Bike Polo: The World's Fast Growing Sport (That's Played on Wheels with Mallets)

Fixed gear fun for the whole family
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It's an unseasonably warm Sunday afternoon in late October. I'm standing in Garfield Park on Chicago's West Side, the titular park at the center of a neighborhood known equally for its world-class plant conservatory and stubborn poverty. It's generally quiet, despite the sunshine; two joggers amble by, a man asks me (and everyone else he can track down) for $10, another sits on a bench drinking something hidden in a brown bag, a few teens hoop across the way. The biggest crowd in sight is gathered around a pair of faded tennis courts surrounded by scuffed hockey boards. There are two dozen people hanging around, the majority of whom sport tattoos and skinny jeans, the prevailing uniform of urban cyclists. They're here to chase a roller hockey ball, while riding bikes, swinging homemade mallets.

To my untrained eye, it looks like a game nine-year-olds would dream up one bored summer day. David Goldmiller, a court regular, likens the scene to an early episode of Ken Burns' Baseball documentary, where “a bunch of guys were drinking beer and whacking a ball around, making up rules and calling it a fucking game.” The atmosphere is genial. I'm offered a beer immediately, pot smoke hangs in the air, and onlookers talk shit to each other while tweaking bike gears. But after watching the action for a few hours, seeing cyclists weave around the court in tight spirals and shovel off no-look passes, it becomes obvious that these are athletes who know exactly what they're doing. They are playing a sport that requires balance, coordination, and endurance. They are playing a sport that they think is poised for dramatic growth. They are playing a sport one veteran calls “perfect for our time and place.”

They are also playing a sport very few people know exists.

***

The first hardcourt bike polo match was played 13 years ago in a Seattle stockroom at the dot-com retailer Kozmo. The small crew of bike messengers employed by the long-since-defunct company did not have grand ambitions when they came up with the idea; all they wanted was a fun way to kill time between deliveries. While the players were in no way regal, the game they concocted was nominally descended from polo, the Sport of Kings, invented by the Persians 1,500 years ago and popularized in the 19th century by British colonialists and then, later, by Ralph Lauren. It also shared similarities with cycle polo, a strain of the equine game played with bicycles instead of horses that gained traction during the turn-of-the-century cycling craze--particularly in England--and was featured as a demonstration sport at the 1908 Summer Olympics. Traditional cycle polo's popularity peaked long ago, and never spread widely outside of Europe.

The bored messengers at Kozmo weren't overly concerned with traditional bike polo, and came up with their own rules. Two teams of three lined up on either side of the stockroom straddling their work bikes and holding crude mallets made of wood or bamboo. A set of cones on each baseline served as goals. A roller hockey ball was placed at center court. [1] On the count of three, one cyclist from each side pedaled furiously to reach the ball first, “jousting” for possession. With that, the game was underway.

The messengers in Seattle did prohibit a few tactics, and those infractions haven't changed dramatically in the years that followed. To score, an offensive player must hit the ball across the goal line using only the narrow end of the mallet. (If a player knocks it in with the wide end of the mallet, it's called a "shuffle,” and his team forfeits possession.) Whenever a player's foot touches the ground, he must briefly “tap out" by slapping with his mallet a designated area on the court, either in the middle or along the boards. Contact is allowed so long as it's “like-to-like”: body-to-body, bike-to-bike, mallet-to-mallet. (No t-boning your opponent's legs with your bike, in other words.) The first team to five wins. The only other guiding principle, which almost every player I spoke with remembers learning on his or her first day, was “don't be a dick.”

Eventually, the matches moved outside. (Dustin Riggs, a second-generation Seattle rider, first played on the slick asphalt of a freeway underpass.) They found willing participants in the city's established bicycle universe, comprised primarily of fellow couriers, alley catters, and track bike racers, handy people who liked to ride fast and build equipment and drink beer. “We taught ourselves the fundamentals of the sport because none of us were sports-minded,” says “Lucky”, an early adopter in Chicago who asked that his full name not be used. “We were shitty rebel bike kids.” That playing improved their ability to bike in traffic was an added bonus. “You learn how to fall without hurting yourself too badly,” adds Chicagoan Brian Bolles.

