It was only a matter of time before the two sports got together. Both are played one wheels, both are very physical and can result in pile-ups and injuries, and both are so-called alternative team endeavors that are growing popularity around the country. Roller derby is much more familiar to most people than bike polo, though, including in Madison.
The two-wheeled sport will be getting a little bit of attention this weekend, though, as the women of the Mad Rollin' Dolls have invited the mostly-male crew behind mad bike polo to play demonstration matches before the Dolls' first interleague bout of the season.
That's on Saturday, June 23, when the Dairyland Dolls,the Mad Rollin' all-stars,) will be hosting the Hotrod Honeys (of the Texas Rollergirls) at Fast Forward Skate Center, in a rematch of their bout last summer. That contest wasn't even close, with the Dolls clobbering the Texas team by double digits, and of course the hometown team is looking for a repeat performance.
Those who arrive early for a bit of tailgating will get a sneak preview of another of Madison's winning teams. The newly-crowned Midwest bike polo champions, and other competitors from mad bike polo, will be playing one another in enclosed hockey rinks, beginning about 90 minutes before the doors open at Fast Forward. "We should have the regular crew playing, and hopefully introduce some new people to the sport," says Jonny Hunter, one of the city's most avid bike poloists.
Known as urban cycle polo, this resurgent sport has long been played here. Appearing in fits and starts as variants have been born and reborn over the last couple of decades, the group behind Mad Bike Polo has been at it for several years.
The group plays regularly, and year-round,at Reynolds Park in the Tenney-Lapham neighborhood, most often on Sundays. In the summer, polo is played on the broad expanse of turf on the east side of the park -- considered in Madison to be the best surface for play -- while in the winter the matches head to the tennis cours atop the water station next door.
Their rules are basic and the object is fun.
The competition is real, though, Madison's bike polo players are winning. A team consisting of brothers Jonny and Ben Hunter (who operate Underground Catering) and UW grad student Kevin Walsh triumphed at the 2nd Bi-Annual Midwest Bike Polo Champeenship at Addams Park in Chicago's west side on Sunday May 5, coming out on top of a round robin tournament of 11 teams from Madison, Milwaukee, Lexington (Kentucky) and the host city. (Photos from the tournament taken by Walsh can be viewed here).
"Ben scored the opening and final goal of the final match, which were both very memorable," wrote Walsh after the tournament. So memorable, in fact, that their exploits were the centerpiece of a feature article published in the June 8 edition of the Chicago Reader:
The champs -- Ben, Jonny, and 29-year-old Kevin Walsh, who learned to shoot playing hockey in his native Toronto -- looked like malevolent preppies. They carried their mallets in an old golf bag and wore pink argyle knee socks and custom polo shirts with mad bike polo printed over a Polo-esque logo of a man straddling a bike and wielding a mallet. Asked if his team had a name, Ben replied: "You can pretty much call us the Champions."
The article went on to profile the sport as its played in Chicago and the outcome of the May tournament. "I think it captures the preposterousness of the sport pretty well," noted Walsh before offering a few corrections for the record.
Plans are already underway for the third champeenship tournament, to be held this autumn in Milwaukee, with whose players the local crew has developed quite a rivalry.
As the Madison poloists have improved, their ranks have swelled as well, with the number of people turning out to play gradually increasing. "We've had a lot of growth lately," says Hunter.
This may be due in part to the ready-made equipment they supply for prospective players. "If you come to polo, you don't need to bring your own bike or mallet," says Hunter. "We have built up special polo bikes. These road bikes have very strong rims, low gear ratios, single speeds, good brakes, and cyclocross tires for the grass."
Mallets are provided, too. Originally the group's consisted of pool cues with fence post heads, but they have since developed a custom set that are made by connecting a birch dowel to a one and three-quarter inch head made of cherry. "We do break mallets quite often," Hunter notes.
Now they want more players, and the demo match before Saturday's derby bout is a step towards building interest in the game.
"We thought of it as a good combination of sports, because people who might be drawn to roller derby might also be interested in bike polo," says Hunter. "Normally there aren't a lot of people who see us play at the park, but when they do, they get interested."