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Tour de Suisse Goes Digital: A Look at The Biggest Esports Cycling Race To Date

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Over the past few days, and over the coming days, Rouvy is hosting the Digital Swiss 5. That confusingly named event is basically the digital version of the Tour de Suisse (Tour of Switzerland), one of the major pro cycling races on the annual calendar. But not this year, it’s been canceled.

However, what’s most notable about this is that it’s by far the ‘biggest’ esports race to occur within cycling. You can use any definition you want on ‘biggest’: The largest live TV audience (27+ countries, on real broadcast networks in all of them), all 19 UCI WorldTour teams, or some 57 WorldTour pro riders concurrently competing each day, or even the fact that it has five stages.

Again – no matter which metric you want to use, it’s the biggest and most prominent use of virtual cycling within the pro cycling scene. Which doesn’t take credit away from Zwift. Undoubtedly they’ve been the tip of the spear when it comes to esports cycling races, and have been for some time. Last year they held the first event to be held on broadcast TV, and then of course, consequently the first event to have a racer stripped of their crown for cheating. Such is life when you’re first.

But this isn’t about Zwift. This is about what Rouvy is doing, and perhaps whether or not it (or any other esports) is sustainable.

Rouvy’s Race:

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While most of the online indoor cycling events that we’ve seen over the last month or so have been put together hastily, the Rouvy variant of the Tour de Suisse actually wasn’t a last-minute thing. At least, not in its original format.

For that, you’d have to turn the way-back machine to last year. Last December they signed an agreement with the Tour de Suisse to host a virtual 8-stage variant of it, with the agreement lasting 3 years. The idea was that regular consumers could compete on the planned stages ahead of the pros (or even during the same time period). Of course, that was when the race was still going forward and to be held outdoors. It didn’t have the entire length of each stage – since most people don’t really want to spend 3-5 hours riding each stage route indoors. Instead, they consolidated them into highlight variants.

Of course, that all shifted last month in March when the Tour de Suisse decided to hold a variant of the event indoors atop Rouvy. This is notable because it marks two major pro-level wins for Rouvy, almost back to back. The other being Ironman holding their VR series pro races on the platform, also live-streamed to an audience far larger than any other platform we’ve seen before.

In the case of Rouvy and the Tour de Suisse, all 19 UCI WorldTour pro teams have put forth three riders for each stage. However, those riders can change each stage. The total list of ‘available’ riders on the bench to compete in the Digital Swiss 5 is the bulk of the 2020 UCI WorldTour pro field (complete list here), roughly about 200 riders. However, there are some notable omissions. For example, you won’t find Chris Froome or Geraint Thomas on the list – nor will you find Peter Sagan. Sagan recently noted that he has no desire to race indoors, while I suspect that Geraint isn’t on the list due to his sponsorship agreement with Zwift. Still, there’s a massive number of A-list riders that are on the list.

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When it comes to the routes, they’ve all got a fair amount of climbing in them – logical, given so does the real-world race. Each of these routes is visible in Rouvy, and in fact if you crack open the Rouvy AR app, you’ll see them listed here:

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Come broadcast time, the racers line-up, many of them with all sorts of webcams or other connected cameras pointed at themselves. Their sponsorship game is virtually always on-point. Many of them have team banners with their sponsors behind them (likely shipped to them ahead of time). Others have extra team gear in the background.

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Some like Filippo Ganna from Team Ineos had their jersey opened to show their team-sponsored Wahoo TICKR heart rate strap. And ya know what? That’s probably how it should be. That’s the sign of a professional athlete knowing that their bills are paid by their sponsors, and in this time – perhaps more than any other, it’s key to show support of those sponsors that are still paying those bills.

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Each day at 5:10PM the race begins. The races are commented in multiple languages by the organizer itself, and then by various TV stations beyond that. Here’s the list of all the TV stations and countries it’s currently being broadcast in:

Europe:

Belgium, Poland, Portugal, Italy: ELEVEN Sports Network
Bosnia Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, Slovenia: SportKlub
Denmark: TV2
France and DOM-TOM: L’Équipe
Germany: ZDF
Netherlands: NOS
Norway: TV2
Switzerland: SRG
UK: BBC Sport

Middle East

Israel: Sport 5

Africa:

Sub-Saharan Africa: SuperSport

Asia:

Japan: J Sports
Myanmar, Taiwan: ELEVEN Sports Network

North America:

USA and Canada: FloBikes

AUSTRALIA/NEW ZEALAND

Australia: SBS Australia
New Zealand: Sky NZ

GLOBAL

Olympic Channel (excluding USA and Canada)

Live streaming

Velon, and Rouvy, and the participating teams will be live streaming each race on their Facebook and Twitter channels (except in the USA, Canada and Japan).

