SADDLED UP TO ROLL
Bicycle polo enthusiasts gather in a Eugene park to knock-it-around
By Mark Baker
The Register-Guard
Published:September 20, 2008

No horses allowed.

Just bring your fixed-gear bike, your homemade mallet and your joie de vivre — because they play bike polo in France, too, you know.

It’s been around for more than a century, but the “urban version,” the let’s-get-together-and-find-a-hardcourt-surface-to-play-on version, is “growing exponentially,” Eilif Knutson of Corvallis says.

Knutson, 24, has been playing bike polo for about five years. Last winter he found a “bike-trick” video on YouTube made by Eugene’s Sean Watters. It was filmed on the basketball courts in Washington-Jefferson Park, under the Interstate 105 bridge. “And I just thought, ‘Cool, we’ve got some skilled riders here in Eugene — let’s see if any of these guys are interested in polo,’ ” Knutson said Thursday night in the park.

Since that first meeting between Eugene and Corvallis guys on a Thursday night in January, enthusiasm has been building as more and more people show for the weekly games, says Watters, also 24 and an EKG technician for PeaceHealth who hopes to attend medical school in the near future.

“The group of people who come out here is just totally eclectic,” says Watters, who organizes the games. “We have our skater kids over here,” he says pointing to a group sitting nearby. “And we have people who work at (The Center for Appropriate Transport), people who work at Co-Motion (Cycles). It’s just this huge group of eclectic people, and they have one common bond, which is riding bikes and having a good time.”

Riding bikes and smacking a watered-down street hockey ball with mallets made of ski poles and golf clubs and PVC pipes.

1-2-3 … polo! someone screams to start the games with three players on a side. Players ride fixed-gear bikes that only move when you pedal them, like a tricycle, and don’t coast. They steer and brake with their left hands and swing their mallets with their right hands. The object is to hit the ball through a makeshift goal created with two orange pylons spaced about two feet apart. First team to score five goals wins.

The equestrian version of polo has been around at least 2,500 years. The origins of bike polo are credited to Richard Mecredy, an Irish cyclist said to have invented the sport in the 1890s, says John Kennedy, a Sacramento, Calif., private investigator who began playing about 13 years ago and who organized the U.S. Bicycle Polo Association.

Bicycle polo was even an exhibition sport at the 1908 Summer Olympics in London, Kennedy says.

Somewhere along the line, bike polo on hardcourts became popular with bicycle messengers in large cities. Whatever the case, it is the fastest growing part of the sport, says Kennedy, who plays the field version on grass.

Hardcourt bike polo is played in the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia, India — you name it, Kennedy says.

Its first Oregon appearance was in Portland, where players even play on unicycles, according to a recent story in The Oregonian. Bike polo has been popular in Corvallis for six or seven years, Knutson says.

About 30 to 35 players, most young men in their 20s, show up every Thursday and play to the sounds of blaring electronic music under the Washington-Jefferson bridge, says Watters, who drives onto the court every week and unloads a bunch of thin, wooden boards to form a hockey-rink-shaped court to keep the ball in play. Players soon begin showing up on their bikes, flying onto the court and skidding to a stop.

It becomes a party of sorts, plenty of Pabst Blue Ribbon in brown paper bags, the smell of cigarette smoke lingering through the late-summer night air. Games usually begin about 8 p.m. and go as late as midnight.

The group even has its own MySpace page that says, “One speed is all you need.”

Garrett Kovacs, a bike mechanic at the Center for Appropriate Transport, or CAT, the nonprofit community center dedicated to bicycles and other means of alternative transportation, started playing when he moved to Eugene in March. He plays for the simple reason that “it’s fun,” the 21-year-old says. “It takes a little practice,” he says. “It’s hard at first, then you get used to it, just like any other sport.”

Many who play have never been enamored of typical team sports such as football and basketball. Most of these guys were not on either of those teams in high school.

Alexander Hongo of Eugene, 24, who also works at CAT, did crew in high school, he says. “Normally, I’m not good at sports where you have to think about defense and passing,” he says. “Crew was good for me because you sit there and you pull. But this is just too much fun, and I made myself get good at it.”

He built his own bike out of a frame he found under a pool table on his porch, Hongo said, spinning the bike wheel that he’s especially fond of. “I don’t know,” he says. “It’s like this wheel is a part of my life now. It’s kind of an infliction or an addiction or something like that,” he said of bike polo.

“I think people who ride bikes enjoy being aggressive and enjoy team sports,” Watters says. “But a lot of times they don’t like the other aspects of it, the real competitive nature of it and all those things. They just want to have fun. They can ride bikes and have fun and not ride 40 miles — in Spandex.”