Used to be, I’d be suited up to play left defense, seeing as I’m sitting on the player benches at the outdoor arena at Dufferin Grove, a fast-paced game on. Not tonight. The weather is sunny and pleasantly warm. I’m wearing a light tee shirt and a skirt, with cycling shorts underneath. There are bikes parked along the boards, inside the bench with me. See, it’s June 30, and I’m here as an observer, only. Tonight, they’re playing pick-up Bike Polo. And now I’m definitely a bike bunny.
“Bicycle Polo!” someone outside the fenced arena gasps, fascinated. He and his girlfriend slow down to watch for a moment. A young man beside me turns to his friend and laughs, “Poor man’s polo, you mean!”
Louis from Edmonton is working on his bike, beside me. He tells me that Bike Polo started out just a “bunch of dudes in a parking lot drinking beer, thinking this might be a good idea.” Once it got going, game rules evolved like in any sport. People would travel from city to city and start new feeder teams, so each city would develop it’s own subleties on game strategy, equipment, and penalties. And then players decided to form inter-city competitions, which forced the rules to become more standardized. Today, North America actually has a Bike Polo governing body.
The sport is now played all over the world and this weekend, Toronto is hosting the Northside Regional Qualifier Tournament, which is an international event. Forty teams are converging on the city, all vying for a coveted spot at the North American Championships this August in Calgary. Beside me along the bench there are young men and women from Australia, France, Switzerland. It strikes me at once how creative many of them are, comparing the customizations on their bikes and polo accessories, in how they wear their hair, and given how many and how interesting their tattoos. Like so many of the bike events I’ve attended this year, the air is alive with energy.
The play converges on a net and the spectators roar when the player loses possession. “Ya munged it up!” someone shouts, good-naturedly. Two players meet, clapping mallets together in encouragement. One goes for the ball, which he traps beneath his bike between the wheels, just long enough to ward off his attackers. And then, with dizzying speed, the ball is hustled down the court for a shot on the other goal.
Despite it being a global phenomenon, you still can’t buy equipment for Bike Polo. One of the more colourful characters beside me suggests that “the best thing to ward off hipsters is forcing them to commit to something.” You have to build and maintain your bike, if you want to play. Everyone rides a lightweight road bike, but there are no favorite brands here, and some bikes are pretty banged up. I am told you ride either single gear or fixie, because a derailleur means too many breakable parts. I watch Louis attach his rear wheel. His hub has two gears: on one side is the polo gear and on the other side is his street gear. (By street gear he means he is a bike messenger, but he demurs endearingly that his job is not what defines him.) He explains that fixed gears are better for quick movement, because you can lift your front wheel and turn the bike 45 degrees, or even 90 degrees—a great defensive move. Single gears make balance easier, because you can take one foot off the pedals when shooting on goal, or leaning across for a longer reach. Both have their advantages, depending on your style. Most players do not wear clip-in shoes, but Louis does. When I watch him play a few minutes later, I sense a developed confidence, his play demonstrating elegance and continuity.
When I look closely, I notice that most bikes have straight, chopped handlebars or quasi uprights. One common element to every bike is the single brake lever, because you have to hold the mallet. Franken-bikes, on steroids!
For accessories, players typically wear helmets. When I ask one of the men if their hometown allows play with no helmet, they tell me that sometimes people arrive without one, but in their town anyway helmets are compulsory. They concur that there isn’t really any advantage to playing without one. They point to the pick-up game, where some players are wearing knee and shin guards, and lacrosse gloves on their hands. That’s when I notice a few big bandages taped over fresh scrapes, and some heavy scabbing on knees, elbows, even shoulders. No one is complaining.
Players make their own polo mallets, which are simple designs. They look a lot like the old wooden crocket mallets I used as a child, only these use the more sophisticated carbon fibre poles, and the mallet itself is durable plastic. Each mallet is intentionally unique, which is particularly useful in pick-up games. At the start of any new pick-up game, one player holds the entire lot of mallets behind their back, and in the centre of the court, blindly tosses out all but six. The remaining six identify the next round of players. These six mallets are again blindly divided up, three per side, which is how the teams are formed. It’s all very casual. The game ball is a standard ball hockey ball.
