VISIT the Olympic Stadium on any given Saturday or Sunday afternoon, and you will be treated to a rare sight in Cambodia: A 20-something Khmer wearing a helmet and shin guards practicing freestyle tricks on a seatless bicycle.
The cyclist, 26-year-old Keo Chhomyung, demonstrates an impressive repertoire of stylish street tricks, jumping and playing off the man-made features around the stadium, including curbs and concrete stairs. He can balance on a single wheel – front or back – for minutes at a time.
Such freestyle riding is a rarity in Cambodia. The first time Keo Chhomyung witnessed anyone doing bicycle tricks in the country was 2002, when he glimpsed a Chinese rider practicing freestyle in front of a crowd at Phnom Penh’s riverside.
“It was so attractive to watch, I immediately decided to start teaching myself how to ride like that,” said Keo Chhomyung, who works as an administrator at the University of Health Sciences.
Without anyone to teach him, Keo Chhomyung resorted to downloading instructional video clips from YouTube and practicing on his own.
He said many of the tricks were difficult to learn, and he even fell to the ground and sustained some light injuries along the way. Despite these obstacles he has never thought of quitting in the eight years he has been practicing, although he has started wearing a helmet, elbow pads and shin guards to protect himself.
“It’s a very strange sport, and it requires riders to struggle very hard to improve their skills,” Keo Chhomyung said.
He rides on a small-framed mountain bike that has been modified to suit his purposes: disc brakes and small gears have been added to maximise control, and the saddle and seat post have been removed to save weight and avoid hindrances.
He said that since he started practicing freestyle, cycling has become his favourite sport. He now rides nearly everywhere – to the market, friends’ houses, restaurants – except work.
“Riding a bicycle in the city is more convenient than other forms of transport. I’ve rarely had accidents, and when there’s a traffic jam I can still move forward,” he said. Keo Chhomyung added that riding a bicycle frees him from the burdens of buying petrol, and carrying a licence.
“Motorcyclists are always being pulled over for riding without helmets, not having mirrors, not using their lights, but cyclists don’t have to worry about these things,” he said. “Plus, riding a bike is healthy and doesn’t cause pollution.”
Keo Chhomyung said he used to practice along the road near Nagaworld with a few other young Cambodian freestyle riders, but the scene soon fell apart. “First we were banned from riding there by security guards who thought we would cause traffic jams, which is ridiculous because we only used a small area,” he said. “I moved my practice sessions to Olympic Stadium but all the other riders quit.”
“Those young riders try for a while and then quit when they see how hard it is. I know how long it takes and how hard it is to improve,” he said. “Even then, I know that compared with riders from Europe I’m still poor.”
And despite the long hours of hard work perfecting his tricks, Keo Chhomyung knows he is unlikely to have the opportunity anytime soon to show off his skills in competition.
“Freestyle riding is an unknown sport in Cambodia, so I’m not practicing for competition. But if I ever have the chance, I will happily take part in such an event,” he said.