Wind, ice, and snow have long been a minor deterrent for the committed squad of Madison bike polo enthusiasts who play through all four seasons. Cold conditions won't even be a factor over this long holiday weekend, though, as the group hosts the New Year's Championships, an indoor tournament that brings together many of the top teams from around the continent.
The championship brings together some 20 bike polo teams for three days of fierce competition in a sport that is rapidly blossoming among bicycle messenger communities and other two-wheel travel enthusiasts across the continent.
New Year's Day is devoted to pick-up games and other informal matches, but the real action will follow over the weekend. The first stage of the tournament is a round-robin series with each team playing 6 or 7 games in the gymnasium at the Goodman Community Center, running from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Friday, January 2. The championships conclude with a double-elimination bracket tournament, the seeding based upon the previous day's results, at Holy Cross Lutheran Church from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday, January 3.
"We don't really know what the championship is for," says Jonny Hunter, who together with brother Ben and Kevin Walsh comprises a driving force behind the sport both in Madison and beyond, as well as one of the top teams in the country. Nevertheless, they decided to throw an indoor tournament in the middle of winter and try to attract teams from colder climes that don't get many opportunities to play this time of year. A $1,000 reward for the winners added to the enticement.
"There are two things that are great about this," explains Jonny. "This is the first tournament that will be held indoors in North America, and it will be the first tournament that has a cash prize."
Indeed, there was a tremendous response, with teams from New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Milwaukee, and Madison, as well as others from Ottawa and Vancouver in Canada signing up to take on each other in the first major bike polo competition of the year. Adding to the excitement for the players, and potential winnings, is a bounty of $250 on the vaunted 2008 North American Cycle Courier Championships team from Ottawa and 2008 Cycle Messenger World Championships team New York that goes to any other team that defeats them first.
"I think we have one of the highest levels of talent in this tournament, outside perhaps of the East Side Polo Invite that's held every spring," declares Hunter, referring to the annual east coast tournament in which the Madison team consisting of himself, his brother, and Walsh finished third last May.
The NYC team was also taunted into participation by Madison organizers in both the name and big apple-smashing tourney promotional poster designed by Zachary Kaiser. "We wanted to call New York," says Hunter. "It worked, they're coming. Everyone's friends, but the rivalry is fun."
Since the tournament is being held indoors at central locations on the east side, Hunter encourages bike polo fans and those simply curious about the sport to attend the tournament, particularly on Friday and Saturday afternoons as the competition heats up in its seeding and championship rounds. Admission is free.
The New Year's Championships is the second recent major tournament in Madison, the previous one being the 4th Biannual Midwest Bike Polo Champeenships held in May at the "Thunderdome," the sobriquet given to the hometown court on a set of rooftop tennis courts at Reynolds Park in the Tenney-Lapham neighborhood.
"Bike polo blew up in 2008," Hunter declares, "and in 2009 it will get even bigger. There are teams starting to play in new cities starting every week, with twice as many players on wheels as last year."
A lot of the growth can be attributed to the growing communication between the sport's enthusiasts, keeping in contact and up to date on competitions via Hardcourt Bike Polo and The League of Bike Polo, the latter of which is maintained by Walsh. "The amount of info about getting started is so much better now," continues Hunter. "People can learn about what to look for in courts, bikes, and mallets. There are even people producing equipment now for bike polo, and it's selling well. We're even getting sponsorship offers that I never could have imagined."
Madison remains in the thick of things, with the Hunter brothers and Walsh maintaining a prominent role in discussions over the ongoing growth and sanction of the sport. "It's exciting," notes Jonny, "and fun to have a voice in the process."