Polo is widely known as a game of manicured lawns, well-dressed horsemen, and ultimately, wealth. But in the early 2000s a strange thing happened. The game gave birth to its own foil—a city game played by a gritty contingent that replaced horses with battle-worn bicycles. Players wore cutoff jeans, sported sleeved tattoos, and wore sticker-pocked skate helmets. They made mallets from ski poles and rebar, taking over tennis courts, street hockey rinks, and any other hard surface befitting of their game. They called their new sport hardcourt bicycle polo, and watched it grow from play on a single court in Seattle to a game enjoyed in over 30 countries and 300 cities around the world.
A well-used street hockey ball.
Bike polo match in Budapest.
“You may think bike polo is an underground sport, but around the world people know it,” explains Addison Minott, a 24-year-old bike messenger in Boston and bike polo athlete since 2008. “There is a culture associated with it ... it’s for people who are obsessed with their bikes, live on their bikes.”
This “culture” spawned from the bike courier movement that took hold in urban centers around the turn of the century, according to Minott. Bored during downtime, couriers, or bicycle messengers, began crafting a game based off of their horse-powered predecesor and soon had built a sport played in cities around the United States and Europe. Since then, bike polo has also emerged in cities in Asia and several spots in South America, like Santiago, Chile. Bicycles are a huge part of urban life, so the growth of bike polo in these metropolitan areas is a natural development.
The rules of the sport are simple. Three players per side, each with a bike and a mallet. A ball is placed in the middle of the polo court—usually a tennis court or ice-free hockey rink with a goal at each end—and teams line up along opposite end lines. After a three-second countdown, a member from each team rushes the center for a "joust"—a bike sprint that looks like an inevitable collision until a deft ball poke-away earns one team possession.
From there, whichever team scores the most goals wins. Players can’t touch their feet to the ground, if they do they must retreat to half court and "dab in," or tap the centerline. Contact is allowed, but can only be made bike against bike, mallet against mallet, and person against person. Collisions are part of the game, and every match has its share of bike carnage, but for the most part all on-court issues are handled by a strict gentleman’s code. “Just don’t be a dick,” Minott says.
Because bike polo has such strong roots in pickup street games, its reach has spread fast, but it hasn’t really extended beyond the cycling world. The next step for the young sport is to gain a legitimate foothold in the worldwide sports community.
Dustin Riggs is on the leading edge of this push. The 27-year-old Seattle bike mechanic is a world champion bike polo player that is as close to a pro as the sport has seen. He and his team, the Guardians, have traveled the world playing bike polo, taking second place at last year’s World Hardcourt Bicycle Polo Championships in Geneva, Switzerland.
Events like the World Championships, now in its fifth year, generate public buzz and have increased the sport’s visibility, a key to bike polo’s continued progression. Rumors have even been circulating about adding polo to the X Games docket, but reports have not been officially confirmed.
“I’d love to see it reach a bigger audience,” Riggs says. “It’s already grown so much in the past five years that if it keeps growing maybe something like the [X Games] would happen.”
Until then, the sport needs to keep attracting new generations of polo players to grow from a grassroots level. Bike polo is a daunting game from the outside looking in, and for those of us that lack cycling skills, the learning curve is steep. But many bike polo clubs have started offering beginner days where some of the better players will teach free clinics and get the community involved. These days are a lot less intense than the high-speed games you see in places like Seattle’s Cal Anderson Park, but the goal is to work up to that. Show up with a bike and a helmet, check your ego at the door, and someone is usually willing to extend a helping hand.
“If you show up, someone will always lend you a mallet and try and get you on the court for a game,” Minnot sayd. “It’s a small sport, so that’s the way it grows. Just show up and try to score goals, it’s not too hard to get obsessed with.”