A highly sophisticated, cruelty-free and affordable alternative to a historically snooty game is gaining turf in Vancouver’s Eastside. And while it may look silly, impossible, or even dangerous to the occasional passers-by, this poor-man’s polo is an up-and-coming trendy team sport.
Vancouver-based chopper-cycle builder, bicycle aficionado, and artist RedSara invited this writer to a weekly 11 a.m. bicycle polo match, held every Sunday in good weather on the gravel turf at Vancouver ’s Britannia Community Centre. Played three or four players per side, cyclists – or rather members of Vancouver ’s cycling community and repair centres – mount their steeds and proceed to whack a street-hockey ball across the field and between one of two hastily-constructed upright goal posts. The mallets are homemade, constructed from either sawed-off golf clubs or ski poles with hard-plastic tubing or cutting-board cut-outs pinned and duct-taped to the ends. Sometimes frustrating, always challenging, often fun, players finished two games to ten points before they wrapped up another Sunday on the pitch.
In August of 2004, the 7th World Bicycle Polo Championship tournament was hosted by a Jericho-based bicycle polo club, with expert teams coming from Pakistan, India, France, and California. But few Vancouverites were aware of the tournament, which isn’t surprising as few are even aware of the sport. The general public’s lack of familiarity and comfort with bicycle polo was evident from the concerned glances and inquiries from some pedestrians who happened to pass by during our game. In this arena at least, it seems that Alberta – with purportedly active teams in both Calgary and Edmonton – finally has one up on B.C.
‘Axles of Evil’
At the beginning of December, a delegation from Oregon’s Portland-based “ZooBomb” bicycle collective was touring Vancouver, and co-hosted a cross-border kiddie-bike Sunday polo tournament down on the flats by False Creek. Regulars of the Portland bicycle polo circuit, the ZooBombers are familiar with the misunderstood underdog-nature of this sport in North America. This past summer, polo games organised by a group self-named the “Axles of Evil” were temporarily banned from playing games on Portland Parks and Recreation sites due to the Parks Board’s concerns over insurance coverage and the rumoured early-morning convivialities that seem to be part-and-parcel of the arriviste American bike-polo culture. In fairness, some teams do refer to the final game-point, lovingly, as “Beer point,” and not without cause.
But polo is one of the oldest team sports and is also, according to several worldwide polo associations, the oldest sport played with a ball. Various polo-philic websites have declared that polo originated as far back as the 600 B.C. in Persia, where cavalry troops would conduct technical and tactical training exercises with dozens of horsemen per team. Centuries later, it became a prestigious noble sport, played by king, queen, ladies, and courtiers alike in Persian high-circles. It wasn’t until British tea planters witnessed the game in India that it became a posh British-adopted sport in the 1850s.
But the poor Irish people of the British Isles couldn’t join the English in all of their class-inherited endeavours and reindeer games. Not able to afford the luxury of keeping horses for sport, in the 1890s Irish folk and Irish-Americans in turn began creating their own polo rules and leagues – leagues played with human-propelled mechanisms rather than animals. It wasn’t until after the Second World War, when horses became critically obsolete from commercial and army activities that British and Indian military regiments finally adopted bicycle polo as a reasonable alternative. Indeed, even the young Princes William and Harry have been caught in the act of playing the upstart pauper’s game, joining the ranks of 10,000 or so Indians who claim the game as their own.
Thankfully, bicycle polo seems to be relatively safe for rider and steed, especially when played on a grass or ‘forgiving’ gravel field. Although riders are, in some circles, allowed to throw their mallets towards the goals to block a score, actual human-equipment collisions are fairly rare – or at least rarely serious. However, it is forbidden to “T-bone” or cut-off another player in a dangerous manner, and though you can use your body to block and shove another player, you may not use your hands to interfere, say by grabbing another player’s handle-bars.
As for the steed, you can easily argue the economic and human advantages of velocipede-versus-equine polo. One website on the matter summed it up quite nicely: Bicycles eat a lot less than horses, are easier to clean up after, and, if you break a spoke, you don’t have to shoot your bike.
Unfortunately for novices, bicycle polo requires a massive amount of coordination and balance and feels extremely uncomfortable and irritating at first. The play improves vastly with practice and has additional side-benefits for regular bicycle riders, who may find themselves newly-equipped with faster reaction times and smoother manoeuvrability once they venture back to the dangerous obstacle-ridden game of urban commuting.
Bicycle polo also looks and feels really scary. It is awkward. As a first-time player, you feel that something is not quite right, and you suffer the inescapable fear that you will somehow fall and knock your front teeth out. Perhaps for these reasons and more, female turnout at West Coast bicycle polo matches is consistently low. Or maybe it’s just that the women know better – could bicycle polo really be just plain silly?
Nerd-magnet? Geek-parade? Or maybe just the next-big hipster activity since wearing legwarmers to amateur-wrestling matches became yesterday’s camel? Though happily obscure at present, bicycle polo is poised to gallop to popularity as the days get longer, winter fades away, and regular sports become tiresome once more next summer.
But what will happen when bicycle polo itself becomes tiresome, you ask? Segueway polo may take over, but perhaps the true sport for the post-Internet generation will be an environmentalist-slash-techie-attracting über-combination: bicycle ultimate. As for me and my critical lack of balance, I’ll return to the Britannia gravel ‘polo’ field next Sunday at 11 a.m., but this time I’ll show up with my already-steady pink princess tricycle and my own homemade mallet.
This piece first appeared on Seven Oaks Magazine online.