Sporting life

Cycling is among the most flexible of sports
October 19, 2011
Not so easy riding: Hong Kong’s Ip Hin Bon and Yu Po Man compete in the men’s pair artistic cycling at the East Asian Games, 2009

Variety being the spice of life, most sports develop unusual versions of their mainstream rules. There have been, for example, experiments with underwater rugby, hockey and golf; football is competitively played on grass, sand, and in bogs or swamps; and, in Ireland, bowls has left the greens and taken to the roads.

Cycling has proved among the most flexible of sports. In addition to the traditional velodrome and road racing versions, the Olympics now feature BMX and mountain biking competitions. In 1908 the London Games gave a slot to cycle polo, in which teams of seven riders carrying polo sticks chased each other and a small hard ball across a muddy football pitch. Sadly, the sport has not returned to the Olympics but lives on in a modernised three-a-side indoor game that has achieved recognition by the global cycling authorities, the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale). The X Games and street sports circuit boast a range of freestyle acrobatic contests. Meanwhile, unicycles are moving out of the realm of the purely comic prop and turning into instruments of fearsome competition—unicyclists are not merely road racing but have taken to mountain climbing too.

From 4th to 6th November, the Japanese city of Kagoshima will host the World Indoor Cycling Championships, which will feature yet two more ways of competing on a bike: artistic cycling and cycle-ball. Artistic cycling is a cross between circus skills and rhythmic gymnastics: one or two athletes perform a series of moves and postures while balancing on a bike that is turning a tight circle on the floor of a gymnasium. Cycle-ball, known as radball in its German-speaking heartlands, is two-a-side indoor football in which you can’t use your feet to strike the ball, but must do so with the wheels of your specially adapted bike.

The roots of artistic cycling lie in music hall and vaudeville. In the last quarter of the 19th century, no playbill was complete without a few speciality acts. Alongside the tightrope walkers, sword swallowers and magicians, trick cyclists found a niche and an audience. Among the earlier troupes were the Cycling Elliotts, who not only did bike tricks but were a seven-piece family band performing light classical favourites and John Philip Sousa marches. Other acts would balance a bike on a rotating drum, perform handstands on a bottle placed on the saddle or, combining many arts, play the trombone while unicycling on a tightrope.

None of these acts bequeathed us artistic cycling as an international sport; that honour goes to the Swiss-American impresario Nicholas Kaufmann and his ensemble Kaufmann’s Cycling Beauties. This six-piece group of young Edwardian women performed ballet and gymnastic postures while cycling on music hall stages and were noted for their risqué costumes. World championships have been held since 1956 and artistic cycling has acquired all the paraphernalia of a minor but official sport—detailed classification of the positions, systems of coaching, training, scoring and judging. Cyclists perform handstands on the handlebars, pairs perform lifts and towers while perched on the cross bar and in the team version, synchronise figure of eights while standing on tiptoes on the pedals. It is like Cirque du Soleil with points.

Cycle-ball, according to the UCI’s account, also traces its roots to Kaufmann, who as a sideline performed a comic bike act with his dog Mops. The poor beast was apparently flipped playfully around the stage by Kaufmann’s front wheel. In Germany, they spared the animals, took these tricks into the gym, and got serious. The first World Championships was staged in 1930 in Leipzig and today there are over 10,000 licensed players in the country. Smaller but equally fervent cycle-ball scenes can be found across central Europe.

In its modern version the game is played in two seven-minute periods in a space about half the size of a basketball court with 6ft-high goals. The ball is stuffed with horsehair so it won’t bounce. The bikes have no gears or fixed wheels; vertical handlebars allow the players to rear up and volley the ball goalwards. Players can’t use hands unless they’re within two metres of their goal, otherwise it’s wheel to ball only.

Neither of these sports is heading for the Olympics or commercial success any time soon, but they both have their idiosyncratic attraction. The cycle-ball world championships draws large crowds when held in Germany. And the sports are perhaps a window on another world, the small towns and large villages of central Europe, where a long tradition of rather severe gymnastics and indoor ball games has been lightened up by an unlikely historical injection of American razzmatazz.