Photography By Adrian DiUbaldo
Brandon Carter had just reawakened his long defunct love with the bicycle when he learned about bike polo. “I saw it on xrocksthespot, a blog about cool shit to do in Denver. I saw videos of bike polo, and I was with that,” he said.
Before setting foot, or more accurately wheel, on a hardcourt, he was addicted. He went home and made a mallet in his backyard with an old ski pole and plastic piping (the typical mallet materials for bike polo). Riding his Goodwill-purchased bicycle, he made it to his first pick-up game with the then recently formed Denver bike polo club, the Mallet Mafia (now going through a name change to "Denver Hardcourt Bike Polo").
“I sucked when I went,” Carter said. “I was all afraid ‘cause I don’t ride a fixed gear bike and everyone else was pretty much on a fixed gear bike and I was afraid they were going to judge me, which they did. And then I sucked at polo for a really long time. I still suck at polo, but I really sucked then. I couldn’t hit the ball.”
Despite his self-proclaimed lack of talent for polo, Carter was obsessed, as are most of the bike polo players, many of whom play two to four times a week.
“I’m definitely addicted to bike polo. There’s no doubt in my mind about it,” Carter said.
The first time I saw a typical polo game, I was at Will Rogers State Park outside of Los Angeles. Returning from a hike, there in front of us was a lush green field. There was little cheering, and most of the spectators were accidental, having also returned from a hike or picnicking when the game started.
I was enamored by the grace of the horses and amazed by the accuracy of the players’ shots. The mallet poles looked thin and long, dangerously fragile. Not many goals were made, but the game was fascinating to watch all the same. Graceful, peaceful, and impressive.
Hardcourt bike polo is a whole different kind of impressive.
On a hot, sunny, Wednesday summer evening in Capitol Hill, I stood in the shade of a tree in the Morey Middle School yard, eating a mini cupcake and watching a bike polo match.
There was grace, agility and some accuracy, but this was a much different kind of polo. Lush grass was replaced by asphalt. Mallets flew at a ball among crunching gears, whirring petals and wheel guards protecting vulnerable spokes from mallet blows.
Hardcourt bike polo is exactly what it sounds like—players riding bicycles on a hard surface (usually a hockey rink or converted tennis court), handling the ball with a mallet, trying to score. The game is rugged, not in an outdoorsy way, but in a hipster bike culture way. And like Carter, it’s easy to assume that bike polo is for a fixed gear, messenger bike subculture. But in the past 10 years, bike polo has grown into its own subculture, with teams popping up in almost every major city in the U.S. and internationally.
The first world tournament was held in Philadelphia last year, and tournaments are held regularly throughout the year. Colorado players travel around the country to attend club-sponsored tournaments monthly. They pay travel costs themselves and crash at fellow polo players’ homes to save money.
“At this point [bike polo] is very DIY,” said Nick Applegate, who started playing in upstate New York and started a Boulder team this year. “The whole culture is very like, you got to figure out what works for you. There is a huge array of different kinds of bikes that people ride, from road bikes to mountain bikes and fixed gear bikes and everything in between; it’s a really interesting culture to surround yourself in.”
Players are impossible to pigeonhole demographically. The players in Colorado range from 18 years old to their mid-30s, though there are a few older players in other clubs. In Arizona and New York, there are players in their 60s. The male to female ratio is disproportionate, but women are always welcome, and are often encouraged to join.
“You could argue that it’s part of the urban bike culture, but if you want to narrow that down to anything more than that, like fixie culture, I don’t think Brandon [Carter] and I view ourselves as fixie kind of guys,” said Ben Turner, who started playing with Denver Hardcourt Bike Polo last May. “I think what it is, is people that have a passion for bikes.”
But like any do-it-yourself (DIY) activity rising in popularity, the sport and its local clubs are confronting an identity crisis.
For the most part, hardcourt bike polo is played similarly everywhere. Teams of three play against each other, usually in 10- or 12-minute games, or until five points is reached by one side. The players are usually chosen by blindly holding up six mallets, each mallet representing a player, and throwing three to the left and three to the right.