For example, here in the Netherlands, I can actually watch it on NOS – either on my real-world TV like any other broadcast sporting event, or streaming using the NOS website. Still, it’s odd to me that there are such huge exclusions around the USA & Canada, specific to only having that available on FloBikes. That seems like a pretty big miss.

Still, It’s kinda hard to imagine a scenario where just a few short months ago we would have said that 27+ countries were streaming this daily on real-word broadcast TV networks. Or that this would be the current state of pro cycling. Or probably for that matter you’d have assumed such an event would occur on Zwift, the largest of the indoor bike racing platforms.

[Technically Peloton is the largest indoor cycling platform at twice the size of Zwift, and as amazeballs as it would be to see 57 pro cyclists lifting arm weights mid-ride synchronized to music as part of a 80’s Music Rock Ride workout – I think we can all agree it’s probably not the most ideal venue for this competition.]

In any event, the first thing you’ll probably notice about the Digital Swiss 5 is the broadcast quality is high. When I watch it on any platform with my reasonably good internet here, the imagery is sharp and the commentators don’t skip a bit (at least in English). Just like with other major races, Tour de Suisse provides a broadcast feed to the various broadcasters, and then those country/network broadcasters will add their own commentary (or overlays).

Throughout the broadcast they’ll switch between the various competitors’ webcams as well as the route and overlaid AR competitors. The entire competition is based on Rouvy’s Augmented Reality technology that they introduced nearly two years ago. That means the courses are real-world video of actual routes (with changing gradient to match). Then, the riders are overlaid atop it, to appear as though they’re in the video.

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They’ve done the work here of digitizing all the team kits as well as getting correct avatars for many (but not all) riders in-game. It’s interesting to note however the stream quality varies considerably. When I watch it on NOS (Dutch broadcaster), it’s super-crispy, as seen in the above screenshot. Yet, when I watch snippets from Velon’s Facebook/YouTube pages later, or even Rouvy’s daily stream on their Facebook page.

Within the race they’ll toggle to the map view from time to time, showing the ‘peloton’ spread out across the countryside:

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At other times they’ll switch to a mass screen grid showing 16 riders spinning along suffering on trainers:

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And other times they’ll cut to the rider (complete with enough nutrition to last him all 5 stages). The video quality of each individual rider varies of course, likely based on their individual home internet connectivity and camera setup. But it’s super-clear that this has been tested/practiced/rehearsed with if not all, but a large majority of the riders. No rider (or more importantly team), wants to be the one that’s fumbling around trying to get the app or trainer working in front of a global audience.

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Still, there are some catches. For example – the way Rouvy is filmed (facing forwards) means you can’t get numerous shots from the sides, a helicopter, or really any other angle. The vast majority of the time it’ll be looking in the same direction as the rider. However, there are exceptions to that. For example, this series of shots here where they’ve used Google Streetview and super-imposed the rider on that, as they pan through the shot:

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That’s something you probably didn’t even notice was occurring – but they’re literally toggling between what are in effect entirely underlying different platforms all seamlessly to you. For those techies in the crowd, you likely understand how impressive that is from a technical level.

Throughout the race there are placement stats on the screen, just like in real-life, and then as soon as the riders cross the line there are final stats there:

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Additionally, up on the website there are complete detailed stats too for each stage:

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Heck, afterwards in some cases there are even rider interviews. I’m not kidding:

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The details of how or where FDJ’s rider is with respect to the microphone are a bit fuzzy to me. From other snippets of their webcam, it appears they’re in a concrete nuclear fall-out bunker. But what I do know is that the microphone is properly wearing a mask, so, we’re all good.

Going Forward:

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Is this the future of professional cycling? I sure hope not. Which isn’t a slam on Rouvy, Zwift, or anyone else. But rather a simple observation that it’s lacking much of what makes outdoor cycling awesome – be it the excitement of real-world fans alongside the course, the challenges of mechanical issues (or worse), or the fatigue complexity element that comes with trying to travel while doing a stage race. Those are all aspects of professional cycling, and all aspects that make it interesting and unpredictable. Whether or not someone’s trainer is inaccurate doesn’t tend to be one of those aspects.

