Look, you want bike racing, I want bike racing, they want bike racing, and during this incredibly surreal time, that means we have to take it where we can get it.
This past weekend, that meant tuning in for the Lockdown Ronde raced not on the hills of Flanders, but on bike trainers and the virtual world created in the training app Bkool. Officially called the De Ronde 2020: Lockdown Edition, the event was a better sport than bread, so some of us watched.
As a correspondent on the virtual racing beat, I felt like it was my duty to tune in on Sunday morning and see how the virtual race between some of the world’s best one-day race bike racers played out, and more importantly, decide if it worked or not.
Let’s head to the trainer cave—or in Oliver Naesen’s case, the parking garage—and see how it went down.
With the calendar turning to April—or so it appears … who really knows what month or day it is—the 2020 Spring Classics were supposed to be reaching their crescendo with the Tour de Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. However, with COVID-19 causing the cancellation of races and events across the world, riders have been pondering what to train for since what is proving to be basically the only race of the year, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
One space that has benefited from the lockdown of professional racers is virtual racing. I was recently in a race where Lawson Craddock stuck it to the posers in the virtual edition of his local Austin Driveway Criterium and the L39ion of LA brought their crit show to Watopia in another, while others have not been quite as lucky:
The group of riders participating in the Lockdown Ronde included a number of big names such as Greg van Avermaet, Wout van Aert, and last year’s real winner Alberto Bettiol. Noticeably absent was Zwift man Mathieu van der Poel, who was busy getting his shit rocked in his team’s virtual race on that platform.
Although Zwift is kind of running the virtual racing world, the Lockdown Ronde took place on Bkool, an app that is ostensibly a more realistic version of Zwift(?) TBH, I do not really know because during my training app reviewing days I got to Zwift and then did not want to use anything else. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
The broadcast included background cheering, beeping motos, and helicopter noises, although they did not commit to the copter like the Tour of Quarantine does, which was kind of disappointing. The simulation included pockets of fans lining the road, although I swear I saw more Norwegian flags than Lions of Flanders, which seemed … unrealistic.
It is counterintuative given Zwift and Bkool are virtual training apps, but I think seeing professional riders riding in Watopia or another virtual world kind of humanizes them for us joe-blow cyclists. We are used to seeing pros post on Instagram from Mallorca and Tenerife and other amazing destinations where they get to ride their bikes, but when they are on the trainer, they are on the trainer, suffering like the rest of us. Which is not glamorous, even if they are training in Mallorca.
One cool aspect of the Lockdown Ronde was each rider had their own personal Twitch-style stream to let us watch their suffering and messing around with fans and sweat times. It was interesting to see the different approaches the riders took to setting up their Ronde trainer caves.
I am guessing Oliver Naesen earned a few new fans for his setup in what appears to be the parking garage of his apartment.
Conversely, Tim Wellens had what appeared to be a personal trade show setup (h/t SlowRidePod), and the Deceuninck – Quick-Step riders all had team banners to promote the sponsors. Throw in the kids yelling for daddy, sweaty towels, and snapping that post-race selfie, and the WorldTour pros got to live like one of us for 45 minutes.
Anyone who has done a virtual race will tell you that although you are pedaling your bike in a fast-like fashion, there are aspects of the “games” you need to learn before it really feels like racing versus “Why am I putting out so many watts and getting dropped.”
I have no idea what experience the Ronde Lockdown participants had with Bkool, but it sure seemed like they were flummoxed by the app’s drafting algorithm early on, with the field kind of resembling a Cat 5 road race, albeit it with fewer crashes. Zdenek Stybar proved to be the afternoon’s first victim, as he got shelled off the back 30 seconds into the race and would not recover.
Also adding some amusement was Michael Matthews showing what happens when riders have to serve as their own mechanics when he came to a sudden stop partway up the fake Kwaremont climb. To rub it in, when they cut to the video of Matthews, it sure sounded like you could hear his daughter saying, “Daddy, why are you stopped?” or something to that effect.
As for the race, if we accept the premise of a 14-rider breakaway, the finish would have been a good one. Aggressive rideing from DQS’s 20-year-old Remco Evenepoel drew out a smaller group of five at the base of the fake Kwaremont, and then Greg van Avermaet, still looking for his first Ronde win, put in a big attack on the fake Paterberg to gap the remaining riders and then held his lead to take the virtual win.
It is, of course, worth noting Van Avermaet was pushing high 400s, low 500s during his attack, so if it was a Zwift race, he probably would have gotten dropped. Because Zwift racing.
There was even a virtual podium.
Viewership for the Lockdown Ronde was actually … pretty good? Was it because it was good or because we are desperate for A. Sport.? Is it something that could have staying power in our new sports-less reality?
I think the idea was certainly interesting, and it was good to see so many top names participate. It certainly would have had a different vibe if a bunch of domestiques were racing instead of some of the Classics biggest hitters. With no racing in the foreseeable future, it was also a chance for riders to provide some returns for their team sponsors when those opportunities are few and far between.
It was also interesting to see the pro riders suffer on the trainer like us plebes, and in the case of Matthews, provide us with some quality excuse-making. Like I said, virtually, humanizing.
If I am being honest, I think one aspect of the Lockdown Ronde that held back the viewing experience was the use of Bkool. In a world where Zwift provides a layered visual experience, albeit a fake one, Bkool’s graphics looked like they were out of the early 2010s or something. The sparse backgrounds were meh, and although the riders looked like humans, they did not necessarily look the most realistic in pedaling their bikes.
A buddy of mine described the whole production as “pretty ok,” and I think I agree with that. I was thinking maybe 6 or 7 out of 10, although I think future races—perhaps busting out Bill’s rumble trainer for Paris-Roubaix—could be better as riders figure out tactics and the nuances of the Bkool app’s racing engine.
At the end of the day, it is an awkward year for sports and real-life things are legit terrible in parts of the country and across the world, so it was nice to have a small diversion for a morning that proved to be pretty ok.
If you missed it, you can watch a full replay below.