Bike Polo Feature Story
April 18, 2010
By STEPHEN REGENOLD
gearjunkie.com

Here is a good one, follow the link to see a good selection of photos.

A ball bounces, tires skid, and a polo match is set in motion. It is 4pm, a Wednesday in late March at McRae Park in Minneapolis. Sven Mattson, 30, is pedaling with his head down, tires tearing asphalt on a hockey rink that’s just shed its ice.

“Go, go, go!” Mattson shouts, his face obscured in the metal cage of a lacrosse helmet. Six riders crank to midcourt, mallets extended in a mad dash for an orange ball.

Bike polo is a burgeoning trend in the urban cycling scene. Mallets, modified bikes, street-hockey balls, and goal nets create a formula for a high-action sport where bike riding and ball handling take equal stock.

The sport, a feat of physical coordination, requires aptitude in steering, braking, passing, pedaling, blocking, and balancing as a little ball flings around a court. You can’t put your feet down. Hockey-inspired shoves and body checks are allowed in some play.

“It took me a while to trust that I wouldn’t get seriously injured,” said Bjorn Christianson, 35, a web developer in Minneapolis. Christianson has played polo since 2007. He now runs Mplsbikepolo.com, a website with news and a schedule for a local league.

Last month, I joined Christianson and a group of polo players for a night of pickup play. We were culled via Twitter — “McRae Park is a go! 4pm until dark’clock.” — and @mplsbikepolo, an account followed by some 600 people looking to stay updated on ad hoc games.

Hardcourt bike polo — not to be confused with its cousin sport, traditional bicycle polo, which is played on grass — has the vibe of a gritty new urban fad. But the sport’s history stretches back decades, according to Doug Dalrymple, a champion bike-polo player from Brooklyn, N.Y., who runs Hardcourtbikepolo.com. “It’s long been a poor man’s version of horse polo,” he said.

Bike polo has roots in the 1800s and was featured as an exhibition sport at the 1908 Olympic Games. Dalrymple, who has competed around North America, said the latest wave of hardcourt polo caught on about a decade ago.

Since then, scenes have emerged in Seattle, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, and towns around the world. There are annual tournaments, including the North American Hardcourt Bike Polo Championships this year July 16 to 18 in Madison, Wis.

At McRae Park last month, the Twitter alert brought out about 20 bikers by 5pm. There were first-timers like me as well as serious “poloists” with customized bikes for the sport, including wheel covers, a single gear, chopped handlebars, and one brake.

Christianson explained the basics of play: You ride with one hand. Your mallet — a DIY club with a ski-pole shaft — swings free at your side. To score, push and pass the ball down-court and thwap it into the net.

The rules are easy. The play is hard. Bikes swirl on the pavement. Collisions are common. Touch a foot to the ground and you’re out of play until you tag a center point.

I jumped in for a try after observing several games. “Three, two, one, polo!” someone shouted, and a new game began.

The rush was on. Six mallet-wielding poloists pedaled midcourt toward a stationary ball. I swooped to the side, watching for a chance to reach and swing.

Play was five minutes or five points, whichever came first. My team, two men and a woman, pedaled the length of the court dozens of times. We chased runaway balls. We balanced at the goal when the opposition got close, a sideways bike a formidable block to the offense.

“Pass it!” players yelled. “Shoot!” I rode in circles. I occasionally touched the ball.

But then, at one point, I was alone and balanced with the ball. I rolled an inch and repositioned. A rider was coming fast from the other team. I lined up and shot, the ball bouncing away.

The orange sphere skipped toward an unguarded net. The opposition reached, mallets extended, but not close enough. My lucky ball bounced in, a point on the board. Cheers. A high-five. A moment of elation. And then the game rolled on.

—Stephen Regenold is founder and editor of www.gearjunkie.com.