When spinning your way around Zwift’s Watopia, you can sometimes become very aware of your surroundings and the fact that you’re in a virtual world - unless you live by Mount Etna, you’re not likely to encounter a volcano on the Saturday club run.

The Romanian computer programmer Alex Serban found this out to his frustrations a couple of years ago when he joined the beta version of the now market-leading software: “I saw the potential [of Zwift], but coming from a background of programming, graphics and AI, I had this habit of thinking 'what could I do better?'”

Fast forward just over two years and he’s now brought a beta version of his own virtual reality indoor training platform to market. Named Road Grand Tours (RGT), the software’s USP is that, unlike Zwift, the courses on the programme are complete imitations of real-world locations – even down to the flora and fauna. Also, unlike the programme that is currently synonymous with indoor training, Serban’s platform is currently free.

“The idea is to give people access to experiences that they don’t usually get access to,” he explains during a demonstration of the software. “It’s not only about having a solution if the weather is bad outside, but could be so much more.”

He goes on to list off benefits including riding virtually with people on the other side of the world, the ability to race in a time-saving manner, and even virtual tourism. “If you want to see the Ventoux or the Stelvio, it might take you a couple of weeks and whole lot of money to fly there," he says. "[With RGT] you could make it happen instantly in your living room.”

Road Grand Tours

The beta version currently has six courses available – Mallorca’s Cap Formentor and Tuscany’s Pienza joining Mont Ventoux and the Stelvio pass, alongside London and Berlin-based crit-racing circuits - with more on the horizon.

"The beta version currently has six courses available – Mallorca’s Cap Formentor and Tuscany’s Pienza joining Mont Ventoux and the Stelvio pass, alongside London and Berlin-based crit-racing circuits"

Each takes between two-to-three months to build from scratch, according to Serban. The process of mapping starts with the road itself; the company utilises VeloViewer’s data to make sure that the GPS coordinates and elevation are accurate, before it moves onto the most time-consuming part - making the environment. “We look at what sort of trees are in the area and what the road actually looks like – such as barriers and street signs – through our own research or Google StreetView,” says Serban. “That’s what makes you feel like you are there.”

Road Grand Tours

Requirements

Hardware: ANT+ smart trainer or classic trainer and ANT+ power meter; ANT+ USB dongle

Software: WINDOWS 7 SP1+, 8, 10 (64 BIT ONLY) or MAC OS X 10.12+

It’s all very well having an aesthetically pleasing programme – and RGT is one of the best virtual cycling platforms we’ve seen in terms of graphics – but it counts for nothing if it’s not a realistic experience.

The team has thought of this too and has built in a system that encompasses air friction, rolling resistance and drafting dependent on factors such as the user’s inputted height and weight, and the equipment their avatar is riding. RGT claim all of this combines to create an experience that is as lifelike as possible to the real thing. We thought we'd better try it out.

Road Grand Tours

When given a quick spin on the setup, I decided to take on the top section of Mont Ventoux, starting just over a kilometre from the summit at a rebuilt memorial to Tom Simpson. And if I’m honest, it seemed as realistic an experience as one would expect when tackling a 10 per cent climb - hard and sweaty.

"I decided to take on the top section of Mont Ventoux, starting just over a kilometer from the summit at a rebuilt memorial to Tom Simpson"

Having not personally ridden the climb in real life, it’s hard to compare. Also, I think I know which one I’d rather brag to friends about doing down the pub. Ultimately, you can’t escape the fact that you’re on a turbo trainer, even if it is equipped with Wahoo’s latest Kickr Climb grade simulator; there is no wind blowing through your hair, no feedback from the tyres as they roll along the road, and no euphoric sense of achievement when you reach the summit. Sure, the graphics are good for the cycling market, but are still nowhere near the ultra realism of mainstream computer games. Until indoor cycling gets up to speed with the latest technological developments (VR headset-totting helmets, anybody?), then as a user you’ll never really be able to escape from the fact that it’s just that - indoors.

Road Grand Tours

The beta version currently has 10,000 users worldwide that are predominantly located in the UK and Germany. And it is this community that Serban believes is at the heart of RGT’s initial success and its future: “Our ideas are our ideas, but since we value the involvement of our community so much, it’s going to be steered as much by them as by us.”

Overall, the RGT software seems like a promising start from a relatively new venture. The experience itself is quite intuitive and the various displays (speed, watt, cadence etc) are unobtrusive, allowing the details to sing. And it is these details that are arguably the highlight of the user experience. The company has really focused on attention to detail – right down to the cables flexing when the avatar brakes into corners – and Serban claims that his team of developers are always looking at ways to improve.

Only time will tell if RGT can ever compete with the likes of Zwift, but with it currently offering its beta version for free, indoor-trainer users might be tempted to switch from the roads of Watopia for some ‘real-world’ alternatives to see what all the fuss is about.

Find out more at Road Grand Tours.