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,
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 (www.lexrides.com), 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
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
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
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
”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
”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
”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.