Bike. Mallet. Action.
Hardcourt bike polo is reconfiguring the car parks, alley ways and basketball courts of our inner cities, and it’s seriously good fun.
An edited version appeared in Treadlie Issue #4, Spring 2011
When hardcourt bike polo first hit the tarmac in Australia in 2007, it was viewed as a sideshow novelty; the kind of 'sport' two-wheeling hobbyhorses with a penchant for all things bike whiled away their Sunday afternoons on, while the 'serious' cyclists donned head-to-toe lycra and clocked up the kilometres.
Three years on, and bike polo is played in every major city in Australia and New Zealand, and then some. It's played socially by mixed gender crews, and it's becoming a highly competitive sport in its own right, with its own acronymised governing body (the Australia Hardcourt Bike Polo Association, or AHBPA), national tournament schedule and rulebook.
Born from the leisure time of bicycle couriers in the streets of North American cities like Vancouver, Chicago and New York in the early noughties, hardcourt bike polo follows much the same format as its grass-playing granddaddy.
Wait a minute, grass? That’s right folks – when it was invented in Ireland in 1890, bicycle polo was played on grass. It proved wildly popular, and before long the British army and the Maharajas were playing against each other in Imperial India, and England was losing the first international to Ireland 5-10 at the Crystal Palace in London.
Thirty-nine-year-old Virginia Castellan of Sydney has been playing hardcourt bike polo for nearly three years, and is a member of the AHBPA Committee. She started off watching friends play, but didn't think she'd ever give it a go herself.
"Back then, I wasn't even riding bikes much!” she says. “But eventually, I was talked into playing a couple of games, and a few weeks later I entered Sydney's first tournament. Since then, I've pretty much been hooked."
The rules pit two teams of three players against each other in games that last just 15 minutes. Castellan describes it as "fast and furious and a little bit rough" - and that's exactly why she likes it.
Play restarts after each goal. Mallets must not be held above handlebar height, and players must tap in (drop out of play and strike a traffic cone situated midway on either side of the court) if they dab (touch the ground with their feet), or strike another player with their mallet. Only like can contact like, so it’s mallet to mallet, bike to bike, and body to body, and with players mastering moves with names like ‘shoulder runs’ and ‘chicken charges’, it’s not for the faint-hearted.
Melbourne's Damon Rao first played polo in Vancouver in 2007, and is a key driver of the sport in Australia. He credits it with improving his riding confidence, big time. "I fall off my bike regularly, and never get too fussed,” he says. “Plus, bike polo gets people together. It’s great for teamwork – which is unusual for bikes!"
Back in the late nineteenth century, play was kept strictly separate: ladies played ladies, and gents played gents. These days, women play alongside and against men. They tend to be out numbered, but this doesn't bother Castellan and her fellow players, like Chelsea Austin of Adelaide, one little bit.
"One of the things I like about polo is its inclusiveness," comments Austin, who stopped riding bikes when she was 12, but was inspired to take up riding again by polo. "For the most part, I'm just one of the guys … although, I do dress kinda girly. It’s fun to play a not very girly game while dressing like a girl!"
At first, Ali McLatchie of Brisbane found bike polo’s male dominated scene intimidating. But two years in, and the 23-year-old barista doesn’t give it much thought. Like Rao, McLatchie learned to play polo in Vancouver, where she took part in the world’s first female tournament, the Ladies Army.
“There are very few women playing at the moment; I’d love to get something like that happening in Australia,” she says. “I'm hoping to start a ladies’ day in Brisbane in the coming weeks to get more girls interested and comfortable playing with the guys.”
Competition in bike polo is growing, but that doesn’t mean you have to be hugely experienced or good at polo to get involved. “Some two-day tournaments will sort the teams by skill,” explains Rao. “This lets the fun teams play together, and the more serious teams have some serious competition.”
Improvisation is the on the menu when it comes to polo equipment: traffic cones become goal posts, while ski poles and plastic tubing make great mallets. And then there are the bikes. There's no point being precious about your wheels, because they're going to get banged up. For committed players, customisation is the way to go.
Austin rides a Favor Achilles fixed gear bike. "It's got really nice geometry; it’s much more balanced than my everyday bike. It's white. It glows in the dark. It's awesome!"
Castellan rides a free wheel mountain bike with 26 inch wheels and a dual brake, meaning the front and back brakes run off the same lever. "The frame is an old Yeti that I found on the street and repainted,” she says. “It's very beaten up and very well travelled."
The players are well travelled too. Polo is played in literally hundreds of cities throughout Europe, North and South America, Asia and Australasia, and drop in players are always welcome.
“There’s so much I love about polo, but in the end it’s the social side that keeps me coming back,” says McLatchie. “Each city I've travelled to for polo has people from all walks of life coming together as equals to hang out and have a bit of fun.”
Castellan’s travel has a competitive edge. Last September (2010), she played in the World Championships in Berlin, along with her teammates Locky Sheriff and Stephen Chaumont. This year, the trio will cross mallets with the international bike polo community in Seattle, after coming third at the Australian nationals in Adelaide in May 2011.
Interested? “Just come down and give it a go!” says McLatchie. “We're always looking for new players and are happy to lend you our bikes and mallets.” They’ll go easy on first timers, but her encouragement comes with a warning. “Be careful, it’s addictive.”