Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Awesome article on polo in NYC

It's nice to read a well-written article about polo.

From here -http://normaneinsteins.com/14/hardcourthardcore/.

Issue 14 07/10

A little red ball rests dead center in the Pit. Five cyclists astride their mounts - three on one end of the court, two on the other - wait impatiently. Their eyes dart back and forth from the ball to the cause of their impatience. Their gaze is not the only one caught by the ball. A small Asian boy who has toddled onto the court is torn between the temptation of lonely red ball and the entreaties of a sixth cyclist attempting to convince him out of the Pit. For a moment negotiations appear doomed to fail.

Finally as his harried caretaker begins her descent into the Pit, the boy half-shuffles, half-runs up the ramp. The sixth cyclist rejoins his two teammates on the far end of the court. The Pit is cleared of outsiders. The game can finally begin.

The Pit is a large sunken court in Sara Delano Roosevelt Park in the Bowery neighborhood of New York City. On any given day, the Pit plays host to stickball, street hockey, or kickball games. But for several hours on Thursday evening and Sunday afternoon, the Pit is the home turf of New York City Bike Polo. NYC Bike Polo is one of the several hardcourt bike polo clubs that have sprung up around the country in the last decade.

Bike polo, a two-wheeled take on the ancient sport of polo, is an almost gleeful inversion of its horse-mounted for-bearer. The sports of kings is a courtly game. Often during its long history playing polo has been restricted to the nobility, whether by edict or access. Polo attracts the wealthy and inspires the fashionable. It is a game of long volleys and coordinated charges. Played on an immense grass field of predetermined dimensions by two teams of four, polo evokes a sense of space.

A bike polo court is hard pavement or blacktop about the size of a tennis court, sometimes bigger, sometimes smaller. Trash talk spills forth from the mouths of players waiting to get in on the next game. The Pit in particular does not attract polite society. Rather crack heads and meth mouths hoot and holler, argue and apologize, oblivious to the on-court proceedings.

The fundamental departure, though, is the game play itself. Two teams of three players battle for control of a street hockey ball while speeding past each other on two wheels. Each game begins with a "joust," from either ends of the court, one player from each team racing for the ball. The object like so many team sports is to put the ball in the opposing team's goal. The players can handle the ball only with their mallets, almost all of them homemade from ski poles and PVC pipe. Players cannot put a foot down to touch the ground. (If they do, they must take themselves out of play and "tap out" at a designated area before returning.) And players cannot score by pushing the ball through the goal with the mallet's broadside, only its smaller, round ends. Contact is limited to mallet-to-mallet, bike-to-bike, and body-to-body though enforcement is more by custom than code. Bike polo is not a spacious game... it is a chaotic one.

Yet amidst the chaos grace is found. There are isolated moments of violence to be sure. A players slams into a sideboard chasing a skittering ball, two bikes unintentionally tangle at the court's center, a tire pops throwing its rider to the hard pavement. These moments are relatively few and far between. The ball may move up and down the court, but the players rarely do. The action often begins in close in tightening then suddenly loosening concentric circles. Players move about the court in a series of spins and pirouettes as the ball makes its way from end to end. Bike polo is no ballet though. Handling the ball is tricky. It often nestles along the sideboards. Close scraping for the ball between opponents ensues as they hook and prod each other's mallets. Suddenly the ball pops free again and the teammates who have been circling and jockeying for place are after the ball. A half-a-wheel advantage is all that's required for that sliver of daylight to the goal.

Pickup games at the Pit are played to five points, as they are around most of the country. Once a team wins, the players waiting their turn toss mallets onto the court. The three closest to one end and the three closest to the opposite end are grouped into the next two teams. Players line up near their goals and the "joust" begins another game.


I arrange to meet Chandel, a representative from New York club, at the Pit on a Thursday evening. Players are not the only who must wait their turn. A Japanese in-flight magazine has dispatched a couple reporters and a photographer for a piece. I keep one ear to their interview with Chandel and the other to the banter around the court. What I overhear of the questions and answers is pretty standard stuff, the kind of material that pops up again and again on the brief features found with a cursory Google search. Musings of the sport getting big as more clubs sprout up around North America and Europe. Curiosity about its do-it-yourself attitude and aesthetic as the players sport homemade mallets and indie fashions. Concern and captivation in equal measure with its body sacrificing physicality as players gleefully speed around the court.