Bike Polo rules are far closer to hockey than to standard Polo. You get three players per side, and everyone plays both offence and defense. Players take turns playing goalie as necessary. The first side to reach five goals wins; otherwise, a game goes 12 minutes. The mallet is used for both shooting and shuffling. You must shoot with the end, but you can push or “shuffle” the ball down the court using the side of the mallet.
You are penalized if you step off the bike. Minor penalties like this one require the player to “tap out”, or cycle to mid-court and touch the boards with their mallet, before returning to play. More serious penalties (most of which prevent serious injury to players, but may also discourage repeated infractions) require the player to sit out for 30 seconds, 1 minute, or even 2 minutes. Given how quickly the game moves along, even a minute off can be an eternity. In a proper game, I am assured there is an umpire, on foot.
A new pick-up game is about to begin. Players whose mallets were chosen vault the boards and then lean into my bench to lift their bikes out. The “teams” head down to their respective nets and wait, focussing on the ball that’s been left unattended at mid-court. Someone in the benches beside me hollars, “3, 2, 1, GO!” and the players all race to centre to get possession. I watch one particularly skilled rider scoop up the ball and shuffle it toward his opponent’s net. Suddenly, another bike speeds across, cutting him off. When he tries to redirect the ball behind him, it is sent flying in another direction unexpectedly.
“Ooooh! Back door bandit!” someone screams, delighted. The ubiquitous Dickey Dee music starts a block away. One player positions their bike side-on across the net, in the goalie position. The opposing team takes a couple of spectacular polo-style shots, but the ball bounces off the bike. I ask Louis about the wheel inserts that most players seem to have attached to their spokes. Most players are using discarded bits of light corrugated plastic, like old lawn signs. These are called covers, intended to protect your spokes from pedals, mallets, and other sorts of impact injury. There’s another shot on net, and the ball whizzes through the spokes into the goal. A cheer goes up and someone screams, “Wheel covers!” teasingly. Apparently, recycling your city councillor’s lawn signs for this purpose has its advantages.
Play continues and furiously moves off to one side, where riders clap onto the boards for balance while they scrabble for possession. Others lean slightly on their mallets while they wait, balancing gracefully in mid-court. Play continues into the centre and at that moment two bikes collide unexpectedly. A less experienced man has T-boned a young woman. The bench is quiet as we ascertain damage to both players and bikes. They rise and immediately check steering and wheel alignment. He has borrowed a bike tonight, to get some practice before the big event tomorrow, and there appears to be a few minor adjustments necessary.
My friend Frank leans across and tells me that there are two cardinal sins in this sport: don’t pass the ball in front of the net and “don’t break a borrowed bike”. He also explains that the worst accidents are often caused by someone riding over a ball.
Other players are offering assistance and encouragement, kindly and patiently. Despite the weekend’s event being a qualifier, there is a genuine spirit of good sportsmanship among these people, many of them new friends tonight. When everyone is assured that no one was badly hurt and that the bikes are good to go, someone in the benches yells, “Gordie’s not a finesse player. He’ll rub you out!” at which we all laugh and play continues. I am impressed that there are not more accidents: in my opinion, many of these riders demonstrate a great deal of finesse. They move at break-neck speed to gain possession, but as they approach each other and the goal, there is a Gretzky-esque sense of surroundings. Frank suggests that “this game is won by people who know how to read the court.”
In the beginning, there were a lot more crashes. Now, play is fast-paced, and if you’re playing with your best friend or are in the finals grinding for a spot in Calgary, you’re going to be bumping shoulders and using elbows, going in hard and physical. However, if an inexperienced player is on the court, everyone backs off a little, to give them space to develop. “At the end of the day, it’s all about fun”. It all looks extremely artistic to me, the players are lithe and strong and joyous. But then, so are all the other cyclists I’ve met this year. It’s about riding a bicycle, isn’t it?
The tournament spans Saturday and Sunday, and on Friday teams arrive and register, and can enjoy all-day pick-up practice. Play and practice are held at either Scadding Court (Dundas West and Bathurst) or Dufferin Grove Park. For more information on this weekend’s events, visit http://bikepolo.to/tags/tournaments
See you there, bike bunnies.