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London bicycle polo: It ain't for the genteel set

Reuters, October 29, 2008

By Miles Johnson

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - In car parks and concrete football pitches across London, cyclists of all stripes have transformed a badge of the British establishment into their own brand of extreme urban sport.

Bicycle polo replaces the horse with the two-wheeled bike for a mount, grassy pitches for hard asphalt and the elegance of a sport enjoyed by royalty and the rich into a gritty urban pastime for anyone with nerve enough to join the madcap melee.

Out are the riding helmets, gentlemanly attire and finely groomed steeds. In are fixed wheel bikes, gladiatorial-style chanting and a healthy dose of physical contact as two teams of three use improvised mallets to smash a small plastic ball between goals made out of traffic cones.

There is no referee and few fixed rules apart from players suffering a "time out" penalty if their feet leave their pedals and touch the ground. The first team to reach five goals wins.

"It's like the new football (soccer)," joked 22-year old Max Knight as a fellow player with a waxed mustache and manic look in his eye whizzed past, celebrating a goal by roaring and thumping a mallet made from a golf club and packaging foam into the ground.

"You get people from loads of different places coming down to play all the time. First it was the bike couriers, but now it's becoming more fashionable and they're being replaced by students, designers, even lawyers."

The first bicycle polo matches however were more tranquil affairs, played in the late 19th century by British colonial police in India who used bikes to practice their polo skills when horses weren't available.

Bike polo once even featured as an exhibition sport in the 1908 Olympic games. But after reaching the height of its popularity in Europe the 1930s it fell into decline after World War Two, only to be resurrected by the cycle-courier communities of North America and Europe in the 1980s.

Now it appears to be in a healthier state than ever. Playing in an all-London league four times a week, players also compete in tournaments that attract teams from across Europe.

Star teams include Zombie RMY, who are one-time London champions.

"It's definitely had a resurgence in recent years as more people are riding bikes in general" said John Hudson, a dispatch courier and the organizer of the annual Brick Lane bike polo tournament.

"The best thing is that there are no one set of fixed rules. We have players coming from Munich, Paris and New York who all have a different style of play. There is also a certain amount of physicality. You know, I'm not manhandling you, I'm just steering you into the wall"

Some players perform the equivalent of step-overs in football, letting the ball pass between their wheels at speed to avoid being tackled, while others shoulder barge their opponents or block them with their bike frames.

"My favorite is the elbow on the shoulder, where you grab them and can steer where they're gonna go," said Knight, who added that injuries have mounted, including one player who split his skull open on a particularly nasty play.

"It was all right in the end though. He was back playing again in no time."

(Editing by Paul Casciato)