Ah, polo—the sport of kings! When it first emerged in Central Asia hundreds of years ago, elite cavalry units would play polo as a military training game. In the sixth century, even the king of Persia was known to take on the queen and her ladies.
And yet, who but a royal can afford a horse? As time went on, the game grew to be more egalitarian. In 1891, pioneering Irish cyclist Richard J. Mecredy swapped the horse for a bicycle, and bike polo was born.
Today, bike polo is a people’s sport. Teams play regularly in cities around the world, competing in tournaments and maintaining friendly rivalries. Pickup games are played every week; all you need is an old beater of a bike, a helmet and a wheel guard to protect the spokes from getting mangled.
Every Thursday at 7 p.m., bikers roll up to the Golden Hill Recreation Center to play hard-court bike polo (held on hard ground rather than a grass field) beneath the lights of the basketball court (or the handball court, if the hoops court’s being used). In case anybody wants to join in, Mike “Lawnmower” Maverick always shows up with an extra bike and a big bag of mallets, the waist-length sticks used to control the ball.
Companies like EighthInch sell polo-mallet kits, and there’s even a bike polo iPhone app, but many players prefer to fashion their own gear and customize their bikes. Trevor “Fraggle” Fray, a bike messenger whose dreadlocks were sticking out of a helmet covered with stickers (“dirty hippie,” one reads), rides a ’cycle with a stiff, mountain-bike frame and both front and back brakes hooked to his left-hand brake lever, leaving his right hand free to wield his mallet. Renee Green went one step further by simply hacking the right handle off her handlebars.
Maverick’s mallets are home-made—hockey poles or bamboo rods affixed with cylindrical heads made of plastic piping. On one, the end of the head was plugged with a piece of cutting board. It’s kind of like “knights making their own swords,” he explains. “You make it in your garage, and it’s like your own design, and you bring it to the court, test it out against the other knights.”
Unlike L.A.’s thriving bike polo scene, San Diego has only about a dozen regular players. They started holding games three years ago; Jordan Green (no relation to Renee) says they would often spend more time looking for a court than playing. When they appealed to the city, they were given four orange cones to use as goal posts.
Only about four players had shown up when I headed to the Golden Hill Recreation Center around 7:45 p.m. on a recent Thursday. Usually, they play in teams of three, with matches going to five points. Fray started calling friends to round up another player for a proper game, and, finally, a quiet fellow named Josh Montonavous rolled up. The game was on.
Bike polo follows a few basic principles—while one biker protects the goal, two others try to control the ball, opening themselves up for shots and passes. You’re free to cut your opponent off, trip up their mallet with yours and generally get in their way. If your feet touch the ground, you have to tap the nearest basketball pole with your mallet to get back in the game.
The game was heated. I barely had a chance to control the ball and I took quite a few bruising spills. But I made a couple of good defensive moves, blocking one shot with my mallet and another, inadvertently, with my wheel.
On the other hand, Montonavous was as fierce as they come, scooping up the ball to send it across the court and taking big thwacks toward the goal.
Guarding the goal, Renee made a great save when the ball got stuck beneath her tire. But she lost balance, her foot hit the ground and Fray tapped the ball in for the win, beating my team 5-4.
“Whatever,” he says. “It was a team effort.”
After a second game, I felt like I’d had my fill. But then I played another. And then another. At 10 p.m., when the rec center closed, my butt hurt, my wrist was sore and I was dripping sweat. But I was totally invigorated—I felt like I’d unleashed my inner beast. I could see why people keep coming back for more.