A Renaissance for Bike Polo in City Culture
Bicycle polo, which dates back to the 19th century, is a rolling version of traditional equestrian polo, now enjoying a reboot from its staid past, emerging as a highly charged contact sport among urban dwellers internationally. In places like Toronto, Miami, Philadelphia and New York City, you can find robust subcultures of the sport, some more organized than others but all enjoying a rousing and innovative adaptation of a once-royal pastime seldom played by anyone without access to a 300-yard grass field and horses.
Today, the two main strains of bicycle polo are the more traditional, grass-court version within which collisions are discouraged; and the urbanized contact sport popular among bike messengers known as hardcourt.
Hardcourt Bike Polo
While grass-court bicycle polo is played under the watchful eyes of an umpire, with elaborate rules for penalty shots at various distances and strong proscriptions against everything from hooking mallets to zigzagging in front of opponents, hardcourt rules—though indeed codified through countless hardcourt tournaments and championships globally—are much fewer, and fewer still in pick-up games and ad-hoc leagues forming among bike enthusiasts in today’s cities.
Bike polo is an acquired skill. Imagine wielding a mallet to capture a speeding ball while holding handlebars, balanced on a bike you’re pedaling rapidly with five other players circling around you. For these reasons, one may wonder how a person ever jumps into veteran bike polo player culture at all.
The solution is that although you'll find well organized events throughout the U.S. with names like the Great Lakes Winter Classic, the East Side Polo Invite, or the World Hardcourt Bike Polo Championship, many local clubs also have “rookie nights.” That would be the place to dip a toe in the water and find out if recreational bike polo is in your long-term future.
Hardcourt bike polo is played on asphalt courts or in parking lots, and though hockey nets are usually deployed as goals, informal urban games have been known to simply set out orange traffic cones one bike length apart for goal posts.
Riders typically choose fixed-gear bikes, the better to pivot nimbly around the court, changing directions as rapidly as in hockey. Indeed, many hardcourt bike polo leagues use a street hockey ball for game play.
Participants in hardcourt bike polo often construct their own mallets—wooden equestrian polo mallets are too long and otherwise ill-suited because they break easily when hit against concrete. Players typically attach a ski pole to a piece of industrial-strength piping to make mallets. These, too, are far from immune from destruction; teams routinely bring along an abundance of spare mallets.
Different styles of play tend to emerge in different cities. The sport lives in distinct pockets, and it leaves a lot of interpretation up to the player. For many players, one enjoyable aspect of intercity tournament play is seeing how different playing styles and strategies measure up against one another.
Simple Hardcourt Bike Polo Rules
The following rules come from the Hardcourt Bike Polo blog, which states that these are ”the general rules for weekly pick-up games in New York City. Tournaments have more specific rules depending on the location.” The blog also offers instructions on how to build a bike polo mallet, and even how to modify a bicycle for the sport.
- The game consists of two teams of three players.
- Any type of bicycle is allowed. Handlebars must be plugged.
- Mallets must resemble a croquet mallet with a wide side and a round end. Modified ski poles and plastic pipe are the most common materials. The handle end of the mallet must be plugged.
- A street hockey ball is used.
- Goals will be a pair of orange cones spaced one bike length apart.
- If a goal cone is disrupted it is the responsibility of the player who disrupted it to fix it.
- To start the game the two teams mount their bikes at opposite ends of the court with the ball at center court. After a countdown, the two teams charge toward the ball and try to take possession.
- Players may not play the ball with their feet at any time.
- Scoring a goal must be made from what started as a hit from the end of a player’s mallet.
- A “shuffle” does not count as a goal; if the ball is shuffled through the goal, play continues uninterrupted.
- After a goal is scored, the team who scored returns to their half of the court. The team who was scored upon takes possession of the ball.
- Call out the score after each goal.
- Passing “backward” through the goal occurs when a player behind the goal passes through the goal to a player in front of the goal line. A goal cannot be scored by the first player to play the ball after such a backward pass. Any subsequent player to play the ball may score. A ball that crosses a goal line backwards must be hit before it can score.
- If a ball is shot from in front of the goal line and does not go through the goal but bounces off the back wall and comes out through the goal, the ball is in play and can be scored.
- Players’ feet must not touch the ground, known as “foot-down.” Each time a player goes foot-down, that player is out of play and must ride to the sideline at center court and ring the bell. This effectively gives the other team a brief “power play,” as in hockey.
- The rules of contact can be summed up thus: “like” contact is allowed. This means that body to body (short of grabbing or pushing), mallet to mallet, and bike to bike contact are allowed. Everything else is not allowed, e.g., mallet to player, player to bike, mallet to bike, etc.
- Throwing of mallets is not allowed at any time, in any situation.
- Some games are timed and end after 10 minutes. Some games are not timed and instead played to a winning score of five points.
- Trash talking is allowed.