Mallets on Wheels
Sara D. Roosevelt Park on the Lower East Side has an odd, all-purpose play space at the center. It’s a sunken concrete shell, with markings at mid-court, metal railings, and benches along the tops of its shoulder-height walls. It might be ideal for basketball, kickball, or Tai Chi. Every Sunday and Thursday afternoon, it’s used for bike polo. Those who meet here in all weather for pickup games of three-on-three call it The Pit.
Bike polo is played with a hard rubber ball, the kind used in roller hockey, and improvised mallets. You saw off both ends of a ski pole and wrap one in hockey tape. To the other you bolt a small length of high-density polyethylene plastic pipe, the kind ConEdison uses for gas lines. You can use the wide part of the pipe, the part perpendicular to the shaft, to pass and handle the ball, but an actual goal shot must be made with the narrow end of the mallet, otherwise it’s called a shuffle and it doesn’t count. The only other rule in basic play is that you have to stay on your bike at all times. If you put a foot down, you ride to the side of the court and “dab back in.” The first time I watched the game, one player in particular kept on riding over to me and thwacking his mallet against the wall by my feet—I thought he was flirting with me.
I’d never seen or heard of bike polo before I wandered up to The Pit one evening, but it didn’t occur to me to describe what I was seeing in any other way. When I told people about it I said, “It’s exactly what it sounds like,” but of course that’s not quite true. Urban bike polo—also known as hardcourt bike polo—is always played on asphalt or concrete, usually at an unused playground. Hockey rinks are ideal, but those are hard to come by in New York. The landscape of the court can have a huge impact on the quality of the game.
The NYC Bike Polo League holds a practice in Brooklyn, in addition to the twice-weekly meetings at The Pit, on the playground of Junior High School 265 near the Brooklyn Navy Yard. It lacks The Pit’s concrete walls—instead, the space is surrounded by a high chain-link fence, and the ball often rolls out of bounds and into the dried leaves and trash at the bottom. It makes for a slower game when play has to stop so that someone can fish the ball out from behind a Pringles can, and regulars at the Brooklyn court tend to play less aggressively, taking softer shots and passing more, in order to keep the ball in bounds. For this reason, total beginners seem to prefer to get their feet wet in Brooklyn. I met Taylor Antrim, novelist, journalist, and raw polo rookie, at the Brooklyn practice (it was his second time ever). His first day on the court, he collided with a fellow player and knocked his glasses off. “I felt really badly about it,” he said. Taylor has yet to make a mallet—he has to find a ski pole first. “I looked in my parents’ attic, but I couldn’t find one. I’ll probably have to buy one on eBay,” he said. He thought for a minute. “Actually, I’ll probably have to buy two.”
The crowd at The Pit is bigger and rowdier. They’re intimidating to approach. It isn’t their clothing or tattoos—it’s their body language. They are frank and relaxed, completely at home. Sidling over to talk to them one Sunday afternoon, I felt like somebody’s kid sister. I asked a few lame questions; everybody told me I should go find Doug. Doug (Doug Dalrymple, six years playing bike polo, native to Ohio) was wearing a T-shirt with a picture of a fully naked woman. He’s handsome in an Ed Harris kind of way. When I asked him about the worst injury he’s ever gotten playing polo, he looked deeply offended. “Why would you even ask me that?” he wanted to know. He asked me if I’d ever been hurt; I admitted that when I was little I crawled into a chair and busted my head open. “Well, I think being a little kid and crawling into chairs is probably a lot more dangerous than bike polo,” he pronounced.
I thought the interview was over; then I asked him to show me the modifications he’d made to his bike. A good polo bike should have narrow handlebars that won’t get in the way of your swing. The ends of the bars should be capped with metal discs, so no one gets impaled on them (I think the phrase Doug used was “core sample”). Many polo bikes have one hand-brake (on the left, or steering hand) which stops both wheels, leaving the right hand free to wield the mallet. A circular piece of plastic or cardboard covering the spokes in the front wheel is a dead polo bike give-away. A low gear ratio—small front cog, large back cog—gives your polo bike quick acceleration and a low top-speed. And most serious players cover their chain rings with a circular piece of metal made special by a company in Milwaukee. It’s called a polo guard, and it keeps you from getting cut on the chain ring’s sharp teeth in the very likely event of a collision on the court.
There is a grass version of bike polo, inspired by horse polo, that’s been around since the early 20th century, but it bears almost no relation to the city-bred variety—invented, most agree, by bike messengers in the early ’90s—and hardcourt polo players don’t consider themselves its heirs. Many are barely aware that it exists. “I’ve never seen it. I think it’s more structured?” said Mitchell Levine, a touring promoter rep from Pittsburgh who plays at The Pit when he’s not on the road. This unformed, unstructured quality seems to be one of bike polo’s biggest draws. The sport is getting a lot of media attention, especially in New York, and over the last few years clubs have been popping up in cities all over the U.S., Canada, and Europe. Each city has its own rules and style of play. According to Doug, New York City polo used to be notorious for aggressive checking. “Some cities play nicer, a lot of passing,” he said over the phone. “We were very rough and tough players, a lot of physical hits, and definitely not bringing a game that was very graceful. That reputation is still with us, even though New York City players are not as directly physical as they used to be.”
Partly because of this new diversity and popularity, the game is accumulating a set of standardized rules—perhaps more broad and obvious than before—so that teams from different clubs can play one another. At the East Side Polo Invite, a New York City tournament in June that drew teams from as far away as Paris, new rules were a source of constant debate, even as the games were in progress. The very notion of impartial reffing seemed to stick in a few craws. “That woulda counted in Portland,” somebody yelled when a no-goal was called. “Some people have been playing for a long time and they don’t like the new rules, they like it the way it was,” Doug said. “And some of them have been playing for a long time and they’re just tired of this lawless renegade sport where there’s no penalties and people can do whatever they want.”
Brian Whitmore, one of the refs at ESPI, said that polo players police themselves. They own up to rule-breaking, and when they fall, there’s none of the grimacing and play-acting you see in soccer—they fly onto their bikes and ride hard to dab back in. “There’s an etiquette to bike polo,” Brian said. “Nobody wants it to turn into a rigid sport.”
What Brian said about etiquette reminded me of something I saw at The Pit—a player taking to the court with a lit cigarette dangling from his lips. There’s an air of deliberate casualness about bike polo. Surely this is part of the reason you have to be penalized for putting your foot down: it’s just not cool. The awkward politeness of bike polo—apologizing to an opponent as you check him violently into the boards—is one of its most charming contradictions. It’s a rough, physical sport, and a gentleman’s game. It’s fluid, chaotic, and most of the time, deeply civilized.