THWACK! In Minneapolis, a bicyclist in shockproof gear fighting through the North American Bike Polo Championship 2013 slams a polyvinyl chloride ball into the net with a customized fiberglass mallet, then skids to a halt. In Madison, bike polo players are riveted, watching the aspiring champions of this nascent sport on BikePoloTV.
Madison has long been in tune with bicycle enthusiasts of all stripes, which these days include performance-obsessed mountain bike maniacs and spandex-clad hypermilers. I grew up in the era when heavy, tank-like cruisers bore professors with leather satchels trailing a whiff of aromatic pipe smoke across campus, and kids rode low-slung bikes made by Schwinn with banana seats and bull-shaped handlebars. Breaking Away helped to inspire a 10-speed craze, racing cycles with Campagnolo Super Record derailleurs (which remain a beautiful design). Bicycle culture is constantly evolving; there's always a new thing.
Hardcourt bike polo is just a version of polo using bicycles instead of horses. The Madison Bike Polo group plays Wednesdays at 6 p.m. and Sundays at 4 p.m. on the tennis courts at Reynolds Park, 851 E. Dayton St. They roll with North American Hardcourt, which means rules.
From the North American Hardcourt Ruleset V3.3 for 2013:
§3.1 Start of the game
§3.1.1 Players are stationary, on their bicycles, with rear wheel touching the boards behind the net.
§3.1. 2 The ball is placed at the center of the court.
§3.1. 3 The referee asks each team if they are ready.
§3.1. 4 Once both teams signal that they are ready, the referee raises his hand then blows the whistle.
§3.1. 5 Once the whistle is blown, time begins and players "joust" for advantage; race for possession of the ball.
The object is to smack the ball into the opponent's net, but it must be a "shot" -- hit with the mallet's head -- as opposed to a "shuffle," hit with the side of the mallet. Players have to stay on their bikes without touching their feet to the ground and any such contact (a "dab") is penalized.
The rest is sort of like basketball or hockey. After a goal, players line up mid-court and start again. And it's somewhat looser than the rules indicate. Players use homemade aluminum-based mallets rather than the wooden polo ones.
Fixed-gear bikes, one-speeds, are popular. The player has to be able to stay highly maneuverable on the bike -- there's the mallet to wield, and you can't touch the ground during play.
"Most of the bikes we use are single speeds with lower gear ratios, so that you can jump into a sprint quicker," says Kelly Peterson, a regular player at Reynolds Park. "We use tweaks like more spokes and deeper rims to protect the integrity of the wheel, and we make wheel covers that create a buffer and keep the ball from getting stuck in the spokes."
She's a bit of an evangelist. "It's a graceful, yet aggressive sport that's fun to watch," says Peterson. "We have bike industry people that play with us, and soccer and hockey players that have transitioned easily. There's a handful of really excellent polo players in town right now."
This Madison group rates notice on the national scene, but it is still inchoate. "I think the biggest difference between the polo scene in Madison and in other, larger cities is that we don't have a proper court yet, something with walls and lights. We're actually lucky to have a place to play at all," says Peterson. "Bike polo has a bit of a stigma that I don't really understand. We've gotten quite a bit of attention from polo players in other cities this summer, though, and a few visitors who were rolling through town met up with us and played. And we just had someone go play polo in Berlin."
Bicycling is a way of life in Madison, and we are a node on that international network of enthusiasts. Our lakeside bike paths are noted nationally, we were #7 on the Top 50 Bike-Friendly Cities according to Bicycling Magazine in April 2010. But while the kind of infrastructure planning that draws those accolades can be top-down, it's cool that bike culture continues to evolve from the bottom up. The local Saris Cycling Group defies the notion that manufacturing has left the Midwest, and Schwinn, a Chicago-based company, was bought by Madison-based Pacific Cycle in 2000 and now resides here. Maybe we can meet in the middle with a real court for these polo guys, as fringe as they are. It could be good for the city.