Hell yeah, artistic cycling

The World Championships you didn't know you needed to know about.

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Road cycling is pretty good, sure, but at some cellular level you must know that there’s a purer, more poetic form of the sport. It’s not BMX. It’s not mountain biking. It’s not even gravel cycling. I’m talking, of course, about what the UCI calls ‘Indoor Cycling’. 

What’s that? Any cycling is ‘indoor’ if you do it indoors? Well, yes, I suppose you’re technically correct, but we needn’t bog ourselves down in these petty semantics. In the eyes of the sport’s governing body, indoor cycling is not track cycling (although that is also usually indoors) but is instead divided into two disciplines: artistic cycling, and cycle-ball. Both of them are mesmerising and weird as hell. 

Before we go any further, have a snappy teaser from a few years ago to give you the basic flavour:

As if the very existence of these two disciplines wasn’t enough to turn your day from drab to fab, I’ve got some even better news for you. Last weekend it was the 2022 World Championships, giving us a rare livestreamed glimpse into the bizarre, heavily-German-accented world of one of cycling’s most fringe disciplines. 

Having succumbed to the temptation to tune in, here are my findings. 

In a spin

First things first: artistic cycling. Holy moly, you guys! Contested as a singles, pairs or four-person team event (for some reason, that last one’s called ‘ACT 4’), artistic cycling is a bit like the pommel horse discipline of artistic gymnastics, with a dash of synchronised swimming thrown in. On a strange-looking fixed gear bike, with a big flat saddle and upside down handlebars. 

Jana Pfann (Germany) was crowned as women’s individual artistic cycling world champion.

The athlete (or athletes) completes a routine, scored by judges for difficulty and execution. Any single component would leave the average punter nursing broken bones or crotch-based trauma – some examples include a headstand on the saddle, or a handstand on the bars, or a jump from the seat onto the handlebar, all while the bike is in motion. 

At points during the team events, members roll their bikes off the court and jump on the shoulders of their team-mates, who then roll around on one wheel. It’s a compelling blend of graceful, skilful, and silly. 

Here are four outrageous screenshots from the Swiss women’s pairs team, who did all of these objectively astonishing things and still finished outside the medals:

Balls to the wall

Then there’s cycle-ball, a male-dominated sport with two teams of two riders, each manoeuvring a handball-sized ball toward a goal. Unlike bike polo, there are no mallets – the bike itself is what moves the ball, by an array of flicks and swipes of the front wheel. Cycle-ball is divided into two halves of ten minutes, with the team with the most goals winning. According to a commentator on the UCI livestream, “there is only one rule – you can only attack from the ball side… [knowing chuckle] But this rule will be stretched by every defender.“

I understand all the words in this ‘one rule’ but not what they mean, and particularly not at a level that I could knowingly chuckle, but I choose to believe that inscrutability adds to the charm of what’s going on.

Based on the live chat on the Youtube stream, at least some of the 11,000 viewers were as much in the dark as I was:

The bikes are, as with artistic cycling, weird fixed gear things – but in a different way. There’s a saddle positioned way, way back behind the bottom bracket, in line with the top tube, and the handlebars are also positioned upside down (although for artistic cycling aficionados, I suppose our drop bars are the wrong way around, and who am I to say they’re wrong):

So that’s the basic gist of the two indoor cycling disciplines – but how are the vibes? 

The vibes

Based on the evidence before me, it’s a pretty niche affair. None of our usual photographers were in attendance, including worldwide photographic titan Getty Images, which is instructive in itself.

In terms of coverage, the UCI put up a livestreamed seven hour-long video, which was eerily silent for the first 22 minutes, before a bit of on-mic breathing and the tapping of keys announced the arrival of a commentator. 

For the first hour and 10 minutes, there was no crowd noise, just silent single-camera shots of applause and no musical accompaniment to the artistic cycling.

When they finally fixed that little technical snafu I was surprised by how raucous the crowd got during the cycle-ball events. Especially considering the setting, which – as you can see in the feature image up top, was a half-empty indoor stadium in Ghent with an almost fully-empty front row of VIP seats. 

Some pleased Austrians.

Given the niche nature of these two disciplines, there’s not a particularly broad spread of nations competing  – every single event was won by a competitor from either Germany, Switzerland, or Austria, with some combination of the above typically occupying all steps on the podium* [*Spain won one bronze medal courtesy of a rider who has lived his entire life in Germany; Hong Kong won bronze in the ACT 4 because there were only three teams competing, their score almost being tripled by Switzerland and Germany].

Some tentative steps toward the globalisation of indoor cycling came from that Hong Kong delegation, along with a Hungarian finalist in the male artistic cycling – a gent who has also competed on that country’s version of Ninja Warrior – but otherwise it was a largely Germanic affair, especially at the pointy-end of proceedings.

That all said, there was an endearing quality to this particular World Championships – more so than the sometimes stuffy bureaucracy of, say, Road Worlds.

Besides the outrageous skill of all the Germans and German-speakers twirling around, I liked that things were a bit less stage-managed. I liked, for instance, the occasional random glimpse of a huge teddy bear mascot lurking around the wings:

A bear lingers behind the Belgian cycle-ball squad [they would finish fourth].

I liked that the official results documentation has, for reasons unknown, nine blank pages at the end, and nobody has cared enough to fix that. I liked that the telecast finished long before the livestream did, so you could – if you were so inclined – spend 2 hours and 20 minutes watching the following static frame: 

No, thank you for showing me The LIVE.

I also liked that the last thing you saw before the camera cut were a couple of small children just rolling things back and forth to each other on the court, without any commissaires screaming at them or anything:

Most of all, I liked that – despite having spent most of my working life around bikes – there was still something to learn. That there was a whole world of really strange tech just lurking there. That, like the skeleton or synchronised swimming at the Olympics, I have an excuse to tune in and take a brief but passionate interest in a niche sport I won’t watch again until the next time the thing pierces more mainstream attention. Even if that’s in the form of a sparsely attended live-stream full of strange silences.

Hell yeah, indoor cycling. It’s been a wild ride.

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