The main rules are simple, and there are really only three.
1—If you put your foot down, you need to tap out then come back into play.
2—Score with the end of the mallet.
3—Don’t be a dick.
But each club has tweaks to the rules that differ from other clubs, so a league has formed among the die-hard polo players to create a governing body over the bike polo clubs in North America; part of the league’s plan is to determine a set of standardized rules for tournaments. Some players see the standardization as a threat to the culture of the sport and a step toward commercializing it.
“It’s a tough group to set up because they are anarchists, sort of, and don’t want rules and regulations,” said George Wall, who started a bike polo club in Colorado Springs.
“There’s a lot of anxiety in the polo culture because people don’t want to let go of that DIY, that organic evolution of the sport,” said Applegate. “I think it’s a mixed blessing. I’m in support of it becoming mainstream; I’m not super excited about it being ridiculously commercialized.”
Carter supports standardizing rules for tournaments. He said it will provide broader access to the sport, and he doesn’t see the DIY aspect of it leaving anytime soon.
“[Creating a set of rules] is necessary, because when you go to another place to play polo and the rules are totally different ... then it kind of rocks your brain a little bit,” Carter said, adding later, “I think it will still be DIY. I mean, maybe you’ll be able to go to Wal-Mart and buy a bike polo bike in a year, but you still need to do stuff to make your bike feel good for you.”
As I watched the June pick-up game, Turner explained that Denver Hardcourt Bike Polo is also at a sort of crossroads. Taking a break between games, he pointed to the group of 14 players. He said most of these and the other 15-or-so players that attend pick-up games regularly have been playing since Denver Hardcourt Bike Polo started last year. With more than a dozen tournaments behind some of the players, Denver Hardcourt's skills have vastly improved, but he and others are wondering where they go from here.
One development that most Denver Hardcourt players agree would help the team is a home court.
Currently they hold games anywhere a central space large enough to play on can be found. The primary location has been a middle school playground yard at 13th Avenue and Emerson Street in Capitol Hill. But the location is less than ideal. Cracks and dips threaten riders and without wall boundaries, the players spend as much time chasing balls as they do playing polo.
“We very badly want a court. It’s hard to get a good idea of bike polo on this court because there are so many things wrong with it,” said Cherri Czajkowski, one of the girls who play with Denver Hardcourt Bike Polo. “[The Capitol Hill court] is awesome in that it’s a central meeting spot and we can kind of just hit around the ball. But it’s not ideal because you don’t have boards, you’re chasing around the ball, there are cracks in the pavement.”
Denver Hardcourt Bike Polo, including Brent Tongco who works in the Mayor’s office, has approached the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation about a place to play. The players are willing to repair and maintain a dilapidated tennis court or similar space in order to earn their right to play there.
Parks and Recreation’s Mark Tabor said he doesn’t have a formal proposal from the group yet, but added that court space may arise when the city looks into installing multi-use courts in currently unused tennis court areas.
But even with a lack of a regular pitch in Denver, interest in the sport is growing.
The Colorado Springs club, Polo High, began around the same time as Denver Hardcourt Bike Polo. About 10-15 players come out to the twice-weekly pickups in the summer, and more in the winter, when other activities like mountain biking aren’t battling for riders’ attention.
In April, Applegate started the Boulder club, which usually sees four to six people show up to its pick-up games.
“I’m definitely addicted to it,” said Applegate. “I think it’s a good outlet. There’s different ways of playing the game. It can be a lot of finesse. It can be a lot of release of tension. A lot of people really get angry and emotional on the court. But I think it’s like any other sport where you develop camaraderie and you really have to be intimate with your machine and know how to fix things as they break.”
Watching the club play in June, I witnessed both the intensity of the game and the passion the players have for their club and it’s future.
“We’ve been trying to figure this out for a while,” Carter said, referring to bike polo’s hold on its dedicated players. “There’s something about riding your bike in general that’s awesome. It just can’t be explained. I think a part of it is that you are literally in tune with the machine. You can feel it … and then combine that with a competitive sport. … Biking and polo together are pretty fucking amazing.” •