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SPOTLIGHT ON CYCLEBALL

Soccer that’s played the wheely way

by Yoko Hani

I like soccer. I like to watch it. I even tried to play it a few times when I was a kid, though I was not good at sports that didn’t require me to use my hands, so I switched to tennis and basketball. But I can imagine how skillful you have to be to play football well, and how much fun and how exciting all that passing and dribbling and tackling and shooting must be if you are good at it.

There are those, though, who don’t aspire to be a Ronaldo, a Ronaldinho or a Shunsuke Nakamura, yet who still seek more — and different excitement — through the sport. Some such folk play soccer while riding a bike.

These two-wheeled Diego Maradonas bash, pass and shoot — not with an infamous “hand of god” — but only with the wheels of their bikes that are specially designed for the sport. Their game is called “cycle soccer,” or “cycleball,” and usually each team numbers just two players. If you are from Europe, you might be familiar with this, as the sport is now more popular there than in Japan.

According to the formally titled Japan Federation of Indoor Cycling, in this country, cycleball was introduced to university sports activities in the 1960s, and the first all-Japan varsity championship was held in 1969. But though cycleball has a certain history here, it is still not well known. In fact, the Web site of the cycleball club of the Tokyo Institute of Technology — one of the oldest university cycleball teams in Japan — says that there are currently only about 200 players in this land of some 127 million folk.

In the all-Japan university championships held in October last year, the cycleball pairs from Tokyo Institute of Technology ended up being second to fourth out of the 31 teams from six universities that competed.

To check out this little-known sport and its rare thrills, I visited Tokyo Institute of Technology one recent evening.

When I arrived at the college gymnasium in Okayama in Tokyo, the players were busy setting up two cycleball courts of 14×11 meters by placing panel boards with court markings on the floor.

“Give us time, as it will take about 30 minutes,” said junior-year student Tatsuhiko Saito, captain of the 20-member squad. Meanwhile, around the courts, bikes were being turned upside-down for final tuning and some members were busy making final adjustments to their customized machines with their fixed-gear setup that allows them to stop on the spot or even go backward, and their high, forward-leaning handlebars that make it easier to ride standing up.

Soon after the “pitches” were in place, the players began to ride their bikes and practice controlling and kicking the ball using both the front wheel or the back one. These special bikes, I learned, are designed so that the rider can pedal while standing — which is a must as they only very rarely get a chance to sit down during a game.

“The most fascinating aspect of cycleball is that you can enjoy the elements of both soccer and cycling,” Saito said. “When you play, you will quickly realize how fast teams can switch from attack to defense or defense to attack. You never get tired of playing it — though playing it is very tiring,” he added.

“But first, you have to learn how to ride and control the bike.”

Saito said that players have to practice long and hard in order to be able to keep pedaling their bikes while standing, because if they fall down or even touch the ground during a game, they are immediately penalized by having to go back behind the end line of their territory before they can rejoin the fray.

Another rule is that cycleball players cannot touch the ball with their bikes unless their feet are on the pedals — in other words, they are not allowed to kick the ball. However, they are allowed to use both the front and back wheels of their bikes to control or play the ball, and they can use their bodies to block the ball, and even head it as long as they keep hold of their bike’s handlebars with their feet on the pedals. But — and this only applies to a specific “shooting” area in front of the goal — the player who is acting as goalkeeper can use their hands as long as they are still pedaling the bike.

On the day I visited, I saw them all warm up. Then four players went to one of the courts and had a 7-minute game — which is half the time of an official match. You may think that a mere 7 minutes is a short time, but in fact, the sport is so hard and speedy that even after that short period the players end up covered in sweat. In official games, they have a 2-minute break and then face the second half of another 7 minutes.

The skills they displayed, and their speed — especially as seen at corner kicks, when they hit the ball off its spot with a wheel — was amazing, as players often yanked up their front wheels and balanced like that to receive or intercept a pass, or to shoot or defend.

Many members said they had never heard of cycleball before joining the team. But they started because, they said, they found it so unique and so much fun.

“When people hear ‘cycleball,’ they tend to think it is something strange,” said Yuta Sato, 21, a junior-year student. “But it is a very hard and serious sport that requires physical strength and high skills. You may sometimes pedal backward, which needs a lot of muscle power. You use the muscles of both your legs and your entire body. It is a hard sport, but it is fun because you can easily tell how much progress you are making.”

Well, mechanical things like bikes, and the sheer thrill and hurly-burly of this sport — now, you may think that these two factors are things that men often like. And yes indeed, this Tokyo Institute of Technology team is dominated by men, but that’s only natural as about 90 percent of the students there are male.

But I have to add that there are three women members in the team, too.

“You know, just stopping while balancing on the bike or making turns is difficult. But we have to dribble and kick the ball as well. It is tough,” said Saori Mitani, a senior who is one of those three.

“But it is very interesting to do both the cycling and play soccer — and there are very good female players waiting to come through,” she said.

Now I am ready to rethink my “hands-on” soccer future — even in this daunting arena . . . perhaps.