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Pedal polo

Edited version published: Inside Sport (March 2010)

It’s a late November afternoon in Melbourne, and polo season is in full swing. The air is alive with the thwack of mallet on mallet and the baying of an excited crowd. Take him down! C’mon, be aggressive! I hope you’re gonna clean that up! Kill! Show us your - you get the picture.

Clearly these are not your average polo fanciers. But then, this is not your average polo match; there’s not a safari suit, a picnic hamper or a blade of grass in sight, let alone an actual horse. This is day two of the inaugural Australian Hardcourt Bicycle Polo Championships, the fastest growing urban bike sport around.

An enterprising Irishman by the name of Mecredy invented bicycle polo in 1890. Not long after, it was being played by the British army and the Maharajas in Imperial India, and England was losing the first international to Ireland 5-10 at the Crystal Palace in London.

Played this way, on grass and in uniforms, bicycle polo is similar to horse polo, and it’s an internationally competitive sport governed by a stiff upper lip’s worth of rules and regulations. But in the car parks and alley ways of inner cities in North America, Europe, and now Australia, rules are a little thin on the ground.

It’s got a fair bit of freedom,’ says Stephen Chaumont, a 24 year-old aircraft engineer from Sydney. ‘In today’s society there’s a lot of pressure and restriction. Bike polo is somewhere we can get away from that. As long as we’re good to each other, anything goes.’

Hardcourt bike polo is probably more akin to hockey than anything else, another mustachioed, tattooed player tells me, proudly brandishing his home made mallet. It’s a tidy piece of work, part ski pole or golf club (the shaft) and part gas pipe (the head). Even the court is improvised: the hosts have created chipboard edging to convert a full size basketball court into two pint-sized polo courts. The goals are marked by two orange traffic cones placed 1.5m apart, and there’s not a lycra bandit in sight.

Then there are the bikes. Any old bike will do, but many of the bikes being ridden by the 16 or so teams that have converged on Melbourne from all around Australia have been customised specifically for polo. Light framed low handle-barred single speed, single brake bikes make for simple riding and greater control. Strong wheels enable tight turns and skids, and wheel discs – decorated, corrugated plastic spoke guards attached with zip ties - prevent spillage caused by tangled mallets.

I watch as the ref counts a semi final game in with ‘Three, two, one, kill!’ then Melbourne’s Meat and Two Veg are going wheel to wheel against Sydney’s Team Panther. Games last just ten minutes, so there’s no time to waste; it’s all eyes on the red street hockey ball sitting at centre court.

Two riders from each team race towards the ball from their starting points at opposite ends of the court, mallets at the ready. Leigh and Rob from Meat and Two Veg take possession and begin shuffling, dribbling and dragging the ball towards the goal, passing it deftly back and forth when the hair raising chicken runs and shoulder charges from Team Panther get too close.

The Panther’s Virginia hovers in front of the goal, watching Leigh spin the ball towards Rob, who shifts his body weight and moves his mallet to intercept the pass: the ball bounces of the edge of his mallet and slips between Virginia’s wheels to score. The hundred-strong crowd whoops and grunts, roars and howls as semi-final play goes on.
The players are mixed bunch. Some are commuters and leisure time enthusiasts, while others, like Maija Eliashevsky, make a living out of all things bike. A cycle courier hailing from Toronto, Canada, Eliashevsky is one of the few women on court today. ‘It doesn’t faze me,’ she says. ‘I don’t think anyone treats me differently. I’m probably going to wake up sore; I’m a little cut up.’ 

Back on court, things are heating up. Melbourne has just scored another goal to take a two point lead. Post-goal possession defers to the conceding team, so Team Panther have the ball. Steve makes a run for it and is nearly at goal, but a Veg intercedes and neatly tucks the ball into his scoop – a cut out section on the mallet head – pushing it right down to the other end of the court, with the Panthers in hot pursuit. He pulls up three metres out and takes a shot, smashing the ball through his own wheels, past the hovering guard and between the cones. Goal! Time’s up. Melbourne takes the game 5-2, and the crowd goes crazy. Meat and Three Veg jubilantly pump their mallets in the air, while Team Panther slow their steeds down for the congratulatory handshake.

Things have been a little hot under the collar off court too. The general rule of thumb in polo politics is group consensus; but for an event like this, where teams from around Australia are coming together for the first time, someone has to take charge. It’s agreed some things, like helmets, are essential. Mallets must not be held above handlebar height, and players must tap in - drop out of play and strike a traffic cone situated midway on either side of the court – if they dab (touch the ground with their feet), or strike another player with their mallet. Only like may contact like, so it’s mallet to mallet, bike to bike, and body to body.

But agreement on other matters is not so easy to reach, and when I arrive early in the afternoon of the second day, there are some disgruntled mutterings amongst the players. It seems international bike polo rule number one, don’t be a dickhead, is in danger of violation. Some don’t think the referee in this match should be playing in the next match. Others reckon a team that sleeps in and misses its first game should be disqualified, while still others think this laissez-faire approach to game (and life) is par for the polo course.

Hardcourt bike polo is not for the faint-hearted. There are thrills and spills a plenty out on court; some call for bike repair or substitution, but in most cases the riders simply dust themselves off and get back on the horse. Er, bike.

‘Don’t get on your bike if you’re not ready to fall off it,’ advises 19 year old Prawi from Perth’s Piss Corner Polo. ‘Eventually, you learn how to limit the damage you do to yourself. Ideally you want to tuck your arms in and roll off, rather than putting your hands out. Getting hurt is all part of the game.’

No one gets seriously damaged today; but the injury ice is put to good use keeping the before, during and after match beverages cool. A combination of balance, good hand-eye coordination and ballsy riding are called for. ‘We’re more about skill than fitness,’ Meat and Two Veg’s Rob tells me. ‘And team work. You can have a good player on side, but you’ve got to work well together.’

Meat and Two Veg go on to win the Championship, narrowly defeating another Melbourne team, Scheisse Katze, so I figure Rob knows what he’s talking about. But watching this crew of cycle-punks, it’s clear that at the end of the day, it’s not the winning that’s important. It’s how you play the game. And in hardcourt bicycle polo, it’s serious fun. Kill!