The interview with the in-flight magazine concludes. Chandel rounds up the assembled players on court for a group photo to accompany the magazine's piece. Someone asks with a smirk, "Do they want us fighting each other or not?" The photographer snaps his pictures and the in-flight magazine crew takes leave.

When I finally get her attention, Chandel is buzzing about how a feature in the in-flight magazine might encourage bike polo's prospects in Japan. She wears a Star Wars t-shirt, tight jeans rolled up to even tighter cuffs around her calves, and a bike cap, brim flipped up, remnants of the brim's red plastic visor still translucently visible around its stitched edges. As we talk, she peers through large gold-rimmed glasses and rounds her words with a soft Canadian accent. She started playing bike polo in Toronto three years ago with friends, mostly bike messengers, from a local bike shop. She moved to New York some months back in an attempt to put her fashion design degree to good use. She wasted no time falling in with the city's bike polo scene.

"This place is legendary, the Pit is legendary," Chandel says. "If anyone has a polo wish list I guarantee you playing in the Pit is on it."

So where does hardcourt bike polo originate?

"About ten years ago, the messenger-courier community, primarily on fixed-gears, started playing in New York City," Chandel says. "About four or five years ago, the sport grew in extreme popularity to the point where cities all over the world started playing."

The Pacific Northwest, and Seattle in particular, also lays claim to popularizing bike polo as an urban game developed by bike messengers and played on pavement. Yet the hardcourt version of bike polo has its roots further back than a decade. It was originally a "leisure sport played on grass," Chandel says. A few differing origin stories exist. One version attributes the game to stable boys in India during the British Raj period. They used comparatively cheap bicycles to imitate the horse-mounted sport of their country's nobles and conquerors alike. Another version traces bike polo to 1890s Ireland, an invention addressing similar disparities in cost and class. Chandel offers yet another take.

"Originally, [bike polo] started decades ago with women playing on grass because they couldn't ride horses," she says.

Whatever the absolute historical truth, each story casts bike polo as a populist response, whether leveling class, economic, or gender barriers. Certainly, its revival as an urban game played on pavement instead of grass is, if not a reactionary swipe, at least a thumbed nose at polo's pretense. Like the fixed-gear bike culture that birthed it, bike polo delights in a degree of difficulty, something that sets it apart from the mainstream. Anyone is free to try their hand at it. Monday is "Rookie Night" at a court in Brooklyn. Only a few stick with it.

"What we generally find is that you can play or you can't," says Chandel, a grin sneaking into the corner of her mouth.

For those that can play, a burgeoning community exists, much of it connected online through sites like the League Of Bike Polo. Chandel points to the community itself as a vital part of her love of the sport, of why she plays. Certain rules and customs vary by region. Some clubs cling to riding fixed-gears, bikes that cannot coast, often equipped without brakes. Others, like New York, are transitioning to freewheel bikes to suit their fluid style of play.

"In New York, we play that you should always be moving forward so your teammates anticipate you to be moving forward anyways," says Chandel.

The bike polo community, though, is confronting larger issues than what kind of bike to ride. More and more tournaments across the country are popping up. The competition is becoming more intense. The ethos of self-governance on court is being put to the test.

"We're at the point now where there's so many players in North America, playing in tournaments is going to have to become selective," says Chandel. "Within North America we set up regions. We initiated a movement to have an organizing body."

Hardcourt bike polo in its brief history has been organic and a bit anarchic. But it now approaches a crossroads. Can bike polo grow and stay true to its roots? Can it maintain its code of sportsmanship while codifying rules about contact? Can it collect sponsorship dollars for better and better tournament prizes without selling out?

