If you’ve ever played a sports videogame in the past it was probably the sort of game where you mashed a button or two to get your on-screen character to go faster. Pro Cycling Manager 2013 isn’t that sort of game — it’s a big, detailed cycling simulator that gives you control of every aspect of running a cycling team, from racing to keeping the sponsors happy.

At the heart of this game is the Career mode, where you take on the role of team manager and guide a team through the 2013 racing season. You can choose to lead a Continental squad (Drapac is the only Australian Conti team in the game), a ProContinental squad, a WorldTour squad or a custom squad that you build up by buying riders from a salary cap of 600,000 Euros.

The all-Australian CyclingTips AllStars.

The all-Australian CyclingTips AllStars. Note that some riders’ names aren’t correct due to licensing issues. This can be fixed by updating the rider database.

As the season progresses you take charge over seemingly every decision related to your squad, including:

– choosing the races that your team will do
– booking training camps for your riders, and deciding where, when, and for how long they’ll be and which riders will go
– managing the season objectives for the team
– managing the season objectives for each rider in the squad
– managing the team’s sponsorships
– managing the team’s cash flow
– managing the team staff, including riders, trainers, doctors and talent scouts
– managing rider injuries.

Yep, there’s a lot to think about. It’s a micro-manager’s dream with more bits and pieces to tweak than you could ever imagine. And playing the game for the first time and seeing all those options is more than a little daunting.

But the good news is you don’t have to worry about most of these things if you don’t want to. The game selects default values for a lot of things so you can get on with the racing.

Every rider on your squad has objectives for the season, which you can tweak. The rider's fitness will vary throughout the season (the graph above) and will affect how strong the rider is for certain races.

Every rider on your squad has objectives for the season which you can tweak if you want to. The rider’s fitness will vary throughout the season (see the graph above) and will affect how strong the rider is for certain races. You can see from the graph above that Simon Gerrans was in ordinary form at the start of the season. Read on to find out how things panned out.

The daily grind

You move through the season day-by-day, receiving in-game emails that tell you about upcoming races, news from other teams, race invites, rider news and so on. When a race day rolls around you pick a team of riders from your squad and then decide whether you’ll get the AI to simulate the race for you or if you’ll take charge of the team out on the road.

If you choose to simulate the race, you start by assigning roles to each of the riders on your team. Who’s the team leader? Who’s the sprinter? Who’s going to lead out the sprinter? Who’s going to target breakaways? Who’s going to reel in breakaways? Who’s going to take risks? Once the roles are assigned, you hit “Quick simulation” and hope everything goes to plan.

The simulation option is good if you want to skip through smaller races or boring stages. It’s the 3D Race option that allows you actually take part in the races.

When you choose to simulate a race you get to assign roles for each of your riders.

When you choose to simulate a race you get to assign roles for each of your riders.

In the race

After selecting “3D Race” you’re taken to the startline and you have control of all riders on your team. Again, this isn’t one of those sports games where you repeatedly mash a single button over and over to make your rider go faster — instead you give them commands that influence how they ride in the context of the race around them.

Endurance bars on the side of the screen show you how fatigued each of your riders is and with that in mind you can instruct your riders to:

– maintain their current position in the group they’re in
– come to the front of the group (e.g. before launching an attack, or just to stay out of trouble)
– come to the front of the group and work until they’re out of energy (e.g. good for lead-outs and catching breakaways)
– ride at a tempo of your choosing
– attack
– sprint (only available at the end of the race or at intermediate sprint points)

Your riders have two bidons and will run out of water as the race progresses. You can send a rider back to the team car to collect water and ride through the peloton to give new bidons to his teammates. Riders without water won’t be able to perform anywhere near their best.

Each rider has a single gel to use at some point in the race and eating that gel will give them an energy boost and a possible advantage on a climb or attack.

Each of your riders can be controlled by selecting their icon at the side of the screen. From there you can instruct them how to behave. The bottom of the screen shows the race profile and the time gaps between the various groups on the road.

Each of your riders can be controlled by selecting their name at the side of the screen. From there you can choose how you want the to ride. The bottom of the screen shows the race profile and the time gaps between the various groups on the road.

Gameplay

Playing through a 200km race can take anywhere between 10 minutes and half an hour, depending on the speed you play it at. You can speed things up to 2x, 4x or 8x regular speed — perfect for skipping long, boring, flat sections before a climb, for example.

Even at regular speed a 200km stage in this game won’t take you anywhere near as long as the real thing. This a good thing — very few gamers are going to be interested in spending 6 hours playing through a single stage, especially when there are so many races in the season.

