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Bikes replace steeds in urban polo

Soccer fields and parking lots host sport of new kings
By Tonya Zelinsky

Calgary Herald, September 27, 2007

Calgary Polo

The first time Justin Gullickson saw a polo match, he was smitten.

He fell in love with the intensity of the game, the challenge of competition and, most of all, the fact he could play it while riding his bicycle.

This wasn't your average game of polo on horseback, traditionally known as a sport of kings. This was bike polo, and the only rulers were the ones who managed to stay on their bikes.

For the past 13 years Gullickson, 34, has been a bike courier in Calgary, spending his days weaving in and out of downtown traffic. It wasn't until a trip to Montreal four years ago for a bike courier race that he discovered he could do more on his bicycle than deliver packages and mail.

"In between races, I saw riders playing (bike polo)," he says. "When they needed someone else to play, I gave it a try. After that first game I pretty much played every chance I got the rest of the weekend."

A variation on the traditional game of polo, bike polo players compete on a field or pavement court while trying to score goals with a mallet. Teams are made up of an equal number of three to five players. The most important rules of the game: respect the rider and respect the bike.

Mallets are usually handmade by the players using old golf clubs or ski poles and a head fashioned from PVC pipe.

When Gullickson returned to Calgary from Montreal, he started a pickup game every Wednesday night in the parking lot of Sacred Heart School (1312 15th St. S.W.) Most of the players are bike couriers, but he welcomes new players to drop in.

"I always encourage anyone to come out and play," he says. "The bike part of (the game) is pretty easy, but it's the ball handling, stick handling, shooting and accuracy that's hard. After awhile you learn tricks like how to pass the ball underneath your bike while you're riding and using your wheels to block shots. It's like hockey in a lot of ways."

The sport of bike polo is thought to date back more than 100 years in countries like England, India and the United States. Currently there are bike polo organizations around the world, including the International Bicycle Polo Federation, which hosts the World Cycle Polo Championships annually.

Canada has competed since the championship's inception in 1996 and took home its third gold medal in 2006.

Bill Levesque, 43, has been playing bike polo for the past 15 years. An avid cyclist, the mortgage specialist started playing when a friend came across some bike polo mallets in the stockroom of a local bike shop.

"It's a great sport in terms of its physical challenges, the coordination required, the skill set, as well as the risk -- that's what makes it so much fun," says Levesque.

Playing on the soccer field of Queen Elizabeth Elementary School (402 18th St. N.W.) Tuesday evenings and Sunday mornings, Levesque's game varies slightly from Gullickson's. This version is the same as the one played during the World Cycle Polo Championships. The field is much larger than a pavement court, is played at a faster rate and the passes are longer.

Every so often Gullickson joins Levesque and his teammates for a game on the field.

"Our game is a little rougher because that's the way we play," Gullickson says.

"When someone crashes on the field, everyone usually stops to let the guy get up. When someone crashes on the court, we just keep on riding and laugh and point."




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