Rolling, Rolling, Rolling - and Trying Not to Get Sick
MT. BRIGHTON, Mich. (MCT) - If you throw up, you get a free T-shirt.
But that was little consolation to Pam Wood, 58, as she was about to roll down a hill while strapped to the inside wall of a large plastic ball on a recent weekend. Up and down, left and right, round and round, she would tumble, like clothes in the dryer.
"Boy, it seems a lot shorter looking up than down," she said.Beside her grandchildren at the bottom of the hill, Wood had been the picture of bravery. But at the top, she began to have doubts.
Thirty scream-filled seconds later, Wood was back where she started, her family waiting. She climbed out of the ball, dazed, her forehead glistening.
"Was that fun, Nana?" her 14-year-old granddaughter asked.
"No, that was not," said Wood, who did not qualify for a T-shirt. "But we'll talk about this for years to come."
Started by two friends who met as options traders in Chicago eight years ago, Sphere USA offers the only opportunity in this country to experience this extreme adventure, called "sphereing" or "zorbing": rolling down a 700-foot slope in a clear, inflatable PVC ball at about 25 m.p.h.
Though many prospective riders' first question is about the odds of throwing up, the company's goateed proprietor, Robert Pelon, 34, insists no one has been sickened by the experience.
"You expect to get dizzy but what you get is confused - which end is up and stuff," Pelon said. "You are too disoriented to get sick."
Though the sport can be found this summer only on Mt. Brighton, Mich., 20 miles north of Ann Arbor, it won't be obscure for long. Two companies are racing to grab hold of the American market for a sport already popular across the globe.
SphereMania, a British company, has planted the first seeds with Sphere USA, the American franchise started by Pelon and his partner, Dan Teuscher, 32. Its prime competitor, the New Zealand-based Zorb, is readying a site near the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee.
SphereMania dominates England, but Zorb has a wider reach, with sites in Sweden, Japan, Germany and Poland, among others.
Sphere USA hopes to have three more sites next summer, 10 within five years and as many as 20 within 10 years. Think Tahoe and New England mountainsides, Florida spring breaks, military bases and college campuses - anywhere there is disposable income and adventurers willing to roll in a ball like so many hamsters.
"There's a race going on," Pelon said. "We're in it to win it."
Officials at Zorb did not respond to calls. News stories last summer touted an imminent opening in Tennessee, but the facility remains under construction.
Both companies offer two types of the sport: a harness version - the kind Pam Wood braved - in which a rider is strapped in at the shoulders, hips and feet and rolls end over end. The result is usually a sweaty, dazed and thrilled participant.
The other is the tamer aqua ride, in which a rider climbs into the ball with about five gallons of water and rides unharnessed down the hill while the ball spins, bounces and rolls. Generally two people ride the harness sphere at a time to balance weight, which creates a smoother ride. Between one and three people can ride in the aqua sphere where riders do not go head over feet and pretty much just sit upright.
At Sphere USA, the per-person cost is $22 for one ride, $35 for two, $45 for three and $50 for four.
Both rides at Sphere USA come in balls that are actually two orbs working together - a 12-foot-diameter ball on the outside that has, fixed in its center by 500 shock-absorbing straps, a 6-foot ball where the participant is harnessed. Future generations of the ball could include video cameras to capture the experience - for a fee, of course - and an opaque version putting riders in the dark as they tumble down the hill.
Investing in the sport has been a no-brainer for Pelon since he first saw zorbing featured on MTV in 2003. He said he talked with Zorb about starting a North American operation, but was rebuffed.
He turned to SphereMania, and flew to England with Teuscher in 2005.
"After the first ride we weren't sure what we had just experienced: `Was that super cool or was it not super cool?'" Pelon recalled. "Then we did it three more times and it was awesome."
Even more than the adventurers in them being smitten, the entrepreneurs in them were intrigued.
"It's kind of scary climbing into a ball and letting someone push you down a hill," Teuscher said. "But a lot of people want that. It was a great opportunity."
Pelon and Teuscher went in on the rights to SphereMania in the U.S. and Mexico, buying the American rights for slightly less than $100,000.
They looked at seven locations for their first site, but ended up staying close to Pelon's home in Northville, Mich., after his wife became pregnant.
"Don't get me wrong, I like it here," Pelon said of the southern Michigan site. "But when you're sitting in Tahoe or Hawaii, it'll be a little better."
They broke even last year and expect to make a profit this year, though they acknowledge recouping their investment could take a while. They are pinning their hopes for success on aqua sphereing, because it's a less intense ride that could appeal to a wider audience.
For now there is Mt. Brighton, more of a geographical hiccup than a mountain.
With a staff of mostly college boys in ball caps and gray T-shirts, Pelon runs the site while Teuscher, who also owns a hand-sanitizing kiosk business, shows up for the occasional weekend.
Open Saturdays and Sundays through September, Sphere USA attracts a variety of customers - gap-toothed 7-year-old boys, pony-tailed college girls with bright pink nails, fathers and their teenage sons, grandmothers, and everyone in between. Safety releases are signed that waive Sphere USA liability, and there is a standard warning that steers some people away from the ride (pregnant women, people fresh off surgery, people with heart conditions, etc.).
Most enter the sphere bravely, and exit with a mixture of bewilderment and exhilaration. Getting descriptions of those 30 seconds down the hill isn't easy.
Said Amy Stevens, 38, of Grand Rapids, Mich.: "It's a blur, a cross between sledding and - what? I don't know."
Peter Eckhardt, 13, of Ypsilanti, Mich.: "It's cool, but it's kind of rough. You get really bounced around. It's not like a roller coaster."
Two of the most dedicated riders last weekend were Lisa Schindler, 33, and Melissa Schultz, 27, friends who had driven three hours from Akron, Ohio, to celebrate Schindler's birthday.
As they stood ready to ride, neither was nervous.
"It's just 700 feet and a big inflatable ball," Schultz said. "I just really want to try something different."
Even as the muffled screams of the riders ahead of them echoed across the grassy slope, the women didn't fret.
"Hear that yelling in there?" Schindler said. "This is gonna be great!"
The women entered the ball and were strapped in. Their first scream came within a second of being pushed over the edge, and they were all giggles and squeals the whole way down. They emerged breathless.
They rolled down the hill together three more times, then got T-shirts. Which they boug ht.
© 2007, Chicago Tribune.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.