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Meet the real axles of evil

Uncommercialised, unhomogenised and as rock'n'roll as a speed-addled rat up a gold lame trouser leg - welcome to the world of urban bike polo.

By Steven Wells

The Guardian, May 30, 2007

At 7pm on the dot, the mean, lean and eager athletes arrive at the bike polo pitch. They warm up, strip off their pristine outer-kit and stretch tanned, muscular limbs that look like tawny pythons. They stink of deodorant and clean living and they look like gods. Then they trot off to the pitch next door and play soccer.

About half an hour later - half an hour after the advertised start time - the bike polo players wheel into view like the cavalry vanguard of some vast crusty army. Exuding 'tude and reeking of tobacco, most of them come straight from their jobs as bike couriers. Their cut-offs and caps are grimy with exhaust fumes. They have the same symbiotic relationship to their battered but beautifully maintained bikes that Genghis Khan's Mongol horde had with their ponies. And they are just as fearsome. No one's in charge. No one's in a rush. They chatter, bum snouts, drink cheap ale, dance the hoochy coo and pull crude homemade mallets from their gaffa-tape patched shoulder bags. "A ski pole jammed through PVC piping is what the kids are using these days," Mark 'O'Polo' Capriotti tells Philadelphia Weekly reporter Kate Leshko.

"My mallet's made out of an old hockey stick," says 31-year-old courier/musician Chris George who plays in a different game "under the El in No Libs" (whatever than means). The rules vary from hood to hood, but urban bike polo is very much like the equestrian version, explains Leshko. "Except your bike won't stop to take a piss and you don't have to shoot it when a spoke breaks."

The game starts. On their customised single-speed beater bikes and using skills honed during their daily life-and-death-struggle with motorists, players go from hell-for-leather to stock-still at the drop of a gnat's bollock. The skill level is startling. Usually played three- or four-a-side, some games penalise players whose feet touch the ground with time in a sin-bin or an enforced beer chug. Goals generally have to be scored with the tip of the mallet and deliberate barging is considered "assholeish". While refs are not unknown, urban bike polo - like park and playground football - is more usually disciplined by a primitive communist "mob consensus".

Bike polo's been around over 100 years. There's an internationally organised mainstream version that's sober and suburban, helmet-wearing and played on grass - as embodied by the thoroughly respectable if somewhat geeky US Bicycle Polo Association. "All that is needed to play is a bike, an approved cycling helmet, a bike polo mallet, and a bike polo ball," chortles their website, Baden Powellishly.

But those guys are considered effete wimps by the asphalt bikers. "We have nothing to do with them," says Chris George. "The guys in Philly are more into a roots hard-core, get drunk, smash into each other and come home bloody sorta thing." Urban bike polo - also known as bike hockey - is to proper bike polo what punk is to polka. It feature teams like New York's Ratkillers and Portland's Axles of Evil ("bike polo for the insane"), who take part in tournaments like Vancouver's Last Riders of the APOLOclypse.

In short, urban bike polo - like its riot-grrl sister roller derby - is an autonomous, anarchic, DIY punk sport as yet untainted by professionalism. It's a mosh-pit on wheels, enjoying pretty much the same position in the hipster hierarchy as skateboarding did before commercialisation and sponsorship turned it into a sold-out 10 cent whore.

"Basically they're a buncha 'we haven't got any rules' crusty punks and greasy-banged urban hipsters," says New York-based British cultural critic Tom Cowell. "Stoked on Pabst Blue Ribbon beer rather than Pimms, they're re-inventing and thereby subverting an elitist cultural form with what can only be described as Brechtian zeal. In short these tattooed two-wheeled miscreants are the direct descendants of the plantation slaves who mocked white pomposity with a dance called the cakewalk, and the British Teddy boys who took upper class clothes and turned them into something infinitely edgier, sexier, more aggressive and exciting."

Like agriculture and Satanism, bike polo seems to have been repeatedly re-invented. There's a game played (with huge wooden mallets and what looks like a football - the Yanks use a tiny plastic wiffle ball) every Wednesday in Hurlingham Park, Putney that seems to have developed entirely independently of the American hipsters. There's even a British team called The Axles of Evil. Uncommercialised, unhomogenised and as rock'n'roll as a speed-addled rat up a gold lame trouser leg, it's surely only a matter of time before Nike or Coke or Sony discover urban bike polo ... and wreck it beyond all recognition.




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