Road Warriors: the subculture of bike polo

Photograph by Dane Hanman

Some see an underused tennis court or parking lot and don’t think of anything of it. Others wonder why people aren’t riding bikes on it while whacking around a street hockey ball.

It takes a special type of person to picture the latter, right? Maybe not so much…

“The variety of people amazes me,” says Jake Newborn of Milwaukee Bike Polo. “Personalities vary, jobs vary, ages vary, ethnicities vary. The commonality is having fun on a bike and being around others who also enjoy the game.”

That certainly seems to be case. The eye-popping list of bike polo clubs worldwide maintained by the League of Bike Polo, the de facto international organizing body, shows 187 clubs registered across 27 countries worldwide, with 96 of those in the U.S. scattered among 22 states. (Next closest country is Canada with 15.) But don’t quote these exact numbers to your friends, because they might not even be correct anymore: there are new clubs registering weekly.

The season runs from April to November, with most cities typically having two games per week. There are tournaments all over the place during that time, and regional and national championships also scheduled. Last year, the Midwest championships went down in Dayton, OH and nationals in Seattle, WA. Those who wanna get even farther away can swing their mallets at international competitions everywhere; from Europe, to South Korea, to South America, to Australia.How to Play

The rules can vary slightly city-to-city, but are more similar than different.

Two, three-person teams play on tennis courts, playgrounds and parking lots/garages. Though not a requirement, players typically ride fixed-gear bikes, like those that bike messengers use. Street hockey balls are used, and the mallets must resemble a croquet mallet; with a wide side and a round end. Modified ski poles and plastic pipe are the most common materials.

Photograph by Dane Hanman

The goals are typically a pair of orange cones spaced one bike-length apart at each end of the field of play. To start a game, each team goes behind its own goal line and the ball is placed at center court. The game begins when someone on the sideline yells out; “3, 2, 1, Go!”

Players may not play the ball with their feet at any time, and players’ feet cannot touch the ground. If a foot does touch the ground, the player has to ride to the sideline and touch a cone or sometimes a bell with his/her mallet before they can return. In some leagues, the player instead has to ride in a circle before being allowed to continue playing.

The only valid goals are when the ball is hit by a player’s mallet and goes between the two cones. In other words, it doesn’t  count if the ball  inadvertently rolls into the goal, is knocked by a bike wheel into the goal, and so on.

After a goal is scored, the team who scored returns to their half of the court. The team who was scored on takes possession of the ball.

The score is called out after each goal. Most games are played to 5 points, but some to 3 points. In tournaments, there is often a 10-15 minute time-limit to games, with the team having the most points at the end of that time declared the winner.

You’d think a game played on bikes while wearing helmets and swinging mallets would be rough … and you’d be right! Though not always rough, it can be. What’s called “like contact” is allowed, meaning body-to-body, mallet-to-mallet, and bike-to-bike. Non-like contact, such as mallet-to-body, is verboten. Obviously, the roughness can vary greatly from league-to-league.

As if it needs to even be said, trash talking is allowed.

 

Photograph by Dane Hanman

Who Plays, Some History, and the Cost

Though the makeup of bike polo players varies, the primary proponents/organizers and players (at least in the U.S.) are bike messengers, bike-shop employees, and assorted cycling enthusiasts. But if what you’ve read so far made you think this sounds like just a recent urban phenomenon, think again: bike polo dates to the 1800s!

There are competing stories about its exact origin, but the most-told tale begins with the British government sending a bunch of bikes to a ruler in India, who then gave them to his stable boys. The stable boys had always wanted to play polo but weren’t allowed to use the ruler’s horses and couldn’t afford animals of their own. So they shortened the mallets and started playing polo on bikes. British soldiers stationed in India then supposedly took the game back to the United Kingdom. The game was a simultaneous import-export.

It became so popular in the UK that it was played as a demonstration sport at the 1908 Olympics in London. Yes, believe it or not, bike polo was played at the Olympics. Obviously, it was not adopted as an official sport, which certainly stunted its popularity worldwide thereafter.

But there have been bits and spurts of popularity through the decades since, and right now it’s enjoying perhaps its greatest explosion in popularity ever. Why?

“Riding bikes has become cool again in many cities,” thinks Newborn, “and it isn’t just the messengers anymore … Bike polo has tapped that community and created its own subculture that is very inclusive and easy to get into. It’s cheap to start playing bike polo, and it’s a very DIY ethic amongst many players.”

That do-it-yourself ethic and the community spirit among players certainly do combine to make playing relatively cheap. If you have a bike, you’re most of the way there. You should have a helmet when playing, but if you already have a bike, you should already have a helmet. (Right?) Mallets can be made for as little as $5, and the street hockey balls typically cost about $4 each. Get some cones and find a tennis court, basketball court, hockey rink, or parking lot, and you’re ready to go. You’ll also need a few friends, of course. But with the number of clubs already in existence worldwide, it’s likely your town already has one. Check the League of Bike Polo website to see.

The cost of playing gets slightly more expensive if you go to tournaments because of registration fees, gas or plane tickets, and possibly car rental. But, not as much as one would expect. Reason being, that the registration fee includes; not only your entrance into the tournament, but also food, beer, a local player’s house to crash at, and sometimes a t-shirt.

Still not a good enough deal for you? Well, local businesses sponsor many teams, thus driving down the tournament costs for players even further.

 

Photograph by Dane Hanman

Do It

Piqued your interest? Despite how fierce the games can get, hopefully you’ve realized how incredibly open to newbies the bike polo community is.

“We continually welcome new people to come and try the game,” says Newborn. “We’ll even lend you a mallet! Just be open and willing to try something new, and don’t be afraid to fall.”

Remember to check the League of Bike Polo website for worldwide listing of clubs. If there’s not one in your area, you now have all the info to start one yourself. If there is one, maybe watch a game at first. Then when you’re ready to give it try, jump or, ahem, ride in.

A couple websites to check out…
http://leagueofbikepolo.org
http://www.hardcourtbikepolo.com

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