Mallets, masks, and mayhem
Summer is in its prime, so if you’re indoors waiting out these dog days and wasting away in your air conditioned box, please, listen to the sun begging outside your window and come out to play! This is a time for new experiences, so when my editor recommended I check out the local bike polo circuit, I thought, “why the hell not?”
After spending some time searching around campus for the wrong address, I eventually found my destination at the chain link rink on W. 11th Ave. across from the rec center. I arrived to a court full of players zooming past each other, swinging mallets and colliding with the wall. I stood there, slightly stoned, mouth agape at these gladiators on the hard court. That is, until I met David Frankhouser, club rep of the Columbus League of Bike Polo, who hooked me up with the nuances of this peculiar alternative sport.
Regular polo, you know, the one with affluent assholes on horses, is played on a 300-yard grass field with a minimal requirement of three to four players per team competing on horseback. Equipped with helmets, kneepads, and a whip, the team leader is supported by two other players on offense, with one final player maintaining defense as they use mallets in an attempt to maneuver a wooden or plastic ball into the opponent’s goal.
Bike polo was born in the late 1800s in an Irish field of grass, eventually becoming an Olympic sport. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that bike polo got off the grass and into the garages and hard courts of Seattle. Bike messengers adapted mountain bikes, fashioned polo mallets with a DIY ethic, and adopted the same ball used in street hockey.
Today, the sport is thriving, although David considers it less of a sport and more of an “involved hobby.” Without a doubt the players on the court were very involved, die hard enthusiasts, strafing around and shoulder checking each other. I tried not to think of the litany of possible injuries: broken femur, dislocated shoulder, traumatic brain injury, etc.
All of these fears whittled down my confidence until David gestured to an old dude who had played moments before I arrived. The old dude had supposedly taken a hard fall earlier, yet he had recovered and was still up and at it; his ability to bounce back and keep at it eased my worries and motivated me to give it a go. If this old dude could do it, then I can too.
So, with someone else’s sweaty gear affixed to my body, I climbed aboard an unfamiliar bike, and began with practice laps around the course, awkwardly wobbling about, fumbling and dropping the polo mallet. Shit.
The other players filed onto the court as I sat on my bike, clueless. Fortunately, a teammate of mine, Travis, was willing to take me under his wing. This was a casual game amongst friends and the rules were simple:
Like hockey, there are two goals on the opposite sides of the court. You can score with a shot by hitting the ball from either circle end of the mallet, not by just scooping the ball into the goal. You can check one another, but it has to be a clean check using the shoulders. If you fall, you must ride back to the center of the court and tap the wall with your mallet. This, I was told, is called a dab, and although it is like the dabs I am familiar with, I soon found myself to be an expert. The team to score the most goals by the end of 20 minutes wins the game. Easy, right?
The ball was in play; the crack of a mallet echoed and the ball screamed, all of the bikers hurrying after it. They crowded up by the wall, shoving one another and hopping around on their back wheels while I imprudently made wide circles around the court, waiting for the ball to come free. Travis passed the ball to me; I lunged to receive it and lost my balance, falling off my bike. “That’s it. I’m ruined,” I thought to myself as I smacked the pavement.
Back on my bike, I completed a good hard dab and tried to get back into the game. These players were fearless, agile, and determined to gain possesion of the ball, no matter the consequence to their bodies. This fella Ryan slammed his bike into the wall just to block an opponent from gaining possession. Keeping balance, he pounced into the air, turning his bike around and deftly stealing the ball away. Every time another rider would get close to me I would break too hard, fall off my bike, and have to complete another dab to re enter the melee. All in a “daze” work. Ouch.
Bike polo takes some skill and finesse to master, and I resisted my instinct to brake hard in close quarters. Travis set me up with another pass.
“This could be the big one,” I thought as the ball came right to me and while I was near the goal. “I might actually score!” The ball drew nearer; the force of my swing nearly caused me to lose my balance. I squinted my eyes, swung hard until…BAM! I actually hit it! It anticlimactically meandered its way just to the right of the goal and into a wall.
Even though I missed, the support that I got from the other players was enough to make me feel like I had shot the game-winning goal. When the game was over, I was unsure who actually won, but that didn’t seem to matter to anyone. These players were more concerned with having a good time playing, and despite their level of physicality and willingness to crush their opponents, they were especially considerate, inviting people.
I vowed to return for another round, but only after practicing the basics. Perhaps next time, I will fall on my ass a lot less. •