Bike, mallets and a ball: Bike Polo is good time
September 2nd, 2010
by: Susan Jurgelski

Six mallet-wielding cyclists square off three-on-three, ready to go wheel-to-wheel on a sun-baked city tennis court.

There’s an anticipatory tension as thick as the sultry, summer evening humidity and the hypnotic hum of cicadas.

These bicyclists are geared up.

When a red rubber ball drops into play, members of the Lancaster City Bike Polo club explode into a weaving, jousting, mallet-swinging, spokes-whirring, pavement-scraping frenzy.

Their singular goal: To slam the ball — without their feet touching the ground — between the two orange cones on either end of the court using the “business end” of the mallet. If feet do hit the ground while riding, the toe-tappers must tap mallets “in and out” on a post.

This local club of free-wheelers, which has existed informally and quietly for about two years, is on the heels of the resurgence of an age-old sport dating back to the 18th century. While polo has traditionally been played on grass, bike polo on asphalt is gaining appeal, international momentum and attention.

“Bike polo has been around forever,” said 28-year-old stay-at-home dad Kyle Ciccocioppo, a hard-core, hard-court polo player and founder of the local club. “It’s really big, but sort of underground too, since many people still associate polo with horses.”

The urban two-wheeled version is a cross between hard-edged street hockey and a less glamorous and more gritty version of the game of kings. Players ride mounts that are lean metal, not muscled and equine, and whack a ball that’s generally rubber, not hard plastic or wood, with a mallet that can be made of a ski pole and industrial metal and rubber piping. Rules are few and mostly self-policed. Each club may have its own “house rules.”

Even without royalty, the game continues to attract plenty of loyalty.

Doug Dalmypire, a New York City player and former bike messenger, writes a blog at He was interviewed by the New York Times and he posts press about the sport on his site.

But recently, he said, there’s been just too much publicity to track.

“I started to play in 2005, and just to guesstimate by my own research … (then) there were not more than 10 cities playing, but there are now some 120 cities (participating) in North America. It’s popping up in so many cities that never had bike polo before.”

Pun intended, it’s on a roll.

Ciccocioppo admits to being hooked (capital H) on bike polo, and has even competed in tournament play outside of Lancaster. And he has many regulars, ages 20 to 40s, on the line, and online at social sites like Facebook, where the whens and wheres of local games are often posted.

The club has rotated hard-court games throughout the city at parks and garages and tennis and basketball courts — wherever play is welcome. The club has a standing invitation to meet in the Eastern Market building.

For diehard players like Ciccocioppo, it’s as much social arena as blacktop battleground, with scrapes, scuffles and bruises at the minimum and more wheels clashing than personalities.

At his first match, Alvie Hearren, 26, who works part time in a bakery and is also a student, is struck by the friendly inclusiveness.

His further observation: Exclusive no, but hard-core, yes.

You could say 34-year-old lifetime “biker” Ted Houser, who stumbled on the club at Facebook and through a colleague, could fall in that category. He bikes daily to work at Lancaster Archery Supply.

Players are interestingly diverse as well as like-minded said Louis Kugel, a 33-year-old architect: At its core, bike polo is really about biking, geared toward, well, those who really like to ride bikes. But by the same token, the game is so absorbing, sometimes players even forget they’re on bikes.

In tournaments, teams generally play 10-minute matches. Participants in pick-up games first toss their mallets to the center of the court, and then three are thrown to both sides to determine who will make up the next team.

“We usually play first to five points, and if the first game is a shutout we’ll play best out of three,” Ciccocioppo said. “It’s a great game (for spectators), too.”

Helmets are recommended, but not required, and any bike will manage on the court — some are fixed gear and even have no brakes, he said. There is also a community polo bike available for people from out of town.

”I love (bike polo) … , the scoring, the competition, everything, the laughter (like when somebody falls in a funny way off their bike),” said Ciccocioppo, who has a ball-stopping cover decorated with psychedelic designs on the spokes of his front wheel. “I just hope it never dies out.”

John Kennedy is the director of operations for the United States Bicycle Polo Association (motto: We Don’t Horse Around), which is primarily concerned with the grass-court version of bike polo, in which collisions are discouraged (acceptable in street polo).

He echoes the consensus that the latter is heating up in whatever weather.

According to Kennedy, there are varied historical versions of the sport’s beginnings. Legend has it that the British government sent bikes to a ruler in India who gave them to stable boys who had always wanted to play polo but couldn’t afford it. British soldiers stationed in India took the game back to Britain, and there, it became so popular that it was played as a demonstration sport at the 1908 Olympics in London.

“I hear from people all the time, ‘We played with croquet mallets or hockey sticks and we thought we invented the sport until we found your website,’ ” Kennedy said in a recent interview for the Washington Post.

He quips in an e-mail: “Bike polo is the good BP.”

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