Getting to Know Your Local Bike Polo League

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In New York and around the world, hardcourt bike polo is a mashed up, modern twist on the Sport of Kings. Adrian Tung, one of our correspondents from New York City, visits a local chapter and reports back on the global groundswell behind this hybrid sport.

The intersection of Chrystie and Broome in Manhattan’s Chinatown neighbourhood is sporting the smell of dumplings, the lacklustre hustle of pigeons and the tinny crack of a polo ball when I arrive. The afternoon bike polo pickup match is underway, a Sunday tradition here compromised only by nasty weather, and it reeks of cool. It turns out attendance is vaguely by invitation, a privilege recently extended to a player standing near me on the sideline named Devon, who strikes me about as geeky as the day is long. Endearingly so.

“Everyone’s been real encouraging and supportive,” he confesses. “Actually there really aren’t any jerks who come to these games. Yeah, bike polo’s kind of self-selective against jerks.”

It’s a striking assertion, and one that needs to be tested. I turn to the guy with fully inked sleeves halfway through a flamingo-pink cookie.

“That’s a pretty tough-looking biscuit you’re working on there, pal.”

“Ha. Yeah. You’re right.”

“You come to this game regularly?”

“No, I’m in town from Ohio. I play in Columbus, just wanted to check out this game and say hey to some guys.”

Hmmm, that’s sounds pretty un-jerkish.

Borrowing from traditional polo and the DIY worlds of BMX and street hockey, bike polo – or hardcourt bike polo – is its own curious mutant of grassroots and underground “sport”. With roots drifting vaguely back to Seattle in the early 2000s, it’s also an activity that’s gaining plenty of momentum around the world. Hundreds of local chapters and leagues are cropping up from Kuala Lumpur to Montreal – and most points in between.

By the time New York City hosts the Northeast Invitational this spring, guys like Zach Blackburn will have been playing bike polo on the city’s constellation of paved pits for north of five years. Blackburn is the bemused, bearded dean of New York’s scene. Like most of the league elders, he’s a former bike courier gone semi-straight and an ambassador for a young sport that continues to draw the attention of urban(e), kid-at-heart groovesters.

On this particular afternoon, the three-on-three, self-refereed, first-to-five matches glide through the chilly afternoon, additional players pedalling up with a hodgepodge of repurposed hockey pads, jury-rigged mallets and customized disk wheels. The lazy back-and-forth conversations on the sidelines mainly pertain to bike-maintenance issues. I hear of the rising integration of leagues from one town to the next, as well as a push to standardize the sometimes-idiosyncratic local rules. There’s even some talk of a splinter faction of bike polo’ers developing a new format to make the play more continuous and ice-hockey-like. (Yes, because if there’s one sure-fire way to capture the American sporting attention, it’s to make your sport more like hockey.)

“It’s back to the soccer team you were on as a kid,” Devon concludes before strapping on his helmet, “where you just wanted to play so bad you forgot you were competing.”

No matter the case, it appears the cool guys have infiltrated the Dungeons & Dragons game; or is it that the geeks have finagled invitations to the make-out party? Not entirely sure, but it’s kind of nice to know there are pioneering spirits finding thrills in that elusive mixture of combat, camaraderie and a bit of healthy obsession.  

Photo Credits: Photos courtesy of Adrian Tung.

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