From a distance, you might think you're watching some kind of two-wheeled synchronized drill team with a serious synchronization problem. On a scrubby elementary school playing field, eight bicycles dodge and weave among one another, stop short, wheel abruptly and charge off at full tilt, first one way then another. Occasionally a rider stalls and stumbles sideways in an awkward one-footed hop. Amid the fray, a massive, mangling pileup of bicycles and bodies seems at any moment inevitable. Yet somehow, repeatedly, that outcome is only just avoided.
Draw closer, and you notice that all the riders wield long-handled wooden mallets swung and whirled deftly within the knot of bicycles. A mallet sweeps in a swift downward arc; a softball-size ball shoots across the field, and the riders tear off in wheel-churning pursuit.
Mount Washington bike polo players Dave Holland, left, Doug McCoach, Aaron Meisner and Michael Nicholson pedal after the ball during a game in Baltimore.
(Mark Finkenstaedt - For The Washington Post)
Roll Playing (The Washington Post, Apr 15, 2005)
It occurs to you that you are not watching some avant-garde "Dance of the Cannondales." It occurs to you that you are in fact watching polo, played on bicycles. It occurs to you that this is a very cool idea for a game.
Bike polo -- also known as cycle polo -- is played across the United States and internationally from Canada to the United Kingdom and Germany to India (which claims 10,000 players) by enthusiasts as young as 7 and as old as the late fifties. The sport's invention is credited to a retired bicycle racer, Richard J. Mecredy of Ireland, in 1891, who wanted something new to do when his racing days were over. It is a game inspired by the horse-mounted version, with mallet and ball and the object of using said mallet to whack said ball through the opposing team's goal. According to the official rules of the International Bicycle Polo Federation, a game is played with a maximum of four players per side and lasts for 30 minutes divided into four quarters (or chukkers) of 7 1/2 minutes each. The winner is the team with the most goals when the bell rings to signal the end of play.
That there exist official rules implies a degree of organization and formalized structure to the sport greater than what actually appears to be the case, at least when it comes to bike polo in the United States. Take a general survey of cycle polo around the country, and "you'll find a rather broad spectrum of rules (or anti-rules), formality and general approach to the sport," writes Dennis Mullen of the Washington-state-based American Bicycle Polo Association in an e-mail.
Says Mullen, who played for the gold-medal-winning U.S. team in last summer's seventh International Bicycle Polo Championship in Canada, "The sport has seen a grass-roots renaissance in quite a number of independent areas and has yet to converge to anything as universal or homogeneous as the major sports." In other words, local rules are the order of the day.
'ALL ABOUT THE FUN'
Take, for example, the Mount Washington Bicycle Polo Association in Maryland.
On every possible Sunday afternoon, when the weather is cooperating and the ground isn't hopelessly soggy or frozen solid, Aaron Meisner, his brother Dan and a loosely affiliated group of mostly residents from Baltimore's Mount Washington neighborhood gather on a small field next to Wellwood International School for a couple of hours of bike polo. They are mostly married, mostly in their thirties, mostly dads (though women are welcome), with regular day jobs in finance and architecture and the like during the week.
For the Mount Washington players, a game is 4 p.m. (3 p.m. in winter) to whenever; the bell that brings things to a close is usually the ring of cell phones, with wives at the other end asking, "When are you coming home?" (though sometimes darkness or exhaustion sets in first); and the winner is largely irrelevant.
"Who won?" asks Aaron Meisner. "Who cares? It's all about the fun."
Fun it certainly looks, as the cyclists dodge and race across the grass. The play is swift and vigorous, full of sprints and turns and nimble mallet-work (everyone plays right-handed, in accordance with international rules). The ball shoots between bikes, bounces off wheels and occasionally goes airborne. There is much good-natured trash-talking. "Hey, if you ladies are caught up on 'Days of Our Lives' . . . " bellows Dan Meisner down the field when the opposing side lingers too long in a strategy conference at the goal. When a play is well executed or a point is scored, the riders knock mallet heads in lieu of high-fives.
Aaron Meisner rides panting off the field to note, "Two hours of this, you'll get a tremendous workout." Since taking up bike polo, Meisner, a former squash player, has given up his gym membership. "Why would you want to be inside a concrete building with fluorescent lights when you could be out here?"
In general, the Mount Washington players adhere to the international rules, "insofar as they keep everyone safe," Meisner says, "but we're here mostly to have fun. I usually keep a copy of the international rules with me, but we never refer to it."
To a first-time observer, what's most amazing is how fast the game moves, with rapid stops and abrupt changes in course, and how close the play is, mallets flying and bikes converging at heedless speed. The challenge of bike polo would seem to be not so much to score as simply to remain on your bike and disentangled from the seven other players while you're all swatting and chasing the ball up, down and around a large field; pedaling hard, stopping suddenly; steering one-handed through tight, fast turns; calculating the trajectory of self and ball; and swinging the mallet so as to connect with the ball and hit it where you want it to go. Imagine trying to play tennis on a bicycle in the midst of a rugby scrum and you begin to get the idea.