The Villager, January 23, 2008
By Judith Stiles
Passing by the corner of Chrystie and Broome Sts., one could easily
miss the hottest new sporting event in town. That’s because the arena
is tucked below ground level in a funky, 7,000-square-foot asphalt pit.
Here a bunch of daredevils in jeans and scruffy shirts play a lively
game of polo on bicycles, as they circle and glide back and forth at a
Each gripping a mallet with one hand and maneuvering the bike with the
other, these athletes skillfully pass and control a street hockey ball
in a balancing act that would send most cyclists crashing to the ground.
With this no-frills brand of polo, there is no need for the niceties of
equestrian etiquette. These city renegades have custom-built bikes that
are perfectly suited to the rider, rather than the horseman having to
adapt to a horse with a mind of its own.
Although bike polo was a demonstration sport at the 1908 Olympics, it
is only in the last decade that tournaments and teams have sprung up in
major cities such as Philadelphia, Boston, Seattle, Chicago, Ottawa,
London and Berlin.
In New York City, the seeds of a rapidly growing underground bike
culture were planted by bike messengers in the 1970s, and this sprouted
a group of men and women who convene every week to play polo in the
“The Pit” at Sara D. Roosevelt Park.
The games have a few simple rules, which is in keeping with their East
Village “show up and play if you feel like it” philosophy. There are
three players to a side and the first team to score five goals wins.
The flow of the game is similar to street and ice hockey, which allows
the players to circle behind the net or, in this case, two orange cones
set up as goalposts. If two players are tangling for the ball, whacking
mallets is allowed.
“Touch ground,” or a foot on the pavement, results in the player having
to ride to the sidelines before joining the game again. A goal only
counts if it is from a “hit” off the end of a player’s mallet, not a
“shuffle,” which is coaxing the ball along with the broad side of the
On an afternoon of multiple games and revolving players, a quick random
pick of teams is made between games when the players toss their mallets
into the middle of the court. The owners of the three that land closest
together on one side of the court become teammates.
“It doesn’t matter much what team I’m on,” said Doug Dalrymple, who
plays even when they have to shovel snow to the sidelines. “With a good
player like Zack, well, I’m happy to be with him or against him,
because that makes for a good game and just as much fun.”
The weekly pickup games are largely self-regulated. But there are
referees for tournaments, such as the Cycle Messenger World
Championships XVI polo matches that will be held in Toronto in June.
Tournaments can become very competitive with “heaters,” which are
rocket slap shots, according to Corey Hilliard, who sees himself as
more of a defender in the crossfire of heaters.
“I wear glasses, shin guards and a helmet because I often position
myself as a goalie,” he said. “The only time I didn’t wear shin guards,
well, you could hear me yell all over the neighborhood because someone
blasted a hard shot right into my shin.”
As the games begin, it is a majestic sight to behold when the players
line up in a row on their steely steeds, facing their opponents at
opposite ends of the court. Like a cavalry ready for battle, they shout
“3-2-1 Go!” and charge a ball in the center. As the match progresses,
there are no soccer-like moments of standing still while waiting for a
pass, because of the “touch ground” rule. Instead, the players weave
around in circles as they stealthily cruise the court, ready at any
moment to charge the ball with a burst of speed.
This is usually followed by accurate passing and a shot on goal. When a
goal is scored there is no restart or face-off in the middle, which
makes for a beautiful continuous flow to the game.
Even with international tournaments becoming part of the bike culture,
the competitions are relatively unspoiled by sponsors and prize money.
In spite of the neighborhood’s gentrification, the mavericks who play
bike polo on the Lower East Side still live and play by their own
rules. Along with a handful of fans and a few songbirds from the nearby
Wah Mei Bird Garden, anyone is welcome to watch the games on Sundays
for free. This sporting event has no plugs for products and no tiresome
television commercials, making it a welcome alternative to Super Bowl