Passport to Championships: Bring Your Own Bike

When you hear that a nearby city has been selected to host the North American Hardcourt Bike Polo Championships (NAHBPC or NAs), go willingly – by foot, by bike, by bus, by car – to check out an evolving sport with fixed-gear bike enthusiasts buzzing in action at the ground level.  Leave the horses at home.  Don’t worry, you won’t ruin a pair of shoes divot stomping and you can leave the hats and suits in the closet.  Noise is expected and you won’t need binoculars – well, unless you are reffing.

Bike polo players from many time zones converged at Madison College’s Truax campus tennis courts in Madison, Wisconsin on July 16-18.  Temps were high and the sun was hot.  For some, the journey to Madison likely started days or even weeks before the event.  It can take a bit of logistical ingenuity to get the bike, required gear, and other unmentionables to another city.  The parking lot was proof that bike polo players will go the extra mile or kilometer to participate in the can’t-miss events of the season.  Ride-sharing is common and could also mean a few pickup games along the way on the road to a national tournament.  More than likely, the pickup games bring together players who already know each other from tournaments or The League of Bike Polo forums.

My journey to the NAs was a 60 minute car ride.  No toll ways or security checkpoints to pass through to reach the energetic and exotic scene that surrounded me.  Countless unattended bikes sprawled out in the open spaces, mallets leaned every which way next to bikes and against the court boards, while sunburned, sweaty bike polo players grabbed some shade in the official’s tent around a television running through the list of creative team names and scores.  A full bike rack near another tent emblazoned with the Trek logo appeared to be the spot to find repair tools and couches.  My eyes jumped over the mega orange water coolers stationed near the courts and noticed iced coffee and fresh coconuts for sale.  After a little boy told me where to find the portable toilets, I knew everything I needed to survive the next few hours was accessible.  I didn’t notice a first aid station, but I wasn’t planning to get hurt or see blood.

The tennis courts were transformed into a bike polo arena.  It was easy to get a 360-degree view of all the games in progress.  I watched teams maneuver around the courts effortlessly.  Players kept their balance with one hand on a handlebar and the other hand holding a mallet.  The 3-on-3 player format made it possible to focus my gaze on the players’ moves and the ball at the same time.  Only a courtside board stood between me and the action.

The play was non-stop.  As soon as one round ended, another started.  The mix of men and women, the variety of bikes and attire, peppered with a range of ages, languages, and accents made for spicy spectator entertainment.

As I rotated between courts, I noticed familiar faces, but no one that I knew by name.  While watching a team in orange shirts play, I started up a conversation with another player/spectator who gave me more perspective on the game.  Hailing from Seattle and headed to Guatemala in September for a tournament, he kept an eye on the game, but shared some tips on the rules and pointed out some individual equipment preferences.  I know I wasn’t thinking about how the hot sun beating down on the court affects the ball until we talked.  Banter between players and spectators got louder and he explained that the orange team plays grass court polo in Phoenix, but now hardcourt, too.  The Phoenix Bike Polo club was turning heads and not just because they had a team with two 12-year-olds and fans.  Others watching the same game cheered for players by name, yelled out a rule clarification or two, and heckled the refs.  “Oh, and there’s Mark Capriotti,” he said pointing out one of the players on the court.  “He’s one of the best – a talented player from Philly.”

I was curious about the costs and how tournament play differs from all the other ways one can fit some bike polo into the week or their life.  He admitted that a decent bike was fine and probably better for traveling.  Let’s see – add up the registration fees, throw in some beer and food money, and consider some creative lodging and transportation ideas to get from point A to point B.  Sounds affordable, right?  My guess is that anything is possible if you are part of the bike polo community.

This was a great event overflowing with players and fans.  Organizers shifting gears behind-the-scenes had to be responsible for making it possible.  The organizational finesse required to pull off a weekend tournament can’t be as easy as learning to ride a bike.  Teams in the 2010 North American Hardcourt Bike Polo Championships can thank their lucky chains that Madison is home to Jonny Hunter, one of several key organizers for the largest tournament to date in North America.  With over 5 years of playing experience and as a member of the North American Hardcourt Organizing Body, Hunter is committed to developing successful bike polo events.  If you are hoping to showcase your bike polo skills close to home and get involved as a tournament organizer, keep a few things I learned from Jonny in mind.

