Henry Grabar is a freelance writer and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.
The second annual National Championship tournament last weekend was a milestone for the burgeoning urban sport.
If you’ve never seen bicycle polo, don’t worry: you will. The sport, which boasted professional leagues in England and France back in the 1930s before nearly disappearing altogether, is making a worldwide comeback. Since a rebirth in Seattle some 15 years ago, bike polo now has at least 165 clubs in the U.S. alone, from Billings Hammer & Cycle to Cleveland’s Pedal Republik, and lively competition in England, France, and elsewhere. Last weekend, Milwaukee hosted the second annual North American Bike Polo Championships, whose sponsors included Pabst Blue Ribbon and bike polo apparel company Northern Standard. Tom Feld, writing in The Active Pursuit, set the scene:
Amid the vast quantities of Pabst, the hipsters, the tattoos, the piercings, the belligerent spectators, frequent whiffs of marijuana and the tricked-out fixies, the guys who make hardcourt bike polo their sport fought Sunday for a championship that means more than the party atmosphere might suggest.
It was a milestone for a game whose ascent has, until recently, been happily disorganized. Bike Polo’s competitive governing body, North American Hardcourt, is only two years old—it was formed in 2010 in response to an explosion of bike polo enthusiasm that began, according to the NAH, around 2007.
This coincides with a number of other positive trends for bicycles and cities. The last few years have seen a number of high-profile bicycle infrastructure improvements (as in New York), and the implementation of the nation’s first bike-share programs (as in Washington D.C.). Between 2003 and 2008, bike sales rose by 9 percent in the U.S., a modest increase. But during that same period, between 2000 and 2008, the number of people commuting on bicycles in America’s 70 largest cities rose 48 percent. Perhaps it was only a matter of time before people began to look for something more fun to do on their bikes than go to work.
It turns out that American cities are well designed to host hardcourt bicycle polo. Makeshift arenas include tennis courts, basketball courts, parking lots, and any other stretch of available asphalt. Teams of three compete to send a small ball through goalposts using what look like croquet mallets. The rules are simple but the game is fast-paced and sometimes violent. (Highlights from the 2010 World Championship in Berlin can be found here.)
Bicycle polo actually dates to the 1890s, when an Irishman named Richard Mecredy invented it as a low-cost alternative to normal polo. Mecredy’s iteration was played on grass, and featured in the 1908 London Olympics as a demonstration sport. But after the success of the English and French bike polo leagues of the ‘30s, the sport essentially vanished after World War II, only to resurface in Seattle, where Mike “Messman” Messenger and his bike-riding friends started playing on asphalt in the ‘90s. (The new documentary Hit ‘Em in the Mouth, which premiered in June at New York’s Bicycle Film Festival, profiles the founders of the movement and their struggle to play on local tennis courts.)
No one really knows how many people play bike polo. Hardcourt Bike Polo counts and fastidiously catalogues the statistics of over 500 members; the League of Bike Polo has nearly 5,000 members. Many are outside the U.S. Paris and London both have thriving bike polo communities. June’s French Hardcourt Championships in the Alps attracted 48 teams. India, where polo (on horses) has been played for centuries, now counts over 10,000 people playing bicycle polo. Many players, particularly in the U.S. where the sport’s competitive governance is brand-new, probably have not been counted, and more join every day.
The best teams from the Milwaukee tournament, by the way, will be heading to Geneva in August for the World Championships. The national champion Beaver Boys, based in Milwaukee, should feel right at home—they won it all in Berlin two years ago.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user dsb nola.