From its start in the warehouse, bike polo slowly picked up devotees. Members of the Courier Association of Seattle hosted an exhibition at the Seattle Bicycle Expo in the spring of 2001, the sport's public debut. Bikers down in Portland caught wind of their rival city's exploits and started their own games, creating a version of the mallet--a head made of PVC pipe connected to a ski pole--that would become standard worldwide. A Seattle native moved to Philadelphia in 2002 and brought polo to the East Coast. Cyclists from other cities in North America--New York City, Ottawa--later learned about the game at competitive messenger tournaments. The Internet helped, too: Lucky remembers “spending evenings and weekends combing MySpace, just searching any bicycle heading I could to find bike polo players in other cities who would come out to our little one-day events.” “A phone number here, a sent text here, an email there, a website put up, and all of the sudden we're in instant contact with each other,” says Ben Schultz, a bike mechanic in Chicago who, in 2007, would help convert grass polo players in the Upper Midwest to the hardcourt game.

At the same time, the pool of potential participants ballooned. More and more young people starting living in cities and biking for reasons financial, ecological, and aesthetic. Riggs is a perfect example. In 2006, he moved to Seattle, landed a job at a local bike shop, and started commuting on two wheels. A year later, at the behest of some coworkers, he rode onto the polo court for the first time. “I played baseball growing up and lacrosse at the end of high school,” he says now, “and what grabbed me was the simple fact that I could play a team sport on my bike.”

Riggs wasn't alone. Between 2005 and 2008, more and more so-called “bike jocks” started turning up regularly to pick-up games and the first polo-specific regional tournaments. They brought with them an intuitive understanding of positioning and passing strategy--the triangle, as in soccer, is key to polo offensive strategy--and a competitive streak that was mostly absent from early beer-soaked exhibitions. Schultz recalls watching the 2007 East Side Polo Invite, held at The Pit, a well-trafficked court in New York City's Chinatown. Sixteen teams from various cities entered, the largest collection of polo competitors he'd ever seen. The players took it seriously. “It became very apparent to me that what I was looking at was something uniquely different,” he says. “I'd never done BMX or skating, but I knew people who had, and it looked a lot like that. It had all of those kinds of signs. When something like that catches on in a city, it can build.”

***

That a crop of elite bike polo players would ultimately separate themselves from the pick-up scene makes sense: While it takes a long time for beginners to feel confident on the court, the learning curve levels off for people who play regularly and can grasp the game's many moving parts. It becomes less chaotic, more cerebral. “It's faster now for sure,” says Kevin Walsh, a Toronto-based web developer who helped establish the polo scene in Madison, Wisconsin while in grad school. “It's gotten more technical in terms of bike handling. Shots are going faster. There's more strategy and passing, too.”

As the game matures, it's not uncommon to see players carry the ball with their mallet and execute 180° pivots to evade defenders. At the Sunday matches I watched in Chicago, lean players with firm thighs and calves zoomed around the Garfield Park court, making tight turns and, when space opened up in front of them, accelerating like point guards on a fast break. The most skilled set screens for their teammates, dribbled between their bike's frames, and stayed upright even after significant collisions along the boards. One game ended when an attacking player, driving to his right away from the center circle, wound up and cracked a 30-foot slap shot behind his back. It was a golazo, plain and simple. “Some of these guys,” says Goldmiller, “are just sick nasty.”

More intense play fueled the community's desire for growth. “The biggest change [in the last five years] is the expanded investment in polo, both emotionally and monetarily,” says Bolles. “It's changed the sport entirely.” Walsh points to 2008 as the key transitional year. While still in Madison, he launched League of Bike Polo, a website with forums, blogs, and tournament listings that gained an active audience overnight. Polo broke from the messenger scene permanently that June following the Cycle Messenger World Championships in Toronto, at which a (then-record) 32 North American bike polo teams competed in a high-profile tournament. Local clubs sprouted up in dozens of new cities. The Ladies Army--a crew of female polo players--organized the first major women's tournament, held in British Columbia. In the late summer of 2009, after laying the groundwork for months, polo players put on the inaugural North American and World Championships. Riggs and his partners on Seattle's Team Smile completed the Grand Slam, defeating Vancouver's Balls Deep in both title matches. “I went to everything,” Riggs says. “I went broke traveling to tournaments to get that experience to get better.”