Compressing the races in this way has the effect of making roadside scenery and the visuals look a bit strange. Racing on famous roads or climbs feels and looks similar but it’s never quite right. Mont Ventoux in the game, for example, features a forested section and then a moonscape section — just like in the real world — but those sections are compressed and the whole climb takes an in-game Chris Froome less than 10 minutes (can we agree to avoid jokes about doping here?).

Similarly, don’t wait until the “Sommet 1km” banner before launching your climber — the KOM line will come up within seconds.

The final kilometre of the Mont Ventoux climb. Notice how it's compressed compared with the real thing?

The final kilometre of the Mont Ventoux climb. Notice how it’s compressed compared with the real thing?

The game looks nice enough and there are a number of camera angles to allow you to see the race from more perspectives than you get in a TV broadcast of a real race.

The character models don’t look quite right though and most of the riders look exactly the same — close-ups of Frank Schleck and Simon Gerrans looked almost identical, for example. And then there are a few weird clipping bugs which allow riders to ride through one other and commissaires’ cars to drive through the riders. Luckily no-one seems to get hurt in the process.

There’s also some weird animation bugs that are more funny than anything. For example, rider close-ups show cranks and chainrings turning … while the chain is perfectly stationary.

The commentary in sports games is normally pretty terrible, courtesy of repeated phrases, formulaic comments and an inability to accurately describe the variable nature of sporting contests. Sadly, the commentary in Pro Cycling Manager 2013 isn’t much better.

There’s actually very little commentary, apart from the occasional “It’s an attack from Rider X!”, but some of the stock phrases I heard were hilarious. My favourite was “Some riders are literally disintegrating from the rhythm in the pack!”. I don’t think even Jens Voigt is strong enough to physically tear riders apart just by riding hard.

The aerial views are particularly nice.

The aerial views are particularly nice.

Life as a team manager

To test out the gameplay and to get a feel for Career mode I started a season as manager of Orica-GreenEDGE. After booking a random training camp in Innsbruck in May for some of my riders — it was cheaper than all the other locations — it was straight into the Australian Nationals at Buninyong.

I’d targeted this race as a season objective (as you’d probably expect for Orica-GreenEDGE) and my team was riding for Simon Gerrans with Luke Durbridge targeting a breakaway.

As planned, Durbridge got in an early break and was looking good … until he got caught with more than half the race still to go. Shortly after Durbridge was reeled in, Malcolm Rudolph from Drapac got away with Jack Bobridge (who was riding for Blanco at that point in the year).

I wanted a rider in the break and lazily sent the rider closest to the front of the peloton to join them. That rider happened to be Stuart O’Grady and after he joined Rudolph and Bobridge I noticed the break’s lead was coming down. With 70km to go I thought “why not?”, and sent O’Grady off by himself to see how long he’d last.

We started off the national champs riding for Gerrans ... but things didn't pan out that way.

We started off the national champs riding for Gerrans … but things didn’t pan out that way.

On the penultimate time up Mt. Buninyong O’Grady was a few minutes ahead of the peloton when Richie Porte (appearing in the game as “Richard Morte” due to licensing issues) attacked solo. In the remaining kilometres the break steadily came down with Porte stomping away, but somehow O’Grady held on, winning the national champs ahead of Porte and my team leader, Simon Gerrans, who’d attacked late to take third place.

No sooner had O’Grady won the nationals than I got this in-game email. Hmm.

OGrady-announces-retirement1

I played through the next month or so of races and put in a largely forgettable performance. I’d targeted the Tour Down Under (as you would) and thrown everything behind Gerrans, but he and the team had obviously been enjoying the Adelaide nightlife a little too much and performed terribly on the road.

Matt Goss picked up a couple of top-fives at the Tour of Oman after I forgot, somehow, to take him to the pancake-flat Tour of Qatar.

We enjoyed some success at the Volta Agarve when Simon Clarke won the opening stage, but I can’t take any credit for that — I simulated the race rather than racing it. I took control for the next stage though and ensured he held on to second place overall (he wasn’t first due to time bonuses). But on stage 3 he lost about 15 minutes and my dreams of winning a stage race with Orica-GreenEDGE were dashed.

There are dozens of races you can send your team to throughout the year, from small tours to the Spring Classics, through to the Tour de France. Rather than playing through six months of the year (which would have taken me probably 24 hours or so) I decided to skip straight to the biggest cycling event of the year.

