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Swapping Steeds for Stumpjumpers

Bike Polo
It's not just for horses. If you can pedal and swing a mallet, you can play bike polo. In this two-wheeled version of the classic equestrian game, you won't find Prince Charles or Ralph Lauren cheering on the sidelines. More likely, you'd find bike messengers playing in urban areas, school kids on the soccer fields, or recreational mountain bikers participating in this kind of polo for the proletariat.

It's nothing new. Some equestrian polo players have used some form of bike polo as training. They call it "stick and ball," and practice on bicycles before getting on the horse to get used to approaching and hitting the ball. Bike polo adopts many of the same rules as the horse game, but if you look at the cultural background of a bike polo player versus equestrian player, it would be radically different.

"Let's just say Rolex and Cadillac haven't called me to sponsor anything yet..."—John Kennedy, U.S. Bike Polo President

"At least in the United States it would be different," says John Kennedy, president of the US Bike Polo Association. "You'd see probably, by and large, more earrings and pierced body parts and more tattoos and baggy shorts on our guys than equestrians."

The blue-blooded reputation of the equestrian game is not one of the characteristics assumed by pedaling players.

"Let's just say Rolex and Cadillac haven't called me to sponsor anything yet," he adds.

Bike polo is being played in parks, or basically on any grassy field. Teams usually consist of four people and games are composed of four 10-minute quarters, or "chukkars," named after the equestrian game.

Most of the people who play are recreational mountain bikers and this hybrid sport is increasing in popularity at schools and in clubs around the country. Bike polo takes some skill, but you don't have to be a super-fast, strong rider to play.

"Granted, all things being equal, the rider with more speed is going to get to the ball first more often," Kennedy explains, "but anticipating where the ball is going to go is probably more important than just sheer speed."

He says that trial riders are good at bike polo because their bike-handling skills are tremendous. Some ex-equestrian players bring a level of shot-making that the riders don't tend to bring. But melding these two types of skills, riding and shooting, is a great combination.

Kennedy says that bike messengers make especially great polo players. "They've got all the skills, they've got all the strengths, and I would love to have as many as those kinds of guys as possible. The hard part would be getting them to follow any rules. And being the ref on the field (Kennedy frequently referees) might be a very dangerous occupation, but I think they would be naturals."

The Rules of the Game
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Games begin with a "joust" in which each team sends one sprinter out toward the ball in the middle of the field. The rest of the team members hang back and wait along the end line until one of the sprinters touches the ball, then they join the action.

Once the game is underway, players have to establish right-of-way before they can hit the ball. Right-of-way is established when a player, riding parallel to the sidelines, is three bike lengths in front of the ball. Once a player has this right-of-way, another player can't cut him or her off without risking a penalty.

How do you defend the goal then? Players can block shots by hooking mallets, but you can't hook across a player or above the shoulder. Intentional contact of any kind is illegal and will also result in a penalty-free shot for the other team. Defending team members can also line up their bikes in front of the goal to block an oncoming shot.

All players must play right-handed, which means they have to steer and brake with their left hands. Since the left brake handle on most bikes controls the front brake, braking requires some special attention if players don't want to endo.

"You really have to feather your brakes or you're body surfing on grass," Kennedy explains. "One guy wired his left handle to both brakes. A lot of people use old coasters with pedal brakes."

In a game in the Lake Tahoe area, one player had a Schwinn Cruiser with a basket on the front. When the ball landed in his basket, Kennedy told him to ride straight across the end line and he scored a goal.

Now there's a no-basket rule. But anyone who owns a bike and a helmet can invest $50 in a ball and mallet and be ready for a game, or anyone can get a starter kit and get a whole group of people playing.

One of Kennedy's favorite ideas is pitting bike messengers against police officers.

"There's an organization of police officers that uses bike polo and our gear as a training tool to help officers in terms of riding with one hand," he says. "One of my goals would be to have a tournament with their membership and then have a tournament with bike messengers and have the two winners play. Talk about culture clash."

Michelle Quigley, MountainZone.com Staff

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