The player boom hastened the development of a regulating body, one that would provide a modicum of structure while alleviating some of the logistical burdens overworked, pro bono tournament organizers had to bear. Before the 2010 season, Walsh and Schultz formed North American Hardcourt, an elected panel of 21 representatives, three from seven designated regions. In its three-year existence, NAH has written an official rule book for tournament play that standardizes court size, equipment requirements, and penalties [2], helped clubs pool resources, and formalized the continent's tournament schedule; to play for the World Championships, teams must now survive a series of regional qualifiers or place highly at the North American Championships. “A lot of it was just working backwards from the end goal,” Walsh says. “If we we're going to have these big tournaments, they should mean something, so we have to reduce the number of teams, and to do that we need a qualifying process.”

With bikers swarming meaningful tournaments and local scrimmages, entrepreneurs in the “poloverse” saw an opportunity to hawk products designed specifically for the committed polo player. Companies like FixCraft, Fleet Velo, and Milwaukee Bike Company now manufacture polo bikes; the frames are sturdy, allow for a tight turning radius, and limit toe overlap [3]. You can't walk five feet at a major polo gathering without stumbling into a table stacked with wheel covers, helmets, and bike forks. At the North American Championships this year, six or seven different companies were selling mallet parts, which Walsh admits “was just crazy.” A year ago, he says, “there was maybe one.”

Tech-savvy players have started to record games in new ways, too. When Zach Hollandsworth, a software developer from Austin, learned that tournament registration was taking place (sloppily) via Google spreadsheets, he decided it was time somebody should keep a “census of competitive players.” Last Thanksgiving, he rolled out a sophisticated website that collects and catalogs statistics on team and individual performances. One year into the project, he's surprised how quickly tournament officials and teams have taken to it. “It seems like there is a real need for this,” he says.

Minneapolis native Dustin Bouma was so floored by bike polo the first time he watched it at a high level four years ago that he shot video of the action on a Sony Handycam and cut a short highlight reel. Afterwards, he searched for similar clips online and realized that none existed. Using the Vimeo handle Mr. Do, Bouma has become the sport's unofficial videographer, producing over 100 full-game and highlight packages. With the help of a modest Kickstarter fundraiser, he even live-streamed the North American Championships this past summer, the first time anyone has ever broadcast polo in real time. “We had a commentator, we did interviews, we had the logos up from sponsors, the whole shebang,” he says.

Bouma's videos capture just how talented some of bike polo's veterans have become. Take the finals of the 2012 North American Hardcourt Championship, held this summer in Milwaukee and won by the Beaver Boys, a trio from the host city. On the first play of the match, one of the eventual champions, parked in front of his own goal, turns away a blistering shot from 10 yards, knocking the ball down with his wheel cover and pushing it into his short corner in one slick motion. His two teammates, under pressure in their own defensive end, dig it out with a confident pick, the first player blocking off a defender with his frame and then dumping the ball just behind him for his teammate to corral. Once set, they execute a quick give-and-go along the left boards, gliding by that initial defender and surging into open space. With two more defenders to beat, the ball carrier veers to his right, draws the first biker with a pump fake, and slips a pass to his streaking teammate, who collects it near the left post and buries a shot past the last opponent hovering near the net. The entire play takes no more than 15 seconds to develop.

The clips also show how speed, contact, and concrete can combine to force dramatic spills. “World Class Polo,” a Mr. Do production published nine months ago, spotlights a series of violent wrecks in which riders fly over their handlebars, careen into the boards as they fight for loose balls, and inadvertently plow into opponents in the open court. Bike helmets and mallets are inevitably launched in frustration.

