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How Do the Pros Prepare for Virtual Races Like the Digital Suisse 5?

By Jiri Kaloc

We talked to team Team Sunweb’s coach Luke Roberts about their preparation for the Digital Suisse 5. Virtual racing is seeing a surge in popularity because of the ongoing pandemic. It brings a lot of new challenges to professional teams. Let’s take a look at how team Sunweb handles it.

Digital racing is a lot different from real-world racing

It’s not usual that riders would spend a lot of time training indoors. They might do so in winter but certainly not in April. So, the big challenges were adjusting to the specific virtual training platforms and the difference in length of the races. The races are very short, ranging from 40 to 60 minutes as opposed to real-world racing, which commonly takes 4 to 5 hours. This makes them also a lot more intense.

Team coach Luke Roberts in Berlin. © John MACDOUGALL / AFP / Profimedia

“In a real-world race, you can freewheel a little bit in the peloton, roll down hills, freewheel through corners but when you’re on a home trainer, then you’re constantly pushing. It’s relentless,” Luke Roberts described.

They prepared for a time trial

Each stage of the Digital Suisse 5 is an intense non-stop effort so the team approached preparation as if they were getting ready for a series of 1-hour time trials. The condition of the riders was not ideal for time-trialling as they would be mostly in the middle of the base endurance-building phase. Some riders did spend quite a lot of time riding indoors because of the current lockdowns and some of them even tried virtual racing before. Team Sunweb selected those team members in hopes that their experience on home trainers would compensate for the fact that no one is really ready to time trial in this part of the season. It was a great way to bring a little bit of excitement into training.

There are no team tactics in a digital race

Rider’s power output and body weight are essentially the only two factors influencing their speed on the virtual platform. So, the tactics that could be used are limited.

“The Rouvy platform has no drafting feature, which makes the race more like a pure time trial,” commented Luke Roberts.

Most riders would be familiar with their limitations in terms of watts per kg. And these virtual platforms would allow riders to see the watts per kg of their competitors, too. So one tactic they could use is to look at what their competitors are pushing and adjust their own output based on the situation. The team could also send one rider really hard to bait the competition into going over their limit and exhaust themselves early. And then a second rider who would pace himself would go for the overall win. But in reality, this was mostly a solo race, just like a time trial would be.

The coaches made sure to test out racing themselves

“Before the race, we did a few test events where I also got on the bike and rode with them. And there we communicated a lot about what things to focus on during the race. We discussed a lot of tips and tricks. We also had a WhatsApp group where we shared information. But our riders were well enough prepared and they didn’t actually need it during the race itself,” explained Luke Roberts.

Nutrition just like for a time trial

“We would basically treat it the same as a 1-hour time trial. The riders would have their final meal about 3 hours before the race and then just a light snack 1-1,5 hours before. During the race itself, it’s not possible to be taking in solid foods with such an intense short effort,” said Luke Roberts.

They would stick to sports drinks with electrolytes and gels for energy and hydration on the bike during the race, very much like with any time trial lasting over 30 minutes.

Digital races are an opportunity

“There is quite a lot of physically-talented riders out there that don’t reach their full potential because of lower technical skills or because they’re not good at aerodynamics. In an e-sport race, these factors are taken away,” explained Luke Roberts.

Team Sunweb saw the best performances by riders who have been training a lot at home on their home trainers in the weeks leading up to the Digital Suisse 5. Most notably, they celebrated Nicolas Roche winning stage three and coming in 2nd in stages one and five, and Michael Matthews coming in 2nd in stage four and 3rd in stage two.