Mess Media




A gritty cousin of the game of kings, bike polo is gaining traction

Sacramento Bee, 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 PVC pipe.

"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 polo players."

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 traffic."

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 pride.

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 afterward."