An event of this size will always have loose ends and challenges.  An important part of keeping the games on schedule is direct communication with the teams before and at the event.  One  souvenir from the Madison tournament is a computer scheduling program.  Hunter advises future organizers, “make sure you have your scheduling down to a science, use a computer program,…use ours so hopefully all the work isn’t for just one tourney.”  Closer to the court, communication can be improved.  Hunter suggests “find big timers so the players know how much time is left in each game.  Keep calling penalties.”

Hunter admits gratefully that Trek’s presence helped legitimize the event and opened doors.  Bike polo-playing Trek employees helped secure Trek’s involvement in organizing the event.  While Hunter managed to compete in the tournament and have fun, his team “…didn’t compete very well. Our team played well below our normal level.   Playing and organizing was really tough, but I wouldn’t change that, I love the game and that is why I wanted to organize this tournament.”  With or without sponsors, players seem more than willing to help organize tournaments, volunteer their time, and play for rewards that have no cash value.  Teams paid $90 to compete in the NAs.  The top prize was a cash award of $3600 for travel to the World Hardcourt Bike Polo Championships in Berlin, Germany scheduled for August 13-15.

As bike polo becomes increasingly popular, the players organizing and volunteering to expand tournament offerings will need more help.  When asked if the sport welcomes volunteers who are never going to get on the court with a bike and mallet, Hunter confirmed, “this tournament would not have happened without those volunteers, they helped build courts, run the scheduling, got water, food, all kinds of work.  Those folks deserve the most credit.”  The referees are also volunteers, and as expected, “the best refs are the best players,” according to Hunter.

After spending one afternoon at NAs, I counted myself among the target audience that would pay to watch a bike polo tournament.  It’s nice to know that I can watch the local club practice on Sunday afternoons, but I wouldn’t mind seeing some regional rivalries played out more dramatically or in an indoor venue.  While the pace of the tournament was relaxed, I wondered how anyone could condition themselves to play hours of bike polo in the heat, catch up with old and new friends, and stay out late for the after parties.  Maybe Elton John music has something to do with it?  I predict there will come a day when spectators will pay to watch the action on the court.  Hunter agrees, “Yes, I think once this sport grows a bit more we can charge for high quality matches.  I don’t see this as the norm, but I can see it happening for major tournaments.”

Another major tournament awaits North American Hardcourt Bike Polo Champions Mark Capriotti, Nick Vaughan, and Chris Roberts – aka, The Odds.  They had their sights set on traveling to Berlin for the 2010 World Hardcourt Bike Polo Championships well before winning NAs.  Tournament play against each other over the years brought this trio together and they’ve managed to practice as a team despite living in 3 different cities.  Playing together in Madison was not a first date for these seasoned tournament players, but Vaughan admits, “it was the trial run for the team.”  Never mind that Vaughan traveled to NAs with a secret weapon – the BattleAxe by FBM – a bike he had only been on for one week.

Knowing each other’s strengths and weaknesses, some pick up games before NAs, and 2 days of round robin play prepared The Odds for Sunday’s final game and victory.  Capriotti acknowledges practice is necessary to be good at bike polo, but “it’s even more important to practice together, since at this point you cannot be successful in bike polo unless you work well as a team.”  Vaughan and Capriotti both recognize that skill and experience helped them win the tournament, but Vaughan also credits adaptability and a willingness to learn from other teams.

With prize money, passports, and bragging rights as the NA champs in their court, The Odds are off to Berlin to learn more and reunite with players they faced in Madison, including Jonny Hunter.  This will be Vaughan’s first time across the ocean.  Capriotti has never played polo outside of North America.  Hunter has traveled often for polo and knows firsthand that it is both expensive, but worthwhile.  Hunter appreciates that travel means, “you get to meet folks from all over who can connect on the same level.”

Good luck to the NA Champs, Hunter, and everyone else headed to Worlds.  May you avoid paying extra fees to get those bikes on the plane and getting fined by the German polizei for not having at least one hand brake on your bike.  There will be so much to explore as bike polo players in a new city with fresh competition and eager spectators awaiting your arrival.

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