In my newly-formed social bubble I have a friend for whom lockdown has been a revelation.
His week is usually spent commuting to the city or an aeroplane to the States, cramming in his dose of golf, running and cycling into an already overcrowded weekend with three young children to look after.
But working from home has changed all that and he is now playing leisurely rounds of golf during the week, a twice-weekly 5k run around his locale and then there is his new discovery: virtual cycling.
Every Sunday morning he says goodbye to his family and descends into his basement, clad in lycra and armed with an isotonic drink.
Once squeezed into this tiny space below the stairs he mounts his racing bike which is mounted to the floor and missing its back wheel, connects his phone to Zwift, the new virtual cycling app, selects his course and – with a community of others – starts to ride.
The app enables riders to set their own goals and provides motivational tools with points available and it has proved so successful over the past couple of years that, in the absence of this year’s Tour de France, a virtual tour has been put on.
This year’s tour – with 40 professional teams taking part – started last weekend and will continue over the next two weekends but, if successful, it is hoped it can be expanded into a three-week event next year to sit alongside the actual Tour.
The virtual tour, though, is seen as a huge opportunity for women’s cycling who, until now, have never competed at the Tour de France.
I was fortunate enough to work with Skoda last year as the company supported a group of pioneering women to ride the Tour one day ahead of the men, to highlight the disparity between men and women in cycling and to show, of course, that women can ride the same stages as the men. But Zwift’s virtual tour has taken this mission to a new level.
The virtual tour (a collaboration between Zwift and ASO, the Tour de France organisers) sees 23 men’s teams and 17 women’s compete this year. The event is being streamed on YouTube over the three weekends (two stages each weekend lasting one hour) and will be shown in over 130 countries. Stars such as Chris Froome, Geraint Thomas and Egan Bernal will compete on the men’s side, and Marianne Vos and Chloe Dygert on the women’s.
Riders will be awarded the famous yellow, green, polka-dot and white jerseys and finish the race on the iconic Champs Élysées in Paris. Amateur riders are also able to get involved through the online L’Etape du Tour mass participation event.
British cycling champion Alice Barnes says the fact that the men and women will compete over the same stages, with the same television coverage, is a great opportunity.
“It’s nice that we have the same routes, just so you can kind of compare how the racing is and see the different styles,” the reigning British road and time trial champion told The Telegraph. “It will be massive for our sponsors. They pay us money to show them off and they aren’t getting that at the moment. So for them it’s obviously huge.”
Eric Min, the founder of Zwift – whose Tour for All earlier this year saw viewing figures in the millions – told The Telegraph: “The whole idea of a virtual Tour de France is something I always thought we’d deliver on, I just didn’t think it would be this year. But the circumstances have allowed for it. The Tour for All proved that our sport was a broadcast proposition and it was off the back of that that ASO first approached us about creating something for the Tour de France in July.”
Not only does this virtual racing encourage Sportsiders to get active during lockdown, it has also seen many get their bikes out on the roads too for some real-life cycling.
Since the lockdown began an estimated 1.3 million people in the UK have bought a bike and many more are waiting for new stocks to arrive in the shops. Decathlon, the high street sports store, reported a 200 per cent increase in online bike sales in May, while the UK bike market is expected to grow from £842m to £3bn by 2023.
Transport for London published statistics in 2019 that showed 700,000 daily trips were made by bike but now they estimate that this number could increase ten-fold post-lockdown as Britain ends what Prime Minister Boris Johnson has described as a ‘golden age of cycling.’
Aware of the potential increase in cycling accidents from having so many more cyclists on UK roads the Government is also launching a new Bikeability training scheme next month – designed to help lapsed riders or new cyclists to get back out on the roads in safety. When lockdown began, road traffic in the UK fell by up to 73 per cent, while cycling participation was 300 per cent up. Now those cyclists need protecting if they are going to maintain their activity.
Bikeability Trust executive director Emily Cherry said: “Most taking up our training are cyclists who have been enjoying the relative quietness of roads but are now worried as roads get busier and traffic increases. Learners also fear a reduction in the number of cyclists around them as traffic volumes increase.”
While there are already plans for Bikeability to be offered free to all primary school pupils in England, Cherry is pushing for it to be extended to older age groups.
“I think it would help to have compulsory training at the end of primary school,” she said, drawing a parallel with swimming, which is included on the national curriculum.
“Children have to demonstrate by the end of primary school that they can swim. Could we do the same for cycling?”
Britain’s COVID cycling boom shows now signs of slowing and this is great news for manufacturers, elite riders and pleasure-seekers alike. NPD Group, a data insights group, which published a report saying bike sales are up 75 per cent globally, celebrated the democratic nature of the surge.
Matt Powell, the company’s sports industry advisor, said: “For far too long the cycling industry has been solely focused on the pinnacle athlete, but these results show that a broader, family and beginner focus can reap gains.
“This is a silver lining, and one of the important sports retail lessons to come out of the pandemic.”