Mess Media




Urban bike polo: A junker, a mallet, a ball and a hard surface

Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 5, 2008


Bikes circle like sharks -- lean, lithe and predatory. "Keep moving, just keep moving," Matt Messenger urges. Then he weasels his mallet between my wheels and snags the ball. Rookie meat, I jam the brake -- yes, just one -- smash the cycle into a horizontal skid and bounce out of the wreckage.

"Nice fall!"

The sport is bike polo, the "urban/hardcourt" strain, as opposed to the more sedate variety on grass. All players need is a ball, a mallet -- monstered together from a ski pole and PVC pipe, usually -- and a

junker bike, often stripped of entangling elements like that pesky second brake and handlebar.

We're rolling on the basketball court at Cal Anderson Park on Capitol Hill, where this crew meets twice a week. The rules are pretty simple: three-on-three to five points. Whack the street hockey ball through a bike-length-wide goal between traffic cones. Don't high-stick (just like it sounds) and don't dab (put a foot on the ground).
Dabbing is majorly bad. In fact, "dabber" is bike polo's worst insult. Alongside "rookie."

I am both. I'll own it. However, I'm happy to avoid some of the other jargon, like a "taco-ed wheel." Collisions are common, as are superhero layouts across the tarmac. But the riders have regained -- or preserved -- the playground grace of children, the fierce, breathless explosion of activity that sends you sprawling bloodied here, soaring there, well past your limits -- and stoked, stoked, stoked, regardless.

In full scrimmage, they weave like alley cats, grind together like monster trucks, freeze into track stands: perfectly balanced on the pedals and as still as the Space Needle. Insanely agile, they're also street players -- all rollies and hoodies on thrashed, chopped, thrift-store cycles.

Urban bike polo. So gritty. So graceful. The mix deserves its own word: grungelegant, perhaps.

"It's a sport in every sense of the word," says Jackie Rust, a 25-year-old pedicab driver, "strength, skill, endurance, technique ..."

Aaron Grant, 21, observes: "People can ride bikes, but only a few can handle them. Same thing with cars: most people can drive, but only a few make NASCAR."

Those skills saved Gary TeGantvoort on his cycle commute -- twice. "I've had to wiggle around cars in traffic to avoid getting hit. It's second nature now. Polo definitively breeds good bike control," says the 26-year-old manager of the Montlake Bicycle Shop.

Seattle spawned the modern game, which traces its roots through European servants (too poor for ponies) via colonial India all the way to ancient Persian cavalry exercises. But our city took the game to the streets in 1998.

" was an online delivery company, right over there," Messenger says, waving toward East Pike Street. "They hoped the messengers would be in and out every 10, 15 minutes, but business was so slow. We started playing in the underground parking lot, then in the empty warehouse. I must have played hundreds of hours on the clock."

"That's probably why Cosmo failed," someone snarks.

I chip in, "Bike Polo Responsible for Economic Downturn -- I can see the headline now."
"Awww. We only ruined the online industry. Give the Republicans some credit."

And then the discussion fritters into smack talk. But that's OK. Trash mouth is one of the few rituals in this sport, in which players still scavenge for goal posts. Even in urban polo's birthplace, the game plan is to "bring an iPod and some beer, ride some bikes."

All that could change. Philadelphia will host the first hard-court world championship in 2009. Messenger -- running his hands through his wild thatch of hair -- says, "We need to organize so that corporate America doesn't steal it all away."

Christian Bourdrez, a 36-year-old snowboard rep, adds, "Look what happened with the X Games. Who is getting the money there, the boarders ..."

"... or the fat cats?" Messenger explodes. The 37-year-old general contractor is something of a guru in the polosphere, the sport's visionary, its Timothy Leary. But some players remain dubious about the next step.

Grant jokes: "The Hardcourt Bike Polo Federation. C'mon. What has the word 'federation' in it that's still cool?"

Good point. Still -- name aside -- most riders are excited by the sport's spread and its second generation. Rust points out: "Down in Oakland, middle schoolers are out playing. And Bike Works in Columbia City has a kids clinic."

Messenger's been even more proactive. His wife, Kelly Castle-Messenger, just gave birth to a girl, Viviana Pearl, instant hard-court royalty if she ever takes up the mallet. For now, she naps in a baby sling on the sidelines. Castle-Messenger, rocking the newborn for warmth as much as comfort, explains the fast-swirling skirmish. "The only rule really is no high-sticking," she says. "Well, and no mallets in spokes. But players can edge each other out and, like hockey, they can check each other into the wall."

Cycles squeal together in a tight clump. Like atoms, their nuclei avoid collision, even if wheel rims clack and mallets snag each other. But someone drags a foot onto the court. "There!" Castle-Messenger points. "That's dabbing -- touching the ground. He needs to ride a 360 loop before resuming ...," she breaks off and hollers, "Hey, don't be a ball hog!" Then she grins, shrugs. "It's a sassy game. Everyone talks a little trash, lets off a little steam."

In the autumn chill, we watch the game clatter toward the five-point end. As the final scorer swoops around the goalcones, hooting, others -- including onlookers -- hurl mallets into the center court. The owners of the first six will play the next match.

This unfettered spirit remains the Northwest scene's strength -- and weakness, too. TeGantvoort observes, "Skillwise, Portland and Seattle are incredible, but East Vancouver tends to win tournaments. They have their own special court and train as a team."

A bespoken space is the local players' goal. Heck, they'd settle for some tarmac set aside a few nights a week. Amid a small huff of controversy, Cal Anderson Park booted them off the adjacent tennis court about two years ago. The riders now bogart the basketballers' turf -- a situation that grows tense in the long twilight hours of summer.

During a break, Dave Wells, a 32-year-old carpenter, explains, "We just need a lit court under cover."

Sebastien Michel-Hart interjects: "With a retractable roof!"

Grant laughs. "Let's shoot for the moon and maybe we'll get something. How about KeyArena?"

"The city's gonna be like, 'Here's a refrigerator box to play in,' " Michel-Hart, a 25-year-old bike messenger, shoots back. "I wish they'd give us Pratt Park over at 18th and Yesler. Or just a reservation system."

As Messenger later notes: "There seems to be some prejudice. We're not seen as a 'real sport.' Maybe the championship and all the kids getting out to play will change that, like the way the city came around to skate parks. We could share a court with dodge-ballers and the roller-hockey players ... those are spectator sports, too. And isn't the point to get people into the parks?

Kicked to the curb for now, urban polo will keep playing off the grid. Grungelegantly.

Seattle Bike Polo start times can vary ("Don't panic if we're late"). Bring a helmet, gloves and "a bike you don't mind getting scratched." Messenger also recommends "some beer and an iPod with a good polo mix."

But wheels and goodwill are really all that's required. Capitol Hill resident Aaron Willinger, 39, wandered onto the scene and wound up playing a full game recently. "I wanna make my own club and come back out here next week," he enthused.

As TeGantvoort said, "We go easy on rookies. Don't be intimidated. No one will knock you off your bike until you start knocking other people off."

# Catch the hardcourt bike polo crowd Tuesdays (7-8 p.m. start) and Sundays (5-6 p.m. start) on the basketball courts of Cal Anderson Park, 1635 11th Ave. E, on Capitol Hill.

# Thursdays they gather underneath Interstate 5, around Northeast 65th Street and Ravenna Avenue Northeast, 7-8 p.m.-ish.

# Information --