Combine bikes, homemade polo mallets, a field hockey ball and a parking garage--and you've got bike polo. I've only played once so far, but I think I already may be an addict. Admitting an addiction is supposed to be the first step to quitting, but in this case, it's the first step to getting myself to the game every Thursday night. For about a year now, folks have been getting together before 9 p.m. and riding to a parking garage in the Triangle with polo mallets strapped to their messenger bags to spend an hour or two playing a series of first-to-five games.
A friend told me about the game, and now it will be hard to keep me away.
I borrowed a fixed-gear bike from a friendly bike geek (I use that term affectionately) and we took a couple of homemade polo mallets and rode downtown.
The game was not at all what I expected. I anticipated something fast and mildly dangerous, with more bike skill than ball handling. If there is anything I enjoy, it's having my preconceptions dashed. Bike polo is a game of methodical skill and tactics combined with fancy ball control and the occasional fast breakaway. But it's hard to control that ball if you're going too fast.
Here's how it works: Every game starts with players throwing their mallets into a pile in the center of the court (parking garage) and someone randomly divides the mallets to create the teams. Players pick up their mallets and line up behind their goal line. One person on each team is picked as the "charger." Someone on the sidelines yells "go" and the chargers lead the teams into the center of the court.
The game goes like most field sports; it's based on ball handling, passing, stealing and, of course, scoring. It's just all done on a bike--that's the fun part. And the hard part.
I was right on with that mildly dangerous thought, though. The worst I did was a couple scrapes to one hand and my knees. The thing that hurt most was my 3-mph collision with a concrete column while I was paying a little too much attention to the ball. The real danger is hitting the ground at slow speeds, or running into another bike, or hitting one of those concrete support beams that always seem to be in exactly the wrong place in the parking garage. But it's almost always a low-speed fall. Even the best players hit the ground a couple of times per night.
Playing bike polo is safer than my daily ride through downtown Raleigh. You might get scraped up a little, but you won't get hit by a car.
At one point, a player tried to hit the ball under his bike and ended up with the mallet stuck in his front wheel and sent himself over his handlebars. There was a little blood and a broken spoke, but no sport would be complete without a little blood. The lesson: Keep the mallet out of your wheels or the forces of physics will work against you.
But it didn't hurt enough to keep the player out of the game. Time-out was called, but after adjusting his bike a little and wiping off the blood, he was back in.
Bike polo dates back more than 100 years, with the first game played in Ireland in 1891, according to the International Bicycle Polo Federation. Yes, there is an international federation and numerous national associations, including one here in the United States. The game is popular across Europe and in India. It was essentially a way to play polo sans horses, that ever-expensive limiting factor that keeps polo a game of the well-to-do. Now it's just a good way to have some fun on a bike.
There are national and international associations with well thought-out rules and governing bodies, but those have no effect on the local games. In the United States, bike polo has an underground following, made up of folks who work as bike messengers and at bike shops and others who commute on bikes or otherwise rebel against the car-culture dogma. But bike polo is for everyone with a bike and some time to kill with friends.
Here are the rules:
Your feet cannot touch the ground, but you can use your mallet to keep your balance while riding slowly or stopped. If your feet do touch the ground, you have to ride around 360 degrees before going back into the game. This is also the case if you fall or otherwise hit the ground.
When one team scores, that teams rides back and around their goal to give the other team a chance to get the ball to the other side. The ball is always in play.
You can use the long side of the mallet while playing to control the ball, but you have to score with the ends of the mallet. If you make a goal with the long side, it doesn't count. This rule is enforced with the honor system, but the nice part about this game (or at least about the players) is the honor system works.
Bike polo can be played with any bike, but you don't want to come out with that $1,500 Trek--this game is not gentle on the bikes. Most folks play with fixed-gear or coaster-brake bikes because it would be difficult to hold a mallet in one hand and break with the other. Fixed-gear bikes are considered best by most players. Fixed-gears don't have a freewheel (that piece in the back hub that lets you coast) but instead have a "fixed gear," so if you pedal forward your wheel goes forward, if you pedal backward your wheel goes backward. Fixed-gears, or track bikes, are normally reserved for the true bike geek and tend to be home-modified road bikes.
But if you want to play, don't let your bike stop you. Come out with that BMX or 30-year-old cruiser, pump up the tires on that old Raleigh in the garage, and saddle up.
If you want to get in on a game, inquire at your local bicycle store. They may know about one near you.