Still, to dismiss it is equally silly. We’ve seen huge strides over the last year in what makes for a more interesting esports variant of cycling. It’s not perfect yet. If we imagined the Digital Swiss 5 playing out in broadcast quality studios with teams of fans around them instead of isolated in their living rooms, it’d probably increase the engagement level. If we imagined 2-3 camera angles per ride in a crispy resolution – that’d also increase engagement level. And perhaps those are things that’ll come in time.

And for now, we likely have a lot of time on our hands. There’s realistically no major WorldTour level cycling races that are going to happen for many months to come, in even the most idealistic of scenarios. Until that point, these sorts of events help keep fans engaged to the sport they love and athletes they support in one of the only ways possible. And regardless of the platform, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. After all, once outdoor racing opens back up, I’m sure we’ll all be happy to get outside and compete again.

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38 Comments

  1. TL@

    No matter how hard I try, I can’t stand watching this eracing for more than 5 minutes. I’d rather watch paint dry.

    • Joel

      I agree.

      Paint! Exactly!

      Golf channel? LOL…just kidding.

      Of course that got me thinking…That means there is some sort of something that can be done, right? People (like you and me) watch the Pros (maybe not all the time) because we dream we can ride like them! That’s why group events that have pros make you feel special! Some people even challenge them or beat them in on-line events.

      So I ask…What would make these events make you watch them and create that special feeling?

    • Casey Griesemer | Rouvy

      Hey Joel,

      Speaking to your point about pros, with the Digital Swiss 5 we had hosted a Fan Race directly following the pro race on each stage where amateurs could compare there times to the professionals, and on occasion some of those fan race riders beat some of the pro’s times!

  2. BlueOrder

    “Still, it’s odd to me that there are such huge exclusions around the USA & Canada, specific to only having that available on FloBikes. That seems like a pretty big miss.”

    Um, yeah, really big miss. I’m not paying $12.50 to watch an erace.

    • Casey Griesemer | Rouvy

      Hey BlueOrder,

      Pro race Highlights are available on the ROUVY Facebook page as well as full replays of the Fan Race, which took place on the same route as the pro race with the iconic visuals from the Tour de Swiss.

  3. Liz

    The FDJ rider (Stefan Küng) is Swiss and lives close to the course of that stage (and Swiss TV even those course recon 😉 ) hence the actual live interview. (And he cycled in his apartment building’s bike cellar because it was cooler than his balcony.)

  4. Joe Smith

    It just seems to be a time trial with no real tactics since there is no drafting.

    • zzzzz

      Exactly! I had even signed up to do the amateur race and did not bother when I learnt there was no drafting. Boring.

    • Casey Griesemer | Rouvy

      Joe,

      Stay tuned to our blog as we’re working on a drafting release soon! You can also follow us via our email list or Facebook page as any announcements will be posted there as well.

  5. Chris Hobbs

    Does Rouvy even factor in the greater importance of pure watts (as opposed to w/kg) on the flats? It doesn’t factor in height at all. Basically, not even a good simulator for a TT. And the avatars–clearly the digital artists have never seen what a world tour pro looks like.

    • Yeah, the lack of drafting in Rouvy AR is weird at this point. But, conversely, all platforms have their gaps. Zwift for example, as I’ve been finding out through recent testing, doesn’t actually take into account the bike weight (at all). So that skews things roughly 15lbs or so.

    • Pepe

      Actually in zwift you have more light/aero wheels and light/aero frames, which makes a difference. Zwiftinsider has few tests on this.

    • Yes…and no.

      There is a difference between the different frames/etc, but none of it is founded in real-life reality. It’s why the other day when I did a test up the Alpe d’Huez in Zwift it was far faster than it should have been for that exact power output using that exact frame, and my exact weight/etc. FulGaz was virtually spot-on.

      That’s because at present, Zwift isn’t actually accounting for the correct weight of the bike – it’s way under. Like, comes in about the weight of a laptop. More soon…

      (And also explains why many other people have noted how much faster/easier Alpe d’Huez in Zwift felt than in real-life.)

    • Eric Schlange

      Curious to see how you’re concluding that Zwift isn’t using the full weight of the bike, Ray. To my knowledge they DO account for the weight of frame, wheels… and more.

      Lots of variables at play when comparing two different platforms, of course. As you know.

