When most of us think of cycling and competition, we think of racing our bicycle against another person or the clock or against ourselves in the form of personal records. But since 1956, the Union Cycliste Internationale, cycling competition’s governing body, has awarded rainbow stripes to a whole slew of competitions in what is referred to as “indoor cycling.”
Let me clarify that the UCI, in its infinite patriarchy, didn’t offer a world championship in artistic cycling for women until 1970. *Bangs head on desk.
The video here is the most recent I could find of a women’s quartet that won the world championship; this is the Swiss contingent, in 2017.
Among the various competitions are cycle ball, which is essentially football (soccer to us) played with bikes. Yeah. But there are also cycling’s answer figure skating, known as Artistic Cycling: singles, doubles and quartets, both male and female.
What I love about Artistic Cycling is the way it gives these athletes (and I have zero issue with granting them that honorific) a fresh canvas on which to project their creativity. Creativity aside, what I truly marvel at is their ability, and there’s no easy way to frame just how good these athletes are, but Ima try.
Wait. Before I do that, I want point out a few details about the bikes they ride. In addition to being fixed gear, so that they can pedal backward until even I want to misplace my supper, the bikes have a crazy short wheelbase. The forks have no rake—that is, the fork points neither forward nor backward, which makes the handling slower and more predictable. A handy thing if you plan to stand on the saddle and handlebar. And I love how the saddle is as much a place to stand as sit.
So let’s jump in with the Intro to Artistic Cycling 101 move: the track stand. I know very few cyclists who can hold one for more than 10 seconds. It’s the prerequisite to everything else these gymnasts of cycling do. Riding backward? that’s the follow up, Artistic Cycling 102. Doing stuff on one wheel? It’s hard enough to do on a unicycle; worrying about a handlebar, or doing it while sitting on the front wheel is another big leap in difficulty. Riding backward for more than a meter or two is damned hard, fixed gear or not. Add riding backward on one wheel and now you’ve got your first upper-division class. Oh, you want her to do it with no hands? Sure. And doing any of that stuff with the sort of grace that we see in figure skaters—holy flightless waterfowl Danny MacAskill—have you ever watched most of us in a track stand? Just staying upright is a big enough challenge to make grace as inconceivable as a gargoyle on a modern office building.
While we chasing this particular rabbit down this particular hole, take note of just how small that court is in which they ply their trade. It’s reasonably big for just one rider, though still much smaller than a skating rink, but put four riders on it and get them all moving? Hell, you need choreography performed flawlessly just to keep them from ramming into each other.
The other facet of this sport that I find so interesting is one of the more curious realities of creativity. We can’t ever really know what will spark a person’s desire to create art. These women do this because the bike spoke to them in some way that gymnastics and figure skating did not.
It’s a testament to the power of finding your thing.