Ask anyone on the street what they think of polo, and they’ll likely reference the sophisticated sport played first among Persian royalty and officers over 2,000 years ago. It’s swank, it’s exclusive and it’s not something most of us watch on the big screen at backyard barbecues.
To play polo is to be among the well-behaved sort, pinkies out and the picture of restraint, dressed in collared shirts and starched white slacks with belts. At the end of the day, hands are shaken, Pimms is poured and tea sandwiches come out on trays. It’s all very refined — as any proper gentleman would insist upon.
And then there’s St. Louis Bike Polo, proving once again that, with a steady flow of beer and a healthy dose of ’Merican ingenuity, even the most genteel of sports can be turned into a frickin’ awesome time.
The St. Louis Bike Polo league has been playing together since 2007, but the hardcourt version they play, also called “urban bike polo,” was begun by bored bicycle delivery riders in Seattle in the late 1990s. It’s now a “thing” in about 30 countries and 300 cities across the world, with regional, national and international tournaments popping up on every corner of the Earth.
Locally, that corner is in Webster Groves. On any given Wednesday, barring bad weather, a music teacher, a software developer, a bike mechanic, a bicycle delivery driver and “an engineer or something” are among the mix of mostly 20- and 30-years-olds who hop onto bikes, clip into pedals, and duel it out with mallets and a ball.
Fueled by Mountain Dew and beer (and maybe a less legal substance, maybe not — but probably), they make what’s actually incredibly difficult to do seem simple and painless, even when crashes happen and insults fly.
In the Saddle
I had a chance to hop on the league’s loaner bike for newbies, an old mountain bike with 26-inch tires that’s seen better days. Until recently, everybody played bike polo on wheels like this. More recently, as the sport has grown, bikes and gear have become a business.
Most players now ride bikes with frames built for tight turns, shorter handlebars to allow for better stick handling, and, as Anne, one of the most dedicated player tells me, “Everything’s single speed, so you’re not cutting people’s legs open with your gears and stuff.”
On several of the bikes, the spokes are blocked-up with plastic or cardboard wheel covers so that pedals, mallets and balls don’t get caught in spokes. Some of them are impressively creative. Others are ugly as sin.
I was expecting homemade mallets, but even those were legit, bought online and made with aluminum. They’re a pretty new addition, especially for the St. Louis league, which prided itself on being old school until the last year or two. “When I first started, they didn’t have all that stuff, so we had, like, ski poles and PVC pipe that we had to steal from the gas companies,” Anne says.
There’s a good mix between guys and girls, and as the girls will tell you, some of them are actually the best players. Although the average age is somewhere in the low 30s, there’s really no age limit.
On the roller hockey court behind the skate park at Webster Groves Recreation Complex, teams divvy up for matches of three-on-three. We talk strategy for about 10 seconds while everyone finishes their beers, then hop on our bikes, grab mallets and take the court.
The goal is to reach five points, which seems pretty simple. How hard can it be to knock a ball into a net, right?
Harder than you might think.
For starters, only one hand is free to steer the bike because the other one is holding a mallet. The court is pretty small, and with six bikes rolling around on it, maneuvering is tricky. These guys (and girls) are masters at hopping and maneuvering, but me, not so much. Then, add to it the second challenge: No one’s feet can touch the ground.
In recent years, players have started clipping in to clipless pedals, which sounds a little terrifying to roadies like me, considering the stops, hops and tight turns involved. “It gets pretty crazy when people crash into each other,” Anne tells me.
For my part, I stay upright mostly because I don’t pay much attention to the rule about keeping my feet off the ground. The other players take it easy on me because I’m new, but each time I “tap out,” I’m required to ride to mid-court and touch the side of the court with my mallet. Before long, though, I realize that I can use my mallet to balance if needed, which helps a lot.
Helmets and gloves are standard, and some players wear knee pads. The rounds go quickly, and I’m actually surprised at how few crashes there are, even with some of the checking going on. There’s plenty of heckling and jeering, but it’s all in good fun among friends.
In between each game, there’s plenty of beer to chug. I’m even more surprised — and impressed, really — by how well players can stay on their bikes after downing a few. I didn’t fare as well, but I did have fun. It’s a great time — good exercise, awesome camaraderie and I even learned a few words I can’t tell my kids.
“The learning curve is really bad for a long time before you figure out how to move the ball,” Anne says. “There’s a lot of balancing and stuff like that, so don’t feel bad.”
Try It Out
The St. Louis Bike Polo league is always looking for new players. All you need is a willingness to be open to something completely new, and maybe a high tolerance for bruising — of your ego. A bike and equipment are available if you don’t have your own.
Most matches are in Webster Groves on Wednesday nights from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m., but sometimes the league plays at the Maplewood roller hockey arena, too. The best way to find out where they’ll be and if they’re playing is to check the Facebook page, facebook.com/STLBikePolo. If there’s nothing posted, send a private message and someone will get back to you quickly.
If you’ve been on two wheels for years, or if you’d like to relive some of the crazy fun of diving in to something that’s just completely ridiculous but so worth it, give bike polo a shot. It just may be the best time you’ll ever have on two wheels!
Author: Amanda Christmann is a freelance writer and editor who loves good words, good wine and good times with friends and family. She is an avid cyclist and runs with scissors whenever possible.