gritty cousin of the game of kings, bike polo is gaining traction
July 20, 2008
By Gina Kim
Two lines of four people square off across the parking lot, each
balancing on their fixed-gear bikes with only the heads of their polo
mallets resting on the ground.
"Marco," yells one side.
"Polo," responds the other.
Then the two teams, in unofficial uniforms of cut-off jeans and
T-shirts, race toward a red rubber ball in the center of the empty lot.
There's the sound of plastic against asphalt as mallets shove the ball
toward one of the orange-cone goals, while the din of traffic echoes
from the Capital City Freeway above.
This is urban bike polo, a game that's hijacking empty lots, basketball
courts and sometimes parking garages across the country and world. Here
in Sacramento, it's played twice a week in the parking lots beneath the
freeway on X Street.
"There's a feeling that you're doing something everyone else hasn't
caught on to yet," says John Kennedy of the U.S. Bicycle Polo
Association, which is based in Sacramento. "Plus, it's taking a twist
on what is seen as an established, upper-crust sport and bringing it
down to the people's level."
There are two strands of bike polo, Kennedy says. The first is played
on grass with mountain bikes and wooden mallets. The other is a street
version that has been adopted by bike messengers and serious road
cyclists, played on asphalt or concrete, generally on fixed-gear track
bikes and with mallets fashioned from ski poles or metal crutches and
"Bike polo players probably have more tattoos and piercings and drink
more beer than the equestrian riders who drink white wine and
champagne," Kennedy says. "And the urban bike polo players have more
tattoos and piercings and probably drink more beer than the grass bike
Balancing on fixed gears
Cigarette smoke hangs in the air on a recent Sunday as more than 30
people rendezvous in a parking lot at 19th and X streets. Energy drinks
are gulped as teams of four face off.
Tires skid, metal mallets clank against each other, and the players
seemingly defy gravity while swatting at the ball with forehands,
backhands and belly shots – a maneuver in which the ball is hit through
the gap between two bike wheels.
"You have to know how to control your bike really, really well," says
Amy Kozak, 19, one of the handful of women who play regularly. "It
makes me a better rider because I know exactly how to turn my bike in
Kozak, who lives in Sacramento and works at Capitol Aquarium, started
riding a fixed-gear bike three months ago.
Fixed-gears differ from traditional bikes because they don't coast and
don't generally have hand brakes. Riders must pedal constantly for the
bike to move and apply back pressure to the pedals to stop.
Although traditional cyclists are welcome to play urban bike polo,
fixed-gear bikes are preferred since one of the few rules of the game
is that players cannot put their feet on the ground during play but
must balance on their bikes the entire time. If a player does
inadvertently touch the ground, that person must bicycle off the court
and touch a parking median before returning to play.
The game's other rules are that there is no out of bounds, a team must
ride around its own goal after it scores to give the other team time to
regroup, and whichever team scores three goals first is the winner.
"It conditions you to be a lot better of a rider," says Cy Kamsoulin,
23, of Sacramento, an elder-care provider.
Bike polo has been played in various forms since the late 1800s, when
inflated rubber tires were invented and England sent a bunch of the new
bikes to India, says Kennedy. Stableboys who didn't have horses thought
they would try their hand at the elite game on their new bikes, and
British troops brought the version back to England.
The game spread to Ireland, and Irish immigrants brought the game to
the United States, Kennedy says.
Alex Cain, 23, who works dispatch at a Sacramento bike messenger
service, started organizing games after moving from Denver three years
ago. The learning curve was steep – he first made mallets entirely of
PVC pipe, but the plastic couldn't hold up to the fierce beatings
during games. He also had to figure out where to play.
"We don't get bothered here," says Cain of the lot at 19th and X. On
Wednesdays, games are played at 21st and X streets because there are
too many cars parked in the 19th Street lot.
The players are mostly part of a tight-knit fixed-gear community in
which inner tubes are shared like french fries and bikes are sources of
Ask what injuries have been suffered, and riders usually talk about the
dings to their bikes first.
Daniel Borman, 23, spent thousands of dollars and more than a year to
build his lime-green track bike piece by piece. He once suffered about
$100 worth of damage in a collision with another player.
But it's all in good fun since it means time with friends twice a week.
"You want to win, but you don't really care," says Borman, who works as
a bike messenger. "You're just going to have fun and drink beer