Tech

Race organizers and athletes turn to simulators amid coronavirus

For cycling world champion Annemiek van Vleuten, March usually means racing over bumpy roads in Italy, or summiting grassy hills in France. This year, instead, van Vleuten raced across the iconic white gravel of the Strade Bianche from home in Holland. 

On March 8, van Vleuten and her professional road racing team, Mitchelton-Scott, used stationary bikes and an app called Zwift to simulate the Italian race, which was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. Van Vleuten and 29 of her teammates (themselves back home in countries including Spain and Andorra) rode alongside 1,300 fans from around the world. 

Zwift is one of a few services, including Outside Interactive and BKool, that display a real course (or animated version) on a screen. In the case of a bike race, that software is sometimes paired with stationary bike hardware that mimics real-world road conditions like wind resistance and gravel. 

Public sporting events have become some of the highest profile cancelations of the coronavirus. That has included running and cycling races, where athletes compete side by side, and many more assemble to watch them race. Close quarters for both athletes and onlookers do not exactly conform to social distancing guidelines, which suggest people stand 6 feet apart. 

On Thursday, organizers postponed the Boston Marathon for the first time in its 124 year history. The Rome and London marathons, and Paris half marathon have also been postponed, and professional cycling races in Europe were canceled. With coronavirus sweeping the globe, scores of marathons, smaller races, and cycling competitions hang in the balance.

That has led some to the world of race simulators. Athletes can use these products to train or compete live with others, and organizers can offer them as a somewhat pale proxy for a canceled race. 

Under the threat of global pandemic, a digital substitute for mass gatherings is one way to safely make lemonade.

“In the circumstances we’re faced with now, where races have been canceled, this offers an alternative,” Dave McGillivray, the founder of DMSESports and race director of the Boston Marathon, said. “Virtual races, simulated races, there’s nothing like being at the race itself. But sometimes that’s not possible.”

McGillivray hasn’t considered simulators as an alternative for the Boston Marathon, but was speaking more generally about what the products can offer to organizers and participants in difficult circumstances. However, other organizers, under the cloud of coronavirus, have been specifically inquiring about what these products can offer their races.

Gary McNamee, the CEO of Outside Interactive, another leading simulation company that produces high-fidelity digital versions of races and trails around the globe, told Mashable that he has been fielding a higher amount of inquiries than usual from race organizers curious about his product.

“I was doing my do-diligence, I wanted to find out a little more,” Jeff Darmin, a race organizer for Washington, D.C.’s Capital Challenge, told Mashable about why he got in touch with Outside Interactive.

Unfortunately, putting together a race simulation requires months of work. It involves a team physically doing the race while capturing the track with 360-degree video equipment, and then months of production and development, including mapping the video footage with GPS and Google Earth data. Mitchelton-Scott was only able to do a simulation ride of Strade Bianche because Zwift had already created one. For Darmin, or other race organizers looking for alternatives, that’s not an option they can put together in a pinch.

However, Darmin also sits on the board of Washington, D.C.’s 17,000-person Cherry Blossom Run, scheduled for April 5. Outside Interactive does already have a simulation of that course, and a virtual training partnership with the race. 

In a recent Cherry Blossom board meeting, Darmin brought up the possibility of offering a simulation to runners in the event of cancelation. However, it wasn’t the organizers’ most pressing concern.

“It was something they will look at, but right now there’s so many other moving pieces that it doesn’t rise to the top of the heap, because the biggest decision is do you have this event, or don’t you,” Darmin said. “In normal times, it’s something you offer as another added thing. But we’re not in normal times. I think it will rise up again, but first they have to deal with the crisis.”

Outside Interactive’s McNamee and Zwift CEO Chris Snook were both adamant that they don’t see their products as replacements for races. Increased interest and use of race simulations is a bittersweet phenomenon for these companies, since they intend the products as a supplement for race day, whether for training purposes, or for people who can’t make the races due to personal circumstances.

“Our product is not designed as a disaster control.”

“Our product is not designed as a disaster control,” McNamee said.

That doesn’t mean these companies aren’t trying to help however they can. In February, professional cyclists and their staff had to quarantine themselves in the United Arab Emirates after the race disclosed someone involved with the event was diagnosed with coronavirus. Zwift mobilized to get bikes equipped with its technology into the hotels where the athletes were staying so they could keep in shape during quarantine. Some even competed in the Denmark Cycling Union Cup by riding the course live on Zwift.

“I think you will see more teams, athletes, and potentially event organizers coming in and making use of the platform over the coming months, and hopefully it serves as a means to keep people active until, hopefully we get to back to normal times very, very soon,” Snook said.

For Mitchelton-Scott, the simulated rides have been a surprising boon in the face of an unfortunate circumstance. They’ve planned a series of 16 rides this spring, and the riders are rising to the occasion to engage with fans through the app’s messaging functionalities, and even bond among themselves. 

Staying active and in the public eye is important for the group from a sponsorship perspective, too, since brand endorsements (not ticket sales) are what make professional racers money.

“We couldn’t afford to go quiet,” Taryn Kirby, the communications director for Mitchelton-Scott, said. “It’s at first a shock when you can’t race, it’s what they’re wired to do. But certainly the feedback we’ve heard is really positive.”

The technology could also offer a bit of consolation for harried race directors faced with disappointing hundreds of participants.

“Nothing’s ever going to replace the experience of running down the road in an iconic event,” McGillivray said. “The idea here is that they trained so hard, and now they don’t have the opportunity, well, this is something. That’s an individual choice. If that’s gonna make them feel better, then god bless ‘em, go for it.”



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