How Athletes Are Bringing A Country Club Sport To The Masses
Fixies, dabs, and t-bones, oh my!
“The Wizard” is wearing a bright yellow “Livin’ on a Prairie Dog” t-shirt and cut-off black denim shorts.
He has shoulder-length, light-brown hair, tied loosely behind his neck, and a mustache and beard. He sports an elbow pad—only on his left elbow—knee pads, gloves, and a black and yellow helmet that matches his attire.
Riding near midcourt and holding what looks vaguely like a golf club shaft stabbed into a plastic cup, “The Wizard,” hoping to prevent a turnover, warns his teammates that Tomo Music is lurking behind the play, looking to steal the ball. His teammates respond by shifting direction, screening Tomo from the action and resuming their attack toward the opposing net. The Wizard, also known as Christopher Williams, has done his job.
This all as Coco Johnson explains the intricacies of the sport, the history of this club, and how she’s just starting to regain feeling near the nasty scar on her lower leg that came from an injury suffered in a game a year ago in Cincinnati.
Welcome to bike polo.
The Chicago Bike Polo club meets at Ivan Evans Court in Garfield Park, roughly five miles west of downtown Chicago, two or three times per week to play a series of 3-on-3 contests. The game is part polo, part hockey, and part street biking. Imagine polo on a bike instead of a horse and in a hockey-like rink instead of a course.
The object? Hit the street hockey ball into the opposing net. Formal tournaments have timed games, but for pickup games, the first team to five goals wins. Each of the six players—there are no substitutions in this version of the game—is on a bike and has a mallet, and while there is plenty of contact between players, there isn’t nearly as much chaos or crashing as one might expect. There certainly were some tumbles and crashes, but the coordination on display—the mallet can be used to help balance oneself, but a player’s feet can never touch the playing surface—while players jostle for position and possession and wind up to take shots is quite impressive.
This club has upwards of 30 members, most in their 20s and 30s, though on this pleasant Sunday afternoon, roughly half of that number are in attendance as the club and Chicago’s Active Transportation Alliance team up to provide demonstrations of the sport and allow onlookers to give it a try. Some of the regulars are at an out-of-town tournament, while others are resting up for the following weekend’s North American championship tournament in California.
The rules, which are set by sanctioning body North American Hardcourt (NAH), are most akin to hockey regulations. There are guidelines around what is and isn’t a goal, the size of the playing area and goals, in what manner you can impede your opponent, the penalties associated with various infractions such as swiping, high-sticking, and t-boning, and what it takes to get your team tossed out of a tournament.
Any part of the mallet head may be used to strike or control the ball, but only the front of the head can be used to score a goal—though incidental deflection off of one’s bike also counts.
There generally are no specific positions, as players rotate through roles during the match, based on where the ball is and who has possession. But the Chicago club sometimes uses the guideline of number one position being forward and marking the ball carrier, number two being mid, and number three being the goalie. There are no rules regarding the gender makeup of the teams. “It’s changed in the last few years. It’s most definitely a co-ed sport,” Johnson tells GOOD. “A lot of the more successful players in the past few years have been women.”
There are conflicting versions of the origin of the sport. Some say it dates back to bike messengers in Seattle in the ’90s, while others point to its founding in Ireland in the ’90s … the 1890s. That version of the game, which was an Olympic demonstration sport in 1908, was played on grass, and indeed to this day both versions—grass and hardcourt—are played around the world.
The mallets have evolved from ski poles with some piping affixed to the end to create the head of the stick to bike-polo-specific mallets mass manufactured for the sport and readily available online. Originally, this court was two courts with a makeshift wooden brace down the middle. Now it has rink boards made to specified measurements.
The NAH itself is only in its seventh year. In other words, this is a young sport that is still evolving.
“There’s a sense of it being a little more organized now,” Music tells GOOD. “Definitely some of the DIY stuff is going out the door. When we started out, it was make your own mallets out of ski poles and pipes, cut it to whatever length you like, and then you fixed it [the head] on a ski pole in whatever way you figured out on your own.”
The bikes themselves also have evolved.
In the early days, players would ride “whatever you got laying around,” Johnson says. “[But] don’t ride anything too flashy or expensive—it’s going to get messed up anyway.” Now there are companies making bikes specific to the sport, generally running from $300 to $900 each.
Player safety is also taken more seriously, with the bigger tournaments mandating helmets and many players wearing pads, gloves, and even full facemasks. Johnson says serious injuries aren’t common—her own freak accident involving a flip and getting her leg caught in a chain notwithstanding—but that she’s seen her share of knocked-out teeth and broken noses, fingers, and collarbones.
“Like with any sport, injury is there and it’s real,” she says. “It only takes once for you to be like, ‘Alright, I’m going to wear elbow pads from now on.’”
