This cycling race has the same premises as most: competitors undergoing months of training, cycling to the finish line, and the first to get there wins.
But in other ways, it couldn’t be more different.
Hosted by French sports chain Decathlon, the race consisted of two teams, one of which was named Team Breakaway. This was comprised of six inmates from the Oudenaarde Prison in Belgium, all assuming an animated avatar and the name of John Doe in order to protect their anonymity.
Their opponents? Team Justice: a group of law enforcers, led by Vincent Van Quickenborne, the country’s minister of justice.
The inmates participated in the race, which spanned 14 miles along the Champs-Élysées, from the prison’s gym. This was made possible through e-cycling platform Zwift.
During training, which lasted around half a year, the participants were able to interact and train with other users via the platform, without ever leaving the gym. “When one of my legs started to hurt, people motivated me. It was really beautiful,” one stated in a case study video done by Muse by Clio.
Frederik Clarysse, associate creative director at BBDO Belgium, the agency behind the project, shares that the idea stemmed from Decathlon’s vision of making sport accessible to all.
When the idea was pitched to the company, it “immediately saw the potential,” Clarysse recalls to Muse by Clio. “They showed huge courage in seeing it through. They also acknowledged that this was more than just a communications stunt. It’s become an ongoing project with a lasting impact on real people.”
The event was broadcast live from Decathlon’s Facebook page, and the sporting goods firm also provided the bikes, clothes, trainers, and all other gear required for the race.
Image via Breakaway
At the end of the race, Team Breakaway came just behind the law enforcement team, but everyone who took part in the race came away with much more than just a “win or lose” result.
As aptly stated on the project’s website, “Sport is freedom. Even when you’re stuck between four walls.”
Clarysse, who met with the six members of the team often, was able to see how much it meant to them to be able to cycle alongside others during training on Zwift. “It confirmed what I already thought: People who do something bad are not always bad people.”
Given the success of this event, there are plans in place to further expand this initiative to other institutions in the penal system in Belgium.
“Sport has a positive impact on people’s mental health—this also applies to detainees, of course,” Van Quickenborne states. “It is important to provide them with meaningful guidance from day one, so that they come out of prison better than they went in.”
As of time of writing, the John Doe profiles on Strava are still active, showing the latest routes traversed by the cyclists.