Madison gearing up to host the 2010 North American Hardcourt Bike Polo Championships
Kristian Knutsen on Tuesday 07/06/2010 1:00 pm

Sports both novel and long-established regularly rise and fall in popularity, moving in and out of public consciousness. The emerging sport of bicycle polo, particularly the nascent hardcourt version, is one that is just starting to draw attention beyond its pioneering players. It is set to get a local boost when the Madison Bike Polo club hosts the 2010 North American Hardcourt Bike Polo Championships over the weekend of July 16-18.

Bike polo has been played on a dedicated basis in Madison over half a decade, led in large part by the brothers Jonny and Ben Hunter. Renowned locally for their culinary talents and work with the Underground Food Collective, they are also known across the nation as boosters for the sport, which is blossoming among bicycle messenger and mechanic circles in cities across Europe and North America.

“Bike polo is one of only a handful of sports to have developed on a global scale during the age of the internet,” writes Kevin Walsh. Now based in Toronto, he was one of the original polo players in Madison along with the Hunter brothers, and maintains The League of Bike Polo, a global clearinghouse for the growing ranks of clubs.

“Its growth has been horizontal and organic, and for good reason people have been skeptical of various aspects of formalization, standardization, or top-down structures,” he continues. “But its rapid growth has given rise to the need for something to hold it together and ensure that its growing pains aren’t much more painful than the road rash worn by most of its players.”

Madison was selected last November to host the championships via a bidding process organized by a North American organizing committee, consisting of city and regional reps selected by clubs and tasked with codifying the sport. “Boston put in a good bid, but they had hosted a major tournament the year before,” says Hunter. “Madison has a reputation for hosting good tournaments.” These include Midwest championships in May 2008 and a New Year’s competition in January 2009.

One major goal of this particular tournament is to provide a greater level of organization for the sport at one of its highest levels with the intention of aiding its growth.

“I’m hoping to create some systems that can be used to run tournaments in the future,” says Jonny Hunter, “along with a better set of rules and an increase in the level of standardization for the sport to allow easier play.” Indeed, last Friday organizers released the complete set of rules for the tournament for players and referees to learn in advance of the tournament. Running more than 2,000 words long, they are detailed and exhaustive, covering equipment, gameplay, contact, timeouts, penalties, and tournament format. “The set of rules we will play under will be the most authoritative yet,” he notes.

The championships will be located on a set of tennis courts at the Madison College Truax Campus on the north side of Madison. Each team will have three players, mounted atop their own bikes and tasked with scoring goals while refraining from touching their feet on anything except the pedals. The tournament consists of two 48 team Swiss-style rounds, which will be reorganized for the second day of competition. Teams should expect to play 10 total matches during this opening stage. The top 32 teams will move into a double elimination round on the third and final day.

Each match in the first stage will run 12 minutes, and end when one team scores five goals. The first set of knockout stage matches run 15 minutes and do not end when a team reaches the five goal mark; if the score is tied at the end of regulation play it will go to sudden death. Game length may increase for the final four matches.

The style and ethics of competition covered by these rules have developed by the Madison club over more than five years of play. The club has long made a home on tennis courts situated atop a water utility building in Reynolds Park on the near east side, playing every Sunday over all four seasons, but has recently found itself in conflict with the city over this space. Municipal officials have asked the club not to play in this location so as not to supersede any tennis players using the courts. Club members are seeking the support of neighborhood organizations and the Parks Division in the hopes of dedicating that or another space to use for polo.

These recent difficulties notwithstanding, the Madison club is now responsible for making sure this tournament is a success. Members have been organizing for months, and plan to be engaged in it on a full-time basis in these finals days leading up to the event. Fortunately, they are receiving help from a major benefactor.

Trek Bikes is acting as the title sponsor of the championships, providing organizing power and significant resources, including PA equipment, insurance, and the grand prize for the winning team. The Waterloo, Wis.-based company helped facilitate the venue selection, working with Madison College to provide access to its courts for the tournament. It is also providing work tents stocked with tools and spare gear in which players can work on their own bikes or get assistance from a local bike mechanic.

Participants will also find a Trek hospitality tent stocked with water and other beverages so they can rehydrate between games. Meanwhile, the Underground Food Collective will offer players breakfast all three days of the tournament, and Just Coffee will serve its NAHBPC Official Caffeinated Beverage.

The tournament has space for 96 teams, with some 60 registered so far. Along with ample representation from Midwestern cities, a sizable number of teams from the East Coast is expected, along with another 10 to 20 from the West Coast, a smattering from Canada, and even teams from France and Italy.

Three teams from the Madison club will compete, with several of its members filling out teams from elsewhere around the region. The city’s best hopes for success on the court may be the team consisting of the Hunter brothers and Walsh, which has played together for years, winning regional tournaments and showing that they’re a force to be reckoned with at the national level.

“We can finish in the top, and have beaten great teams, but we’re definitely not favorites,” says Jonny when asked if they have a shot at the championship. Rather, he cites teams from Vancouver, Seattle, New York, and Richmond, Virginia as serious contenders, as well as one from Milwaukee.

The winning team will receive a grand prize of $3,600. The money is intended to cover its members’ travel expenses to the 2010 World Hardcourt Bike Polo Championships, which will be held in Berlin over August 13-15. Trek and other sponsors will also give away bicycles and other prizes for participants.

The Madison club is hoping the championships draw a respectable number of spectators, particularly for the final matches. Teams will be required to wear matching colors, a rarity in this nascent sport. During the first two days of the tournament, some of the nine courts will be used for matches while others will be devoted to pick-up play. As a result, fans will mostly be able to watch the action from behind the goal lines. However, during the knockout stage on Sunday, the matches will be played on a limited number of center courts, and spectators will be able to claim a spot on the sideline. Ultimately, organizers are working to set up the tournament to provide as many views of the play as possible. There might even be a chance for anybody interested in the sport to play a pickup game or two.

The public is invited to attend a pre-tournament registration party for participating teams on Thursday, July 15, starting at 7 p.m. at the High Noon Saloon. Bands include Madison’s Peaking Lights and Dead Luke, as well as the Indiana-based Dylan Ettinger & The Heat and Circuit Des Yeux.

Local organizers are seeking volunteers to help out before and during the championships. The courts need to be set up on the Monday before the matches begin, and more assistance will be needed in managing the parties and providing information to visiting competitors. Anybody interested in volunteering can contact Ongoing updates will be provided via the tournament’s Twitter account.

“Last year was huge,” says Hunter about the growth of bike polo. “Participation in the sport increased so much, with more communication between clubs in cities around the country.” He cites major challenges to its growth, namely the current necessity of building mallets, and the high level of maintenance required on bikes, and does not expect to see dedicated courts built around the country anytime soon, but still thinks the sport will continue to attract devotees both serious and casual. Next on the agenda is the ongoing development of the world organizing body.

Local growth remains a priority too. “We’ve seen growth in the Madison club just this summer, with people coming out and already being familiar with bike polo,” notes Hunter. “My hope is that we run a good tournament, increase the visibility of the sport, attract more players, and find a city-supported place to play.”