Bike polo is still a niche sport, no question. Schultz thinks there are at most 16 teams who have “a remote shot” at winning the North American Championships in any given year. “For all the explosive growth,” Lucky says, “there are more people in dodgeball leagues in the United States.” But momentum is undoubtedly building. League of Bike Polo now has over 5,000 registered users. Josh Cohen, chairman of the London Hardcourt Bike Polo Association, told the Financial Times earlier this year that he thinks 25,000 people in 370 cities play the game consistently. The World Championships in Geneva, Switzerland this past August featured “easily the thickest talent” Schultz has ever seen. (Riggs' squad, the Guardians, lost to a Parisian side in the finals, while Schultz' Clobber Politics took home the bronze.) 2013 could be the first year that NAH finalizes a nationwide tournament schedule before the first competition kicks off. “A large majority of people around the game think polo is here to stay,” says Bolles, “We can turn it into something really great.”

***

In my conversations with various bike polo stakeholders, several hinted that they'd love to see their game showcased at the X-Games or Summer Olympics eventually. At the very least, they'd like to figure out some way to subsidize travel expenses for tournament players and to pay organizers for their uncompensated labor. At this stage, the latter seems more achievable than the former, though acquiring any mainstream legitimacy will require the bike polo community to drive over several speed bumps of varied heights.

For starters, referees must be trained and paid a modest stipend for their services. “The reffing, by and large, is abysmal,” says Schultz. “It's frustrating as shit.” At the most basic level, clubs have to work with their local parks departments to ensure players have at least one designated court on which to ride. Some municipal officials are helpful. Vancouver, for instance, built a brand new court tailored to bike polo several years ago. Other cities are less cooperative. Chicago's clique has been stymied repeatedly in its efforts to relocate from Garfield Park--where copper thieves recently swiped wires from the court's light standards--to a park near the University of Illinois at Chicago, where they anticipate it would be easier to attract attention. In the sport's most publicized “court” battle, 11 Milwaukee cyclists were arrested at a polo match three years ago for trespassing in a county-owned parking garage, a location they had used off and on for five years. Their tickets were ultimately dismissed after the club agreed to fix up a new county-sanctioned court. (In retrospect, it looks like a decent--if unorthodox--bargain.)

Representatives of NAH, and the players who elect them, must also determine what type of competitive structure they'd like to use going forward. Seattle's weekly league, for example, is experimenting with a format that matches four teams of 12 players each in head-to-head contests that are longer (two 30-minute periods) than first-to-five games and include line changes. This format has been dubbed “bench.” Proponents say it would foster intra-city competition by allowing local clubs, like those in traditional baseball or basketball leagues, to travel in mass with larger teams, thereby consolidating costly travel arrangements. It would also provide more opportunities for committed players who can help a team but aren't talented enough to challenge the sport's best at premiere tournaments. “If Seattle is going to play Los Angeles this week,” says Riggs, “it's really hard to narrow a team down to three players.”

Then there's money. Small companies that have partnered with tournament organizers thus far have been more willing to donate product than to cover operating expenses in exchange for sponsorship rights. Securing a large sponsorship deal with a multi-national brand like Red Bull or Mountain Dew would pump in cash immediately, but that sort of commercialization also makes the poloverse anxious; most participants are still independent-minded people who value the DIY-ethic wired into the sport's DNA. “I think that all of us, at least at this stage, still believe it's a good idea to retain ownership of this game,” says Schultz. “If we go for a lot of money and gusto right now, we risk it being a fad, or it being exploited, and watching it all burn.”

Back on the courts in Garfield Park, nobody seems too concerned about those pressing administrative details. So long as the people they've grown to love keep showing up to play week in and week out, the club thinks the future of their unconventional game is sound. “The community is really the best part,” says Charlie Seeman, another bearded bike mechanic who has been playing for three years. “We like hanging, we have similar interests, we all like to drink a few beers. It's like a family.”

That family doesn't intend on putting its polo bikes in storage during the city's often-brutal winter months, either. If six people show up for a pick-up game, riders will shovel the playing surface and knock ice off the boards in order to get it in.

“Most of us,” says Bolles, “will be playing bike polo until our legs fall off.”

[1] According to the League of Bike Polo'crowd-sourced history thread, the players in Seattle tried batting cage balls, tennis balls, and a “ball made with wadded up newspaper and duct tape” before settling on the roller hockey ball.

[2] Before NAH put paper to pen, rules varied marginally depending on where one played.

[3] When a rider's foot snags the front wheel as he or she turns at slow speeds.


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