There are more than 150 races throughout the season that you can choose to send a team to.

I counted more than 160 races throughout the season that I could have sent a team to.

Tour de France

I played through the 2013 Tour de France from start to finish, simulating some stages and playing others. I made sure that I played stage 3 (to try and recreate Gerrans’ win into Calvi this year), stage 4 (to try and recreate the Orica-GreenEDGE TTT win), stage 8 (to see if any of my climbers could win to Ax-3-Domaines like Froome had done), stage 15 (just to see how the game represented Mont Ventoux), stage 18 (to see Alpe d’Huez) and the final stage (for the Champs Elysees).

All in all it was a pretty ordinary tour for Orica-GreenEDGE. The closest we got to glory was a surprising third place for Matt Goss on the Champs Elysees behind breakaway survivor Julien Simon and Mark Cavendish. Goss also picked up fourth place on the opening stage (which Marcel Kittel won in the game too) and Gerrans snagged fifth on stage 14.

Orica-GreenEDGE's in-game TTT performance was about as far from the real-life version as possible.

Orica-GreenEDGE’s in-game TTT performance was about as far from the real-life version as possible.

But my attempts to recreate Gerrans’ stage 3 win ended with him finishing 15th and my dreams of an in-game Orica-GreenEDGE TTT win were dashed in the first kilometre. Not only did I lead the team to dead last, we finished more than 2 minutes behind the next slowest team over 25km. Yep, that bad.

Chris Froome (appearing as Chris Vroome thanks to licensing issues) mirrored real life to win the in-game general classification, 3:28 ahead of Joaquin Rodriguez. Froome never won a stage but Rodriguez took three. Contador won four stages, including the three summit finishes to Mont Ventoux, Alpe d’Huez and Semnoz no less. Mark Cavendish improved on his real-life performance winning three stages in-game, and Tony Martin won both ITTs.

We were only 40km into stage 15 (the Mont Ventoux stage) and the Team Sky train was at the front. Contador would go on to win the stage.

We were only 40km into the 240km-long stage 15 (the Mont Ventoux stage) and the Team Sky train was already at the front for Chris Froome. Contador would go on to win the stage.

Beyond career mode

But there’s more to this game than the Tour de France and Career mode. You can just jump in and play individual stages, individual races (like the Spring Classics), or whole stage races if you like. And then there are the track events.

Unlike the road events where you give your riders commands that affect their riding, on the track you use the arrow keys on your keyboard to directly control your rider. The right and left keys control your rider’s position on the track (higher or lower, respectively) while the up and down keys control the intensity of the rider’s effort. Thankfully there’s no button-mashing to speak of.

The key to the track events, just as in real life, is to go as hard as you can while ensuring your rider’s energy isn’t depleted before the end.

In the thick of the action with "Shane Porkins".

In the thick of the action with “Shane Porkins”.

You can do a range of events, including the Keirin, sprints, elimination races, points races, the omnium and more. These events are the exact opposite of Career mode — quick races that you can dip in and out of without needing to invest hours in the minutiae of running a team. I had fun speeding around with Shane Porkins (not a typo — licensing issues) and even won a handful of races.

And then there’s multiplayer where you can race against human opponents over the internet. I didn’t spend much time with this mode at all but the basic premise seems to be that you’re given “cards”, each of which features a single rider, and as you progress you get access to different (and presumably better) riders.

"Porko" grabs a sprint prime in the points race.

“Porko” grabs a sprint prime in the points race.

Final thoughts

Pro Cycling Manager 2013 strikes me as a game that some people will absolutely love, that some people will play once and never touch again, and that others will never go near. I don’t know how much time I’ll personally spend in this game but being at the helm of a cycling team is pretty good fun.

More could have been done to ease the new player into the 3D Race environment — I had to play it with the game’s manual open on my iPad — and a couple of tutorials wouldn’t have gone astray. The amount of detail in career mode could have used some explaining too — I found it very daunting to be bombarded with so many choices and variables early in the game with only minimal explanation. And the fact there’s no women’s racing in the game is disappointing.

Those criticisms aside, Pro Cycling Manager is a good bit of fun for the cycling-obsessed among us and well worth a look if you’ve got some time on your hands. And if you don’t have hours and hours to invest in career mode, the dip-in-dip-out gameplay of track and standalone road races is worth exploring.

Pro Cycling Manager 2013 is available for Windows PC (via digital download or DVD), Playstation 3 and XBox and costs between $48 and $68 depending on the platform and retailer. I reviewed the Windows PC version downloaded via Steam.