. It was tough going but there’s a lot of people who are in worse off positions than us.
“The team start racing on the first of August, but for me, there’s a three-day stage race in France, which one of the stages is the same as the Tour, so I’ll start there.
“Then I’ll have two days off and then we’ll do the Dauphine, which is the traditional last race before the tour, anyway.
“That’s shortened, it’s normally eight days but now it’s five. I’ll do a couple of recons after that, and then there will only be a week and then we’ll go to the tour.
“The Zwift races has definitely helped me get more out of myself, because you’re racing against your team mates online.
“Even if you’re not that up for it to start with, as soon as you get going, that competitiveness comes out anyway and you all end up racing hard, so they’re definitely a good workout.
“I’ll probably be a bit like ‘ah whatever, we’ll see how it goes’, but as soon as you get going, do some stupid attacks. But we’ll just have a bit of fun with it, it’s definitely a good alternative to rolling around on your own. ”
Team Ineos general manager Dave Brailsford believes the value of virtual cycling is as much about lifting morale and recreating team spirit as it is about fitness or race tactics.
Sir Dave – who grew up in Deiniolen, near Caernarfon in Gwynedd – is currently overseeing plans for Thomas and others to compete in this year’s re-scheduled Tour de France, which has been pencilled in to start on August 29.
Thomas’s chances of winning again appear to have increased following the decision of Chris Froome to leave Ineos at the end of this season.
There was a big question mark over which two riders would be joint team leaders on the tour, but Froome’s impending departure has settled the issue that the chosen pair will be last year’s winner, Egan Bernal, and Thomas.
But for the moment, at least, viewers can at least see some of the Ineos rivalries settled on the computer track – if not the road.
“It’s good to see them working hard,” said Bralisford ahead of the eRace.
“To see them racing again is fantastic. It’s great for team morale and a great thing to be doing for everybody.
“Camaraderie, supporting each other, and the human factor is very important at this time. Anything you can do to connect people together – including the fans – is well worth doing.”
Cycling on a static bike has undergone huge growth in recent years – not just for enthusiasts to maintain fitness during winter months, but also for professional riders.
Even before the current shutdown, popular races had sprung up including the virtual Tour of Flanders, the Giro d’Italia virtual, the Digital Swiss 5, and the Zwift Tour for All.
Thomas, Rowe and Doull took part in a second Team Ineos E-Race when Zwift’s recreation of a Yorkshire course was the virtual setting.
But before then, fans have a chance to see how Thomas, Rowe and Doull managed at the Tour de France-based first challenge, with commentary from Gareth Rhys Owen in a programme presented by Rhodri Gomer.
Friday, July 17 – S4C
9.00pm – e-Seiclo: Broadcast of the first-ever Team INEOS eRace, featuring the world’s top riders, including Geraint Thomas, Egan Bernal and Chris Froome.