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Bike polo is gaining converts

Bike polo is young, rowdy and gaining converts

By Chris Weis

Lexington Herald-Leader , May 7, 2008

Ponies graze minutes away, yet the polo players gathered at Lexington's Masterson Station Park have no use for them.

They prefer bicycles. Not even pricey ones.

Their steeds have been plucked from trash bins and bred for optimum acceleration. The standard uniform is rolled-up jeans and ratty T-shirts. Naturally, as with any herd of twenty- and thirty-somethings, there's cursing.

No hint of the stiff formalities associated with polo.

In parks like this one throughout the United States, cyclists combine the mature model of polo with the spirit of underground bike culture.

The result is a sport entirely their own.

On a recent attempt to take the field, an outdoor street hockey rink in the middle of the park, a tiff has ensued. A roller hockey team ? annoyed by the black tire scuffs streaking the court?wants the rink back for spring practice.

The bicyclers protest. ”We're not vandals,“ Brian Turner, who organizes the outings through his Web site (, asserts. To avoid trouble, however, they agree to use an adjacent court. The rink is in disarray, without goals and littered with debris from a winter's worth of neglect.

A retreat, this is not. ”We'll fight anyone at any time,“ Henry Huffines, a cyclist, jokes.

Players of alternative sports like bike polo are used to adapting.

Bike polo ”has a scrappy, do-it-yourself aesthetic,“ says Turner, the 33-year-old poster artist behind Lexington's Cricket Press. He's brought new mallets fashioned out of ski poles and plastic tubing, a design that draws compliments from the others.

Ten minutes later, the court has been swept. Padded barriers ring the exterior, and sandbags act as goalposts. Six men split into teams at separate ends of the court (”beards versus non-beards,“ Alex Brooks, a printmaker, notices) for the first game of the afternoon.

A call from the bleachers: ”1-2-3 ? ­POLO!“ signals the charge, a dueling sprint for the bright red roller-hockey ball at mid-court. Thwack! Mallet strikes mallet as the two jousters skim past each other. The ball ricochets across the blue concrete.

Like most aspects of the game, bike polo rules are interpretable and regionally unique. Lexington's lax. Some cities, for instance, only count goals scored with the tip of the mallet. But Turner sums up their scoring criterion: ”As long as the ball goes in ... .“

Here's the rest of the Lexington bike polo primer:

Players must keep their mallets in their right hands (sorry lefties).

 ”Dabbing out,“ or touching the ground with your feet, is prohibited. Violators of this ”foot down“ rule must remove themselves from play and tap their mallets on a designated object (today, the center of court) before returning.

Interrupting a ball handler's line of play is considered a foul. This prevents collision.

And no high-sticking.

”We've had some bloody fingers and lips,“ Turner says, attributing them to unwieldy mallets.

Slower than you think

Fortunately, minor cuts have been the extent of injuries endured by these riders. The sport is slower than one would imagine. The pace, necessary to control a bike and a ball simultaneously, cuts down on crashes.

There are a few negligible wrecks. Carpenter Grant Clouser finds his mallet mangled in the spokes of an opponent's bike later in the day. Clouser, who's sculpted an impressive wooden head for the mallet, braces it against the court. He steps down on the warped aluminum shaft, hoping to straighten and save his creation.

”You don't want to have a nice bike with a nice paint job because it will get roughed up pretty quick,“ Turner warns.

A relief: The equipment takes the most damage. Still, the advice I'm given before my first game isn't exactly settling.

”First you have to get over the fact that you could split your skull open at any second,“ Huffines tells me.

When play begins, I don't worry about the skull. I'm moving slower than anything on the court, as stationary as a sandbag. Riding isn't the problem. Braking to a halt without relying on your feet for balance is.

I ”dab out“ often, making repeated trips to mid-court. My rare contact with the ball is meek. The ball doesn't zip from my mallet like it does from others'. It wanders away to a more capable handler. Even during the beginners' game, when the elusive, red speedster is subbed out for a heftier soccer ball, I blindly swipe at the target.

Frustrated, I sit out. At least I'm right-handed.

Chris Simpson, a 22-year-old former BMX rider, leads his team to a decisive 3-0 victory shortly thereafter. He curls between two defenders and rockets the ball through the sandbags to finish the game. ”Chris has got the finesse,“ Brooks comments.

As Simpson exits the court, he receives an earful. Winners stay, of course.

”I just feel we're unbeatable, so we shouldn't stay,“ Simpson kids.

Simpson is a Lexington veteran of bike polo. He first heard of the sport last April when he, with George Wall and Tiffany Morrow, discovered a flier advertising the second annual Midwest Bike Polo Championship in Chicago that May.

Avid cyclists, the three friends began practicing in the Rupp Arena parking lot with a deflated basketball and sticks primitive even by bike polo standards. In Chicago the team won two games (”surprisingly,“ Simpson admits) and gained the knowledge to expand the sport in Lexington.

”We got the feel of things. We saw how they put their mallets together. We got down the rules,“ Simpson says.

Gaining a following

Since last May, Simpson has seen the weekly Sunday games grow as bike shop employees, skateboarders and other Lexington cyclists take up mounts and mallets. Far from just a local trend, bike polo will be included in the annual North American Cycle Courier Championships for the first time this summer, with tournament winners moving on to the Cycle Messenger World Championships in Toronto. Lexington will be represented, Simpson says.

But until then, practice. You never know when competition from out of town will show. Like the team from St. Louis that recently visited for a rousing game of polo on a 22-degree, February night at the Woodland Park tennis courts.

It's the linking of cities and the adapting of players to different styles of play that keeps bike polo's popularity on the rise. Simpson has another explanation.

”If you have fun riding a bike, you'll have fun playing polo,“ he said.

"New kid on the block'

Yet, like any newfangled sport, bike polo struggles to gain acceptance. After their run-in with the hockey players at Masterson Station, Turner contacted Lexington Parks and Recreation about their right to the facilities. The answer was worrisome. If the agency thought bike polo was damaging courts or green space, the game could be banned.

Bike polo is ”the new kid on the block,“ Turner says, and not the popular kid.

”I liken it back to when I was 13 and I was skateboarding,“ Turner says. ”There's this sense that we're up to no good. We get some sort of attitude when we're playing. The people playing volleyball next to us don't get the same sort of looks.“

Turner thinks their own piece of land would allow for bike polo and other games to coexist. They might have the space: an abandoned tennis court at Coolavin Park on West Sixth Street. The group hopes to resurface the playing area in a summer-long project that could distinguish the park as the first city-designated bike polo courts in the country, Turner says.

All Turner is looking for, though, is some respect.

”There's a lot of athleticism involved (in bike polo). It takes a lot of skill and it's a good workout,“ says Turner, who invites those interested to come watch bike polo event, a part of Bike Lexington month, at noon Sunday at Coolavin.

”It's not just some guys dorking around on bikes,“ he said.

If they rode horseback, Turner and friends would command some respect. But if it means adopting regal airs in place of bikes, it's unlikely these jockeys will be ”dabbing out“ any time soon.




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