    • Casey Griesemer | Rouvy

      Chris,

      We’ve recently made some changes to our Rouvy AR app in updates 0.12.0-3 to make improvements to the visual and behavioral ride characteristics. You can read about it here in the changelog;

      link to support.rouvy.com

    • When are we getting this data? 😁

  6. Marius

    I was so excited to watch this event, until I saw the first stage. I dont know if any of you have been watching Lionel Sanders doing the eraces on Zwift? Super exciting, the riders are drafting and attacking, its fierce, and fun to watch. I dont like the format of real, outdoor scene, combined with Hulk-like figures riding on the telly. Its basically a tt, and after watching for 10 minutes, I changed to Youtube for reruns of other races. Shouldnt eracing be just that, artificial? Those on screen avatars are so big, you hardly see the road anyways. Look how much fun Flanders was the other day

  7. AndreA

    Using Rouvy is clearly far from reality, but I find it very much acceptable. From an experience standpoint it recalls a lot the good old battle of the man and the mountain.. sometimes video and grade discord, and yes when you have a stac and put out 0W in descents others pass you immediately, but it’s generally okay.

    Now, the se Races are a bit different, first of all they are super fluid, pros cycle twice my speed and you don’t notice the annoying slow motions that sometimes appear.

    They they’re not very much entertaining, you know they’re just going for an all out hour basically, but still you can spend a lot of time at looking at the numbers and wondering how they can put out consistently such W/kgs for one hour… and then you compare it with pro triathletes and, nothing, different category.

    Also, despite my less than lowest interest in looking at men swetting, I admit that’s cool to see them live: those guys don’t want to stay behind, be it e- or real. Fantastic attitude.

    The G earth camera pan is very cool indeed, I didn’t find that view in the app.. it looks ti me they must be doing some magic there…

    I think watching for 15 to 20 mins is enough, though…

  8. Stephen M.

    The best part was watching on Day 1, and one of the UK commentators said something along the lines of “Oops looks like X rider had his Wifi drop out…That’s the equivalent of a tire puncture in the real world”

    So true and such a real *potential* problem. In these types of races I will be curious to see how they will handle this “mechanical”

  9. David

    Hi guys, I have a question that is a bit off-topic but I found a nice deal for 4iii precision left side powermeter (link to futurumshop.nl). Together with additional discount I could get it for 225 euros. However, I currently have ultegra r8000 crankset on my bike so I wanted to ask whether it is possible to combine the right side of ultegra r8000 with left r7000 and whether there might be any issue with buying older version on the left.

    I mainly want to try to train outside with power so that I can follow plan from sufferfest/trainerroad and do not want to spend a lot of money. I have been thinking about buying powermeter for quite some time and this seemed like a good deal that I have been waiting for. Or is there any other entry-level powermeter that you would recommend instead of 4iii?

    Thanks

    • Yes. You can. You will need a torque wrench, the bottom bracket tool for the compression “pre-load” cap, and some Allen keys.

      I recently completed a similar upgrade.

  10. Sim

    Just an FYI. it isn’t all world tour teams. Astana, UAE, Cofidis aren’t there. Rally and Direct energie aren’t world tour. Then the Suisse have a national team

  11. Joan Alcover

    I live not too far from the Nufenen pass and very close to Leukerbad (Loeche les Bains), so I watched the race. It is quite disappointing, I must say. I prefer riding my Tacx Neo, here, at 5,000 feet altitude, with still quite a bit of snow around the roads (none on the roads, mind you).

  12. CK

    I pay for a “premium” ROUVY subscription. If I want to do the amateur version of these races, I need to pay extra. These guys are insane, and if anyone is a subscriber and paying more for this, would mind explaining your rationale, other than you don’t mind wasting your money?

    • Casey Griesemer | Rouvy

      Hey CK!

      Everyone can ride the exact routes anytime you’d like in the Tour de Suisse folder on the Rouvy AR app! Your results can be uploaded onto the leaderboard to compare times with everyone else that has completed the rides in full. You can also check out the events section or schedule your own public race if you want to compete against your friends in real-time!

  13. Jeremy

    Without drafting there are none of the tactics associated with bike racing, you are basically just watching a simultaneous time trial. In my opinion this makes Zwift a far more engaging proposition even if not perfect.

    • Casey Griesemer | Rouvy

      Jeremy,

      We know there are always improvements to be made and that’s why we’re actively working on releasing a drafting update! Details tbd, but you’ll find released info on our blog and the email list.

      link to blog.rouvy.com

  14. JimC

    This sentence doesn’t make much sense, it’s missing a word (or two):

    “Yet, when I watch snippets from Velon’s Facebook/YouTube pages later, or even Rouvy’s daily stream on their Facebook page.”

