Bike Polo by Cristina Schreil
Back in February a NYU Journalism student contacted me about writing a story on New York bike polo. Here is what she came up with. You can see it as it was meant to be seen, photos and all, at VillageWritersProject.com
Metal clanked on metal as six bike riders sped around a street hockey court, using ski poles to hit at a tiny red ball. All of a sudden, one player swerved. As his bike crashed into the pavement, he hurled his pole into the air and cursed. The others laughed; it was just another Sunday.
Every week in Manhattan’s Chinatown, these players of bike polo – a sport resembling traditional polo with teammates atop bikes instead of horses – have gathered for pick-up games since the summer of 2006. While bike polo has been around for decades, even making an appearance at the 1908 Olympics, the NYC team of around twenty men and women say that within the biking community, bike polo is more popular now than ever before.
“You play to play,” said Doug Dalrymple. “No one’s trying to be M.V.P. No one’s trying to be the best defender.” Dalrymple, a bike messenger who first organized bikers into NYC’s bike polo team in the summer of 2006, also said, “Bike Polo is the most relaxed team sport. You just show up.”
The bike polo movement itself is relatively unknown.
Most NYC players started off as bike messengers, discovering bike polo through word of mouth. Dalrymple said modern hard court bike polo formed roots in Seattle and is popular among the biking community in cities worldwide.
In a typical bike polo game, two teams of three mounted players battle over a red street hockey ball – their aim is to hit it with a mallet — similar to a croquet mallet — through the other teams’ goal. Goals are the width of a hockey goal and are designated by two orange street cones. Games end when a team reaches five goals.
This is no sport for the timid. Players may smash into each other or ram their mallets between other players’ wheel spokes, sending players into the asphalt. There are only two rules: players can’t put both feet on the ground and must hit the ball with the short end of their mallets.
Players also say that bike polo and horse polo are completely different. You won’t find a national league, a slew of formal rules, or even uniforms in a bike polo game. Players wear whatever they show up in — jeans, sweatshirts — and ride whatever type of bike they have.
That’s something that NYU sophomore Chris Bowman loved from the start. Bowman, the youngest of New York’s bike polo players at 19 years, said, “I don’t need to go to and buy all this expensive equipment, I can go to a random dumpster and build a bike and mallets.”
Bowman also said that players craft their own bike polo mallets, often out of a ski pole shaft inserted into a head made out of roughly six inches of high density polyethylene gas pipe. Everything holds together with hockey tape.
“It’s D.I.Y. to the fullest,” Bowman said.
Although there’s no national league, teams in cities like Madison, Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Chicago, sponsor tournaments each year — all of which the NYC team have traveled to.
Ken Stanek, a 32-year-old bike messenger who started playing bike polo at The Pit three years ago, coordinates NYC tournaments by finding sponsors and housing for visiting teams.
“A lot of other cities have commented that New York City is kind of like one big family and we totally are,” said Stanek. He said this is because NYC players have a unique enthusiasm: “As opposed to a lot of other cities, we can regularly get out a lot of people to play, even on a random Thursday night when it’s 30 degrees outside.”
So what’s next for bike polo? While Dalrymple said that the NYC team is more passionate than they were when Dalrymple first organized them he said, “It’s not going to become baseball, it’s not going to become football. It’s a street game.”