Hardcourt Bike Polo

Three-two-one polo! : Edmonton league joins the fast-growing ranks of bike polo enthusiasts

September 10, 2009, Issue #725
by: Scott Harris

To the uninitiated passerby, it likely seems like something of an insane pursuit. Six cyclists race around the concrete confines of an outdoor hockey rink, one hand on the handlebars of the bike, the other swinging a homemade mallet constructed from a ski pole and a short length of plastic pipe at a tattered orange street hockey ball. Most of the bikes are fixed-gears—many without brakes—their wheels covered with colourfully decorated chloroplast to protect the spokes from wayward mallets.

After some jostling in the corner the ball pops loose of a crowd of players, and one of them directs it with her mallet as she circles around and heads toward the opposite net. A defender leans forward and locks the rear wheel of his bike after a short high-speed pursuit down the length of the rink to make a controlled skid into the path of the attacker, who is crouched low over the handlebars as she pushes the ball towards the goal. Wheels collide, sending riders and bikes alike careening to the ground. Cheers and jeers erupt from both teams, and from the spectators on the other side of the boards, as they pick themselves up, collect their mallets and exchange a smile and a quick “You OK?” before hopping back onto their bikes to make a mad dash to the red line.

Welcome to hardcourt bike polo, the rough, very DIY urban equivalent of the ancient game of kings, which in recent years has enjoyed an explosion of popularity in cities around the world, including Edmonton.

“The rules are very loose,” explains Chris Dunbar, a lanky Nova Scotia native and one of a group of four cycling enthusiasts who started organizing games of bike polo in the city back in June. “Basically, you’ve got to put the ball in the net. Anytime you put a foot down you have to go tag out at centre before you can come back into the play. You can push the ball down the court, but anytime you score you have to score on the end of your mallet. Whoever gets to five first takes the cake.”

“Body to body, bike to bike, mallet to mallet is the contact,” adds Ted Cottingham, another of the pioneers of the game in Edmonton. “And you only do things you’d want done to you.”

But while collisions might at times seem almost as frequent as goals—and are occasionally spectacular—success in the game is more about bike control, ball-handling and teamwork. Injuries beyond minor bruises and scrapes are rare, according to Neil Macdonald, a Halifax expat also involved in getting the game off the ground here, especially for players who are new to the game.

“As we’re getting better it seems to be getting a little bit rougher and we’re seeing a little more contact with riders. It’s something that the more experienced riders like—they’ll go chase after the ball when another experienced rider has it. But if it’s someone new playing we tend not to gang up on them or be aggressive to them,” Macdonald says, reassuringly. “We let them get better and let them enjoy the game. We’re always open to new players, and if six new people show up we’d have a whole new-person game and just let them ride and not have that intimidation factor of someone that’s been playing for a bit.”

It’s that laid-back friendliness, combined with an ethic that often sees players offering to take a seat while they hand their mallet and bike over to a curious onlooker, which has led to a rapid increase in the number of players making it out to regular Thursday evening games or to the numerous last-minute contests that frequently crop up throughout the week. Starting with just four players in late June, the group has ballooned to over 40 members, with upwards of a dozen sometimes coming out on any given night. Two teams of players are even planning a trip to Vancouver in a couple weeks’ time to take part in the East Van Crown tournament.

“It’s certainly kind of its own culture right now,” says Joshua Kupsch, who rounds out the original four. “I think through the relations of the polo players in Edmonton with other aspects of cycling—through the couriers or through the fixed-gear riders, through the commuters, through the track riders and road racers—it’s beginning to grow and the word is kind of getting around. Right now the most important thing for the sport to grow in Edmonton is to improve the awareness of what it is, to kind of have it recognized as a sport that people play.”

While the hardcourt variety of the sport is only a few months old in Edmonton, playing polo on bikes has a history dating back more than a century. Irishman Richard J. Mecredy is credited with inventing the game of bike polo in 1891, in a six-to-a-side iteration played on grass using a larger ball and strictly eschewing contact between riders. Grass bike polo was even a demonstration sport at the 1908 London Olympics, and enjoyed widespread popularity until it waned following the Second World War. With the advent of the mountain bike the grass-based version has enjoyed something of a resurgence in popularity, with international competitions resurfacing in the ’90s and into the new century.

While versions of the hardcourt game were also played in the early part of last century, the direct roots of the contemporary three-on-three version now gaining popularity date back to the winter of 1999 – 2000, according to Kevin Walsh, a Toronto native who got hooked on the sport while pursuing a master’s degree in Madison, Wisconsin. Last year he created the international website bikepolo.ca—self-described as being “where people take bike polo way too seriously”—to give the burgeoning international community a way to better connect and organize tournaments.

“[Hardcourt bike polo] has probably been reinvented dozens of times, but the hardcourt bike polo style that we’re playing are the rules that came out of Seattle and then Portland,” he says. “The big thing is the perpendicular mallets where you have to score off the business end and a fairly small hockey ball. Those are the two big things that they brought into the bike polo history.”

As in Edmonton, bike polo has spread quickly from its beginnings in the Pacific Northwest through bike messenger and fixed-gear cycling communities around the world. Walsh says there are now about 140 clubs or cities registered on the site, most of them in the US and Europe, but also including locales as diverse as Santiago, Chile, Seoul, South Korea and Shanghai, China. Canada now has hardcourt leagues up and running in almost a dozen cities from Montréal to Victoria.

The number of clubs and players has driven an increase in the number of regional and national tournaments in recent years, and the Labour Day long weekend saw 48 teams, including teams from Paris, London, Geneva and Berlin, compete in the Hardcourt Bicycle Polo World Championships in Philadelphia. The team from Seattle, somewhat appropriately, came out on top.

The future growth in the sport, Walsh speculates, largely depends on whether cycling in general continues to grow in popularity, as it has in recent years.

“I think it depends on the health of cycling itself. There’s two big barriers to entry to polo. One is the willingness to fall off your bike, which not everybody has, and two is the willingness to break and fix your bike, to put together a new bike for polo and so on,” he says. “With both of those barriers to entry, the healthier biking is the lower those barriers are going to seem for people. So if biking keeps on growing the way it is right now, I don’t see any reason why bike polo will stop.” V