  15. Casey Griesemer | Rouvy

    Hey Joe,

    We know there are always improvements to be made but know that we’re actively working on releasing drafting! Details tbd, but you’ll find released info on our blog and the email list.

    link to blog.rouvy.com

    • AndreA

      Casey since you read here let me list some opportunities for improving the service that I see using the platform:

      – website: even if your session is still active, you need to click at least three times to get to the dashboard. Moreover, when you’re in and click on the logo you go back to the home page and so, again three clicks to get to your dashboard. I mean, when you’re in, you should be in..

      – menu: too long a list of things, when all one wants to do is select a ride… to find that option, btw, you need to scroll all the long way down…

      – search a route: no way if I go back I have to restart from almost the dashboard! Very annoying. I shouldn’t be supposed to track down or even see the tiny link text offering to back to search (ie. to restart from scratch from the category page..). Back straight to the search results, so it should be.

      – Okay, workouts automatically sync just fine when, having being waiting for a few hours, you compulsory and actively click on the Sync buttons until they do. How comes every other platform syncs immediately and flawlessly just I finish an activity, so I hear the notification ping from my strava / TrainingPeaks/ other app on my cellphone so I know that’s logged and I can forget about it?

      – simulation: it happens, often but not annoyingly too often, that the grade does not reflect the road. So you kinda ‘mentally prepare’ for, say, a descent, and resistance ramps up instead (or vice-versa). This aspect should be pin-perfect, routes checked and corrected accordingly to improve one’s experience.

      – simulation: I own a stac, and for how it works I put out 0 watts during descents. As in real life, recording a 100w on a -14% proves pretty difficoult. I see other guys descending at 40/50% their FTP and I eventually lose my hard earned advantage. I understand I probably am among the few stac users, but I also think the simulation should take this into account, level out the trainers behavior, and ultimately make it more realistic. More important than adding drafting, to say one thing..

      – sometimes videos stop when the recorder had to stop at a cross road (or in the middle of nowhere to maybe change his camera battery..) And so it happens you are pedalling hard and going nowhere. I think those should be cropped or sped up.

      – if you could add audio streaming support so that you can chat to those approaching / cycling nearby and/or selected friends on the same route, it would be awesome.

      …and please add the Elite Novo Force: I’ve got a friend (paying user) who couldn’t put his hands on one electronic trainer before these times of shortage and doesn’t find a working profile / gear combo to allow for a realistic experience. 🙂

    • Casey Griesemer | Rouvy

      Hey AndreA,

      Thanks for the suggestions! As you may understand, we have a small team that”s been incredibly busy lately with updates and fixes, but I’d encourage you to drop a note to our support team ‘support@rouvy.com’ for any specific issues or suggestions.

      On the website front, from the home page users are able to hover over their profile icon and select ‘dashboard’, amongst other options, once the view folds down.

      Some of the delays you’re seeing with uploading are due to the volume of users but should be on your account without issue after some time. Rouvy is also set to a default ‘100%’ realism mode, if you’d like to adjust the reality level please begin a ride in ‘training mode’ and adjust there from the settings.

      For the Elite Novo Force, your friend will need to connect that as a classic trainer along a default power curve(ie. as a Cycleops Mag Trainer). They can reference this article for any help finding the trainer settings; link to support.rouvy.com

  16. Andy

    I have most of the virtual training platforms, i am fine with Zwift before the Corona virus lock down because I met people and coworkers daily. During the corona virus lock down, I got sick by watching avatar animation or training on Zwift. That’s why Aaptiv, or Peloton are working for me, just to see the real live people . Now we are watch e-race ? sad time.

  17. Richard

    Please, can you do a review of this RGT race broadcast? link to youtube.com

    • After watching 5 seconds worth of it, my only comment is that they need to have different jerseys. That’s too difficult to watch. 🙁

    • Richard

      Hard to appreciate the beauty of it, if someone only watches 5 seconds. You might have missed the best part from the announcers: “I think we have a winner. I’m not sure”. Which, of course, was followed by the comment in “Top Chat Replay” from someone named Matthew Ansell “The guy in black won” 🙂

      /s

    • Hahaha

      Yeah, putting on these events is way harder than it looks. One only need to look back to the early days of Zwift esports broadcasts to see that.

  18. Alan Brown

    Every time I get ready to do a ride on the Kickr bike it takes longer and longer for the network to find the bike. It used to happen totally seamlessly. Now I have to beg. Any tips?

    • Casey Griesemer | Rouvy

      Hey Alan,

      If you’re referencing connection issues with Rouvy on your Kickr bike please drop our support team a note ‘support@rouvy.com’.