Despite the increase in rules and regulations and the upgrades to safety and equipment, “It’s still kind of a grassroots/undercurrent sport,” Music says.
Indeed, Music and fellow club member Abe Oshel are grilling burgers and hot dogs during the games, while others have provided coolers of water, sports drinks, snacks, beer, and desserts. And while it might not be as DIY as it once was, the club members still are quick to help one another out when mechanical failure strikes, or even to offer use of one of their bikes to, say, a GOOD Sports editor who was struggling around the rink on a multi-speed bike. “It’s just too painful for us to watch,” one member said.
A half an hour or so later, one player got a flat tire. The other members quickly asked around to see if anyone had an extra tube that would fit the bike. There was one hanging on the fence. It was transplanted and inflated, and the bike was back in business.
And it’s that sense of community, combined with love of bikes, that has attracted so many of these members to the sport.
Johnson was working at a coffeehouse in her hometown of Savannah, Georgia, when some mechanics from Philadelphia moved to the area and started a bike shop next door.
“They’d fix my bike all the time,” Johnson says. “We bartered—I got free service, they got free coffee or food.”
The newcomers had been playing bike polo back in Philadelphia. One day they made their pitch to Johnson.
“They said, ‘Hey, we’re going to do something stupid, we’re all gonna get hurt, basically knocking a ball around with makeshift mallets out of ski poles and PVC piping in a crappy parking lot down the street,’” she says. “I said, ‘Yeah, sure, that sounds like fun! I’m tired of just riding around.’”
Music already had been part of the bike scene in Tampa, Florida, but the bike polo club there had been operating for about five years before he was recruited by fellow cyclists.
“I tagged along one day, dug the scene … lot of people playing bike polo really hard, doing crazy things on bike, but it was also a social scene,” says Music, who is a transportation planner for Cook County. “Hang out with a bunch of bike nerds talking about bikes. It became a social event to go to. People were all cool and welcoming.”
Christopher “The Wizard” Williams has been playing bike polo for eight years, most of that time in Chicago. He claims to not know exactly how the nickname came about. “I don’t know—because I’ve got too much hair, maybe?,” he muses. “Hair and beard?”
Or it might be that he’s one of the only players out there riding a fixed gear bike rather than a single gear.
“That might be part of it, too,” he says.
Most players use single gear. The main difference is that a single-gear bike allows the rider to coast, while a “fixie” requires the pedals to be moving at all times. The latter arguably requires much more effort, but it also has an additional level of control and allows a rider to ride backward.
“It’s incredible what he’s able to do on a bike, especially in bike polo on a fixed-gear bike,” says Johnson. “His energy and his stamina just to do that for hours is just amazing to watch.”
It’s how he’s always done it.
“I think I’m having more fun than everyone else because of it,” Williams says.
Williams is one of seven members of the Chicago club who competed at the North American Hardcourt Bike Polo Championships last weekend in Folsom, California, a city roughly 20 miles northeast of Sacramento and perhaps best known as the setting for Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” and his concerts performed there.
Natoma Station neighborhood park hosted 36 teams from 10 different regions from across the United States, Canada, and Mexico. A team must make it through a regional qualifying tournament to reach the North American championships. This year’s North America tourney included three teams with members from the Chicago club.
“There’s definitely a competitive level, but it’s a huge party,” Music says of the tournament. “After everyone’s done, everyone goes out to the same place and gets beer.”
Music’s team, “Da Hunt,” made it to Sunday, but failed to qualify for the final eight. Another Chicago-based team, “Malort Politics,” also reached Sunday play, but didn’t reach the quarterfinals. The Wizard’s team, “Sugar Gliders,” failed to make it out of Saturday’s group play.
The tournament was won by a San Francisco team named “The Control,” which bested “Albatross” out of the Cascadia region in the title game. The champs finished fourth in the North American tournament last year and third in the Worlds earlier this year.
Another club member asked Music if he had been to one of the prior North American tournaments just outside Minneapolis-St. Paul, adding “That hotel was the worst hotel I’ve ever seen. Dirty sheets, dirty towels …”
Says Music, “That’s usually the way it goes. It’s par for the course. Find the cheapest place to stay and everyone stays there.”
But that’s all part of the fun, part of the community.
“It’s an enjoyable kind of culture/atmosphere. It’s fun to play a sport on a bike that’s a team sport,” Music says. “A lot of bicycling is individualistic. You’re kind of out there for yourself. There might be some teamwork, but it’s not like you’re making plays like soccer or basketball. This is the equivalent. Otherwise I’d play something boring like a softball league [laughs]. This is cool to me because I get to mix my love of bikes and sport.”
Besides, it just sounds cool.
“It’s fun to say you play bike polo and have people say, ‘What is that? What are you talking about?’” Music laughs. “’Are there horses?’”
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