Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
With the first-years' introductory race over, it's time to buckle down for some serious training to address everyone's weaknesses. Onoda may be a beginner, but no one else is better off when it comes to training away their faults, despite what they may think. For Onoda, part of the problem will be overcoming his own feelings of nervousness and insufficiency. With his buddies in all-out competition with each other, it will take a club senior and a chance encounter with someone else to remind him that part of bicycle racing is competing not just against others, but also against yourself.
Competitive sports are a divisive pasttime, which is especially strange because they really don't have to be. Very few people are going to get into the sort of burning feud that Red Sox vs Yankees inspires over whether Dairy Queen or Baskin Robins is better, and to people who aren't interested in sports, the rivalries and devoted fanbases can be off-putting. This may be why sports manga and anime don't do as well in the American market – to make a gross generalization, it's like mingling jocks and nerds. So when someone does give a sports series a go, like Yen Press has done with Yowamushi Pedal's manga, it's good to put aside your preconceived notions of “sports stuff” and just dig in, because sports can be extremely engaging in manga form, even if you're not a real-life fan.
Nothing showed that quite as well as volume two of Yowamushi Pedal, which made reading 400 pages about a single bicycle race enthralling. Volume three, which contains books five and six of the original Japanese release, doesn't do quite as well, but it still manages to grab your attention and keep it as the team prepares for the Inter-High races. As it turns out, that first-years' race in the previous omnibus was a way for the team captain to really gauge everybody's strengths and weaknesses rather than strictly weed them out. He wants to cultivate his own secret weapons, training up his promising first-years so he can unleash them on unsuspecting opponents at the first major competition of the year. He and the other upperclassmen will get the team into the race, but the first-years will shake things up at the actual event.
First, they need to be trained to his particular specifications. The beginning of this volume is about learning what skills need enhancing while the back half focuses on the actual training at a specialized facility, a sort of enclosed track with mixed terrain where people can train or ride for pleasure without the hazards of biking on the streets. The captain, along with the coach, has devised sneaky tactics for training his three most promising new riders, Imaizumi, Naruko, and Onoda, by forcing them to overcome what they use as inadvertent crutches when they ride. It's harsh but clever – if Imaizumi can excel on a bicycle with no gearshift, imagine what he can do when he gets that tool back.
However, what the boys really have to overcome are their own egos. There's a parallel between bicycle racing and long-distance running in that while you're technically racing against other people to get across the finish line first, you're also competing with yourself to better your own time and overall performance. (Fans of Free have seen something similar in that show's depiction of swimming.) For someone like Naruko or Imaizumi, who have already won numerous races and honors, that means toning down their senses of self-importance. They've come into the club assured of their own superiority, so seeing that their upperclassmen are faster or have different unorthodox techniques enrages them rather than inspiring them. We see this in the contrast to Onoda's reaction when he watches them ride – he draws inspiration from his friends' skills, while Imaizumi and Naruko just get angry when they come face-to-face with second-years Aoyagi and Teshima. Teshima explains their strategy and how they came to develop it, but the other two boys don't care – all they want is to get ahead. Contrast this with Onoda's relationship with third year Makishima: he listens and takes what the other young man tells him into account, which not only helps him develop his skills, but also makes Makishima want to keep helping him out. In many ways, Onoda is the character who doesn't belong in the story, someone who lacks the vicious competitive edge and simply wants to get better while enjoying the sport. This puts him in the reverse position of the other two – he needs to improve his sense of self-worth in order to get better at cycling. He's quick to assume anything that goes wrong is due to some fault in him, where the others are going to assume that the fault is an outside source.
This volume introduces us to many more characters, although we have seen most of them previously in volume one. Everyone is distinctive in appearance as far as faces go, with the most basic-looking character being the fourth first-year, Sugimoto, who seems to exist simply to have a “normal” first-year character. (He's not quite funny enough for comic relief.) This is one of Watanabe's artistic strengths – he doesn't really have a set face for most characters, allowing for a cast with varied looks, even if he seems to think that everyone grows their hair out as they progress through life. Watanabe's also good with exaggerated facial expressions, and his art is better when he's not trying to look polished; some of the most effective images come from background characters. When he focuses on the characters in a more complete style, the faults in his artwork really come through – while manga characters rarely look human, his really do have a weird alien air to them, particularly in their Gumby-like bodies. On the plus side, the man can seriously draw bicycles, so if you're in this for the bikes, you're in luck.
Yowamushi Pedal's third omnibus volume doesn't achieve the headiness of its second, leading me to think that perhaps this will be an "every other" series, alternating between training and racing. The slower pace coming off the previous book isn't so much a fault as an understandable breather, and it ends on a major cliffhanger, so clearly things are gearing up again. This series may not have the nonstop excitement of other tournament or sports manga, but its strong characters prove that there's more to excelling at a sport than just the physical aspect. For that alone, this is worth checking out.
Overall : B
Story : B+
Art : C+
+ Good attention to each character's strengths and weakness, bicycles and silly faces are well drawn, almost everyone feels fleshed-out and Onoda is just so darn likable
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