What is Bike Polo?

During the halcyon days of the dot com boom, a few bicycle aficionados from Seattle invented the novel sport of bike polo. It’s a unique cocktail of different sports and attitudes: the urban aggressiveness of street basketball, the DIY aesthetics, all of which was affixed to the upper crust skeleton of the “sport of kings.” It’s a heady mixture, strange yet familiar — why didn’t anyone think of this before?

Bored bike couriers for Kozmo.com (a footnote of the dot com bubble, which used bike couriers to deliver goods to city dwellers) began playing the sport in their warehouse during downtime: three players per team, two goals on opposite ends of the court, into which you hit a ball using a mallet. The sport sprouted up in other American cities among bike-obsessed couriers and bike shop employees, like underground fight clubs.

By 2007, local news organizations began reporting on the growing phenomenon. Most of these stories were of the type: Look at how weird this zany new fad is. It’s now 2013 and the sport is still around and continues to thrive, being played in more than 300 cities around the world.

Earlier History
That’s just one origin story for a sport that has been “‘invented’ dozens of times,” says one bike polo site. “Whenever and wherever bikes have been popular, cyclists have picked up mallets of one kind or another, and hit balls while riding.”

The true history of the sport goes back further. The director of the now defunct US Bicycle Polo Association, in a New York Times story, cites this legend: The British government gave a bunch of bikes to a ruler in colonial India. This ruler gave them to his stable boys, who had yearned to participate in the heroics of polo but couldn’t afford a horse. They used their new bikes, instead of horses, inventing the game of cycle polo, which was then exported to England.

A more reliable account is that it was invented by a retired cyclist in Ireland in 1891. Regardless of how it started, cycle polo became very popular in Europe during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, so much so that it was included as the demonstration sport of the 1908 London Olympics. At this time, cycle polo was played on grass and was much more in line with regular polo. Over the years, the popularity of traditional cycle polo has waxed and waned.

Traditional cycle polo is similar, though not identical, with Hardcourt Bike Polo, the sport that originated in Seattle in the late 20th Century. Hardcourt is like cycle polo’s renegade younger brother who’s eclipsing the elder in popularity and just plain sexiness. Hardcourt is played on small, hard top courts, making the game much faster and more dangerous.

As an effusion of bike courier culture, Hardcourt Bike Polo has a do-it-yourself philosophy.

Early practitioners of the game made mallets out of old ski poles, hack-sawing them down to size and affixing a small piece of PVC pipe for the mallet head. For game balls, they used ones originally designed for street hockey. They modded their bikes to better suit the game: removing spokes and replacing them with durable plastic discs (thin metal spokes are liable to be smashed by an opposing mallet) and sometimes removing the right handlebar to facilitate swings from their mallet arm.

When Hardcourt first began, no governing body presided over the game to regulate the rules, so people played how they wanted, on whatever size court they could find. “The game mutates from city to city,” one Bike Polo player told a reporter in 2011.

But as the game has become more popular, the anything-goes nature of Hardcourt is slowly fading. Right now, the sport is in that awkward stage of growth that every subculture experiences: still an outsider, but just popular enough for businesses and marketers to try to make money off of you.

Mainstream Prospects
For instance, many retailers sell bike polo mallets to save you the trouble of making them yourself. Or you can buy a regulation bike polo ball. Or bike polo shoes. Or bike polo gloves. You can even buy a shirts off the Bike Polo line from Chunk Clothing. (Chunk used to sell shirts with a logo that riffed on Polo Ralph Lauren’s, with a man riding a bicycle instead of a horse. You know that your sport is popular once people begin suing you.)

The best bike polo teams are now being sponsored. The Assassins, a team from Seattle, have a professionally designed website and frequently travel to play in international tournaments. The Guardians, another team from Seattle, recently posted to their blog a favorable review the bike polo shoes from DZR, who is also their sponsor.

The fragrant aroma of authenticity, which still wafts from every pick up bike polo match in cities across the world, attracts advertisers in droves. The Pabst Blue Ribbon brand of beer sponsored a bike polo tournament in Portland in 2003. And just recently, Vitamin Water has jumped on the bandwagon: Bike polo plays a role in its new Games Only Better campaign. There’s a video of players taking refreshing gulps of Vitamin Water between bike polo matches.

VitaminWater – BIKE POLO from Gil Seltzer on Vimeo.

For those passionately involved in any subculture, a mere hobby or sport can transcend itself. One bike polo site wrote that the sport is “in some ways, a way of life.”

Now, more than just a way of life, it has turned into a commodity.

By Sean Sullivan