Zwift to the sword: Road Grand Tours takes on the world of virtual cycling


Joe Robinson

15 May 2018

The newest competitor to Zwift is still in beta and offers some food for thought for virtual cycling users

When somebody comes along and introduces us to a new product that we have never used before and it turns out to be a success, it makes it pretty difficult for subsequent competitors to offer a similar product.

Since its beta launch in September 2014, Zwift has been pretty much the only option for virtual cycling, a format in which you can turn your cycling training into an interactive game.

Its neat graphics and inclusive world have been embraced by the cycling community and its clever use of professional cyclists and social media have made it a household name despite being such a new product. 

It has grown to a point in which there are half a million worldwide users and that, via Zwift, you could actually get yourself a professional contract.

This grandeur of it all could make it daunting for any prospective competitor but that has not stopped Road Grand Tours from trying.

A small company run out of Bucharest, Romania, this latest virtual cycling world is attempting to take on Zwift at its own game.

The first thing of note about RGT is that, unlike Zwift, its focus is entirely on introducing real life environments into a virtual format.

There are no plans for created worlds, like Watopia, and all the rideable features online will be accessible in real life.

Starting with the Stelvio Pass, the team moved on to Mont Ventoux, Cap de Formentor and the white roads of Tuscany as its marquee climbs and areas to ride. All popular cycling destinations in real life.

‘We will always strive to be realistic,’ said founder and creator Alex Serban. ‘It’s about feeling immersed into the ride and to give you the tools that make you mentally believe you are on the Stelvio.

‘Nobody really loves cycling indoors so we want to cast a spell that makes you believe you are actually on that road.’ 

To cast this spell, plenty of thought has gone into the development of the road. To get the make up of the climb correct, RGT has worked with recent phenomena VeloViewer to acquire accurate GPS data for the climbs, not only for gradient but also road direction.

It has also gone a step further by researching the local areas of the climbs to make sure the surrounding virtual world has the right vegetation, accurate tree heights and, of course, famous landmarks. 

This helps create a world that’s an accurate representation to real life but I’m not entirely sure that’s what’s needed. Riding through the thick forest to Chalet Reynard at the lower slopes of Mont Ventoux is mythical in real life but just looks like any old forest on screen.

What should work however, is the detail put into the rider. With the focus being on ‘not bursting the bubble’ the RGT team have worked tirelessly in creating an accurate riding experience.

Unlike Zwift, you cannot use ‘virtual power’ making the use of a power meter necessary as opposed to speed or cadence sensors.

Extra care has also been applied to the physics of how the climb reacts in relation to your smart turbo trainer.

So with an ‘accurate weight’, in theory it should feel like you are actually climbing the Stelvio. You should be forced into dropping down to the 34/28 and your times should match up to what you have achieved in real life.

‘We decided not to allow virtual power,’ Serban said. ‘We don’t see this as a problem however as real power gives you the accurate experience.

‘This experience means that we have had users that have scored like for like times on the Stelvio in game and in real life.’

Not just going uphill but down, the developers have given thought. Unlike Zwift, taking corners at 80km/h is not possible. As you approach a bend, you will see your avatar actually reach for the brake levers and your speed will drop down to a realistic level, which is a nice touch. 

On screen, alongside the virtual braking, there are some other neat additions to the game. For example, your avatar, like in Zwift, is fully customisable with the option of wearing and riding real life kit and bikes even down to a set of 25mm Vittoria Corsas.

RGT has teamed up with Strava so you can record rides and segments, and mountain summits are cleverly marked out by orange Strava-branded hoardings giving it a race-like feel.

The interface is also neat, allows a choice of camera angles and can be easily operated from the keyboard of you computer.

Currently there is no accompanying app, which is a downside, but this is in development and should hopefully be released soon.

Still only in beta, RGT is free and has no plans of charging at the moment. Currently the community of users sits around the 10,000 mark which Serban attests to growing through word of mouth and limited marketing.

This same community is what helps develop the game. When Serban was looking at adding new climbs to the game, he asked users and they produced a surprising answer. 

Serban admitted, ‘we looked to our users to suggest what they would want to ride on and they gave us a really unexpected response.

‘There was a large call for flat roads and options to race and compete in e-fondos.’

Serban responded by building the 8BAR Crit and the visually stunning Canary Wharf. These pan-flat crit courses give users the option of riding at speed and produce a platform to race.

If racing online is your thing, this is a perfect addition, however, when riding alone or even with others outside of a competitive environment, they can provide a pretty bland experience.

Nevertheless, the look of the nighttime Canary Wharf scene is a spectacular build. 

I haven’t managed to use RGT in the flesh yet but I have seen it in action. It looks polished despite being in beta and the easily navigated interface and focus on accuracy makes this an attractive prospect.

Whether it proves to be a real competitor to Zwift is yet to be seen and there are certainly going to be some flaws. Slight graphic glitches and potentially dull scenery being some.

Yet with any luck, RGT will be successful and present a genuine threat to Zwift which will in turn make Zwift look for improvements creating a situation in which we see a market of virtual cycling that begins to push more boundaries.