Why Zwift is expanding from virtual racing to support Tour de France Femmes in real life

'We’re in it for the long term, and we want to build something sustainable,' said Zwift's Kate Veronneau.

Photo: Getty Images

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Qu’est-ce que Zwift?

Far from the tech bubbles of sunny California and deep in Paris’ historic 17th arrondissement, Kate Veronneau and a team from Zwift took the French media on a tour of the virtual platform to help them answer the question – so, what exactly is Zwift?

It’s a query worth answering, since the online training platform has partnered with Tour de France operator ASO as title sponsor of the Tour de France Femmes for the next four years.

While the press conference on Wednesday was intended to introduce the media to the title sponsor of the Tour de France Femmes, for Veronneau, director of women’s strategy and content at Zwift, it was a chance to explain how the virtual platform intends to be a different kind of financial partner.

“Yes, Zwift is a virtual world,” Veronneau told VeloNews. “We can make our own rules, men and women are equal. But as a company, we want to use that influence beyond the virtual world. We want to lead in this space. In order to build a sustainable model for women’s cycling, we have to bring the whole ecosystem with us.”

And so Zwift is going to the top of the food chain.

“We want to partner with the ASO to build a sustainable, exciting, innovative model,” Veronneau said. “We feel like we have set a good example already. This is part of our bigger strategy to invest in the future of women’s cycling. We’re not just throwing money in and walking away.”

Zwift already has a stellar track record in committing to gender parity in bike racing through the online platform. While its involvement with the Tour de France Femmes is Zwift’s most high-profile move in women’s cycling, it’s not the first.

Six years ago, the company debuted Zwift Academy, a talent ID program aimed at fast-tracking young female cyclists to the WorldTour. Half a dozen riders have graduated the program and gone on to race with Canyon-SRAM. In 2017, a partnership with Alpecin-Fenix was added for male riders. Zwift Academy also sees huge participation numbers from those not seeking a pro contract.

Veronneau said that the true catalyst for Zwift’s involvement in the Tour de France Femmes was the success of the virtual Tour de France, which debuted on the platform in July of 2020.

“It was a great demonstration of the appetite for women’s racing, the energy of it, the personalities, everything,” she said. “It was five stages and every day we switched the order of who went first. It was broadcast in 130 countries, and the viewership was incredible. I think a lot of the [female] racers saw it as an exciting opportunity to be on the stage, and they brought their A game. It was a really exciting event, and it planted the seed. It proved the concept. It’s time.”

Unless another global pandemic shuts down in-person racing, Veronneau said that Zwift is firmly committed to focusing on the real event rather than continuing to host a virtual Tour de France. A significant part of that commitment will be ensuring that the Tour de France Femmes has robust live broadcasting, something that other failed iterations of the event have not been able to capitalize on.

“There will be at least two hours of coverage each day,” she said. “It’s been so frustrating; if you want to be a women’s cycling fan, you follow races on Twitter. But if you put the same cameras and the same camera angles and motos in the race, we saw it with Paris Roubaix, the action is there. It’s excellent racing, it just needs the right exposure.”

While Veronneau was not able to comment on the Tour de France Femmes route or prize money — that will come in Thursday’s official announcement — she said she is confident that the ASO will announce a challenging course and equitable award.

“It will be significant, on par with a men’s eight-day stage race, something like the Dauphiné,” she said. “I’m exited about it. But we will also want to grow it every year, this is just a starting point.”

But will the long-awaited arrival of the Tour de France Femmes represent a starting point, or the pinnacle of progress? Veronneau said she wants to celebrate it as a high-water mark — and then build on it.

“I joke, ‘Paris was not built in a day,'” she said. “There are a lot of steps but we’re taking big steps right now. I want to appreciate the progress and the incredible momentum. This is the start of something really big. We’re in it for the long term, and we want to build something sustainable.”

An American in France

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