February 13, 2018 > Hardcourt bike polo unites cyclists in the Bay Area
Hardcourt bike polo unites cyclists in the Bay Area
By Robbie Finley
Forget horses, spurs, and whips ? to play polo, all you need is a bike, mallet, and enthusiasm (and safety gear, of course). Bike polo, born out of bike courier culture in the Pacific Northwest, has developed a foothold in the Bay Area, with grassroots clubs dotting the region, fueling a subculture that is bringing bike enthusiasts together in an exciting way.
The rules of the game are essentially the same as horseback polo ? two teams compete against each other, trying to drive a ball into the goal with a mallet. That is where the similarities end, as horseback polo and all its accoutrements carry a rather aristocratic air about them, which couldn?t be any more different than the urban, street feel of bike polo. In horseback polo, teams are made up of four players, while bike polo has three on three or ?squads? of five to six players on each side. While any shot with the mallet that sends the ball into the opponent?s goal will score a point in horseback polo, bike polo typically limits goals to balls sent to the goal with an intentional strike. While there are governing bodies such as North American Hardcourt that submit official rules for how to play, often teams will get together and adapt the rules as they see fit. Games often run short or long, from 15 minutes to a full hour.
According to Collin McCormack, a longtime bike polo player with the San Jose Bike Polo club, though a variation of the sport played on grass can be traced back to the early 20th century, its current hardcourt incarnation dates back only to the late 1990s, when bicycle couriers were in abundance on Seattle streets. ?You had all these folks in Seattle working Monday through Friday, doing almost nothing, that kept being promised that the work was going to come? So, when you have that many people sitting around with bikes, they gotta do something,? McCormack explained. Out of this large network of bikers came a DIY variation on traditional polo. Using whatever materials they could find, the story goes, they began playing what is known as hardcourt bike polo, usually on a public court in local parks. ?Without courier culture and messengers, this probably would never have happened,? McCormack said.
The sport?s meteoric rise found players across the globe engaging in the new sport. Inevitably, the sport landed right here in the Bay Area. The grassroots nature of the sport allows for clubs to crop up, merge, and fade out as players come and go. The San Jose Bike Polo Club kicked off in 2013, based out of the San Jose Bicycles shop. ?The owner, Aaron Jones, went to [the Sea Otter Classic Cycling Festival in Monterey County] and decided that they were gonna try to do their own thing. Aaron and a friend slapped some DIY stuff together, and with the kids hanging out at the shop, they said let?s give it a shot,? McCormack said. Many clubs begin in such a manner, with likeminded cyclists banding together to see if they can pull off a match.
In the five years since, the SJ Bike Polo club has grown into its own, with close to 200 members in its Facebook group, which is how they stay in contact and get the word out about upcoming matches or tournaments. ?It?s still very DIY, punk rock here,? McCormack explained. ?Ideally, as it grows and becomes popular, we?ll have [official bike polo clubs] in place. San Francisco is sort of the main club in the Bay, they?ve been playing longer than anyone else, followed up by Oakland.?
While there are leagues with rules and official clubs with dues and elected leaders and the like, bike polo is still in a more casual, early stage of its development in the Bay. The word-of-mouth, socially organic aspect of it is part of its charm, as it isn?t just cyclists competing in a sport, it?s a subculture where people develop bonds with enthusiasts from all over. Together the cyclists have been able to achieve a lot, such as engaging with the City of San Jose to help designate a space for them to regularly play bike polo. ?We got an in with the City of San Jose,? McCormack recalled, ?and they got us an opportunity to pitch the idea that bike polo was a wholesome up-and-coming thing, and asked them to convert a tennis court into a multi-use court.? San Jose was very receptive to the idea. They resurfaced tennis court #4 in Guadalupe River Park (commonly referred to as Shark Park) and removed a permanent pole.
Coming together, being active, and having fun is what really binds these clubs together. The sport is very open to newcomers, too. ?It usually takes a while for someone to start playing, but once you get out there and try it, it?s unbelievably fun,? McCormack said, adding, ?You can show up on any given night and just show interest, most clubs will take you in.? It?s quite common for cyclists to seek out other bike polo players on social media when they travel, and to offer a place to stay for any cyclists coming in from out of town to play. The inclusive attitude of the bike polo community reinforces what McCormack calls the first rule of playing bike polo, which in polite terms is: don?t be a jerk.
For those interested in trying out bike polo, check out your local bike shop for more information or reach out to the Oakland, San Jose, or San Francisco clubs on Facebook: www.facebook.com/Oakland-Bike-Polo-1558240751059805/, www.facebook.com/San-Jose-Bike-Polo-892635977420456/, and www.facebook.com/groups/sanfranciscobikepolo/?ref=group_header&view=group.