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The swingers' scene

Edited version published in The Age (28th July 2008)

Melbourne is a cyclist’s city. With its flat, well made streets and extensive network of on and off road bike paths, there’s always something on the go. For the past six months or so Sunday afternoons at the Carlton gardens has seen an ever expanding bunch of bike enthusiasts, also known as the Melbourne Bicycle Polo Club, going head to head with chicken runs and shoulder charges. They’re playing hard court bicycle polo, the fastest growing urban bike sport around.

It’s hard working out exactly who’s in charge, but Alex Thompson and Mardy Lay seem to know what’s going on. “We’re informal, but safety is the number one priority,” says Lay. “We tailor our playing to suit the skill level of people involved, so if you’re a beginner we’ll take it easy. It’s a great way to meet people and make new friends.”

Bicycle polo has been wheeling its way around the world since an enterprising Irishman by the name of Mecredy invented it 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 it’s similar to horse polo, and it’s an internationally competitive sport. Two teams of three to six players are pitted against each other in a ninety minute game of six fifteen-minute innings, or chukkas.  Play restarts after each goal, and penalties are awarded in the form of free hits, or a compulsory 360 degree turn if a player’s mallet or foot is on the ground. All players must play right-handed.

But urban or hard court bike polo is a different story, Thompson tells me. “We’re a lot more relaxed than in grass polo, we don’t have as many rules.” says Thompson. “It’s probably more akin to hockey than anything else.” Born from the leisure time of bicycle couriers in the streets of North American cities like Vancouver, Chicago and New York, hard court bike polo has been around for about five years.

With its come one, come all attitude and the motto one less horse, it’s clear that the Melbourne Bicycle Polo Club doesn’t take itself too seriously.  The right-handed rule is out the window, and teams are unisex.  Improvisation is the on the menu when it comes to equipment - traffic cones for goal posts, ski poles and plastic tubing for mallets – and bikes. “I just put this bike together yesterday at Ceres,” says Kyle Gagliardi. “These are 26” inch wheels, the idea is that being close to the ground will be better. This is my fourth time playing, I’m getting better. Now that I’ve got a bike that I’m not afraid to crash on or wreck I’m looking forward to it, I’m excited to try it out.”

I speak with Damon Rao as he comes off to rest after stacking it on court. For someone that’s just gone from vertical to airborne to horizontal in less than five seconds, he’s unfazed. “Bike polo has done great things for my cycling skills and confidence. I can fall off now and not be too fussed. It gets people together, it’s great for teamwork, and it involves bikes! I discovered it in East Vancouver last American summer. They play three or more times a week over there. It’s about reusing public spaces, making them multifunctional. So for example a carpark is no longer just for parking cars on.”

Bethany Keats is one of just a handful of women playing today, and scored her first goal last week. “I was stoked. It’s mostly guys playing, but that’s not a problem at all. It’s a really supportive environment. The people with customized polo bikes rough it up a little more, but people are very respectful of your bike, they know it might be your only means of transport. The experienced players go pretty hard at each other, but as soon as someone new steps in they’ll pull back.”

“Most weeks we get twenty or so people playing,” says Thompson. “We’re the only group in Melbourne, but there’s a group in Sydney, and a couple starting up in Brisbane and Adelaide. We’re talking about having a tournament in a month or two, but essentially we want to keep it fun, we don’t want it to get too serious.” It’s extreme entertainment, city style.