When I speak to Chandel, the New York club is preparing to host the fifth East Side Polo Invitational. Clubs from all over North America will be in attendance, from as far away as Seattle and Vancouver... two teams from France are even registered. ESPI V offers a chance not just to qualify for the larger championships like the North American and World versions, it's also a coming together of a community, a party and an informal convening of congress. ESPI V will serve as crucible for some of the bike polo's looming questions.

"We're actually going to have one- and two-minute penalties... depending on the infraction," says Chandel. "That's a first time. We want it to be more about technical ability than brute force... Essentially we're changing the way bike polo is being played, at least for tournament play. Some people feel that it's not New York City's place to do that."

I ask Chandel how the rule changes, specifically the penalties, will be received at ESPI V.

"I think it's going to be very interesting to see how people actually adhere to the [new] rules," she says. For the first time, I sense doubt in her words, at the very least, a note of hesitation.

Chandel rejoins the fray. I hang around for awhile longer, observing the players spinning their reckless yet purposeful circles around the Pit, like a geometric compass in the hands of Jackson Pollock. A boombox blares "Roxanne" by the Police. One bike poloist adapts the lyrics to taunt another compatriot nicknamed "Birdseye" on court.

"Birrrrrrrrds-eye! Why do you have to suck so much?"

Laughter rings out as daylight begins to fade on the Pit.


ESPI V is scheduled to begin at 10 am on the last Saturday in June. The New York club has constructed three makeshift courts in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn on a school playground just to the south and east of McCarren Park. The morning is bright, a blanket of warmth rising off the blacktop. Bikes of all make and model - perhaps 150 - litter the playground. Players huddle in familiar circles while munching on breakfast sandwiches and chugging from sports bottles.

Start time has come and gone. There's a laidback vibe to the ESPI. Organizers ask as many questions as they bark orders. No where is there a cold formality. The greetings are warm. Bike polo is growing but it has not yet outgrown its familiar community.

All in all, it's a motley crew scattered over the playground. Bright screen-printed t-shirts announce affiliations to various clubs or teams or senses of humor. Three guys sport a hipster variation to the team uniform: sleeveless plaid flannel in dark blue and purple. A couple vuvuzelas recently famous for the constant drone reverberating through World Cup stadiums in South Africa make their rumbling presence felt.

Forty-eight teams in all have registered for the two-day tournament. Unlike pickup bike polo, each game is set for fifteen minutes, a chance for number of goals to factor in any tiebreakers. Several teams are all or mostly female thanks to the ladies-only tournament - the Ladies Army - hosted the day before on these same courts. Still, the vibe is noticably male if not exactly macho, the humor crass if still good-natured.

The ESPI V t-shirts declare the New York club's intentions. "I didn't come here to play Bike Hockey," reads the back. The new penalty rules face its first test almost immediately. A team from Chicago, Machine Politics, and a team from Milwaukee, the Beavers, commence play on Court Two. Both teams are obviously skilled and fast. Both play with a remarkable physicality. Elbows exchanged in passing quickly escalate. The ball skitters across the court's center, a player from Machine Politics chases, shuffling the ball with the broadside of his mallet. One of the Beavers, out of position, circles his bike and rams it into the attacking rider, an illegal T-Bone maneuver. The crowd hoots its disapproval. A referee hisses a warning. The physicality, however, does not cease. The crowd sarcastically urges the teams to T-Bone each other, or as they've renamed it: "Milwaukee him!" Another Machine Politics breakaway, this time a Beaver tapping out of play is called for interference of the attack. The ref orders a one-minute penalty. The Beavers scowl.

"I don't understand this bullshit," says one Beaver.

"Fuck this whack bullshit," says the other.

Chicago makes good on the power play, scoring before the offender comes back on court. Machine Politics eventually outlasts the Beavers, 5-4. Despite the violence of the contest, the two teams wrap each other in sincere embraces. Off court the Beavers huddle under shade of a lonely tree and grumble about the new penalty rules.

Many of the first day contests are blowouts. Silent Majority, its players hailing from New York, Philly, and Ottawa, Ontario, destroy their opening opponent. They deploy a sort of team Wayne Gretzy move on the attack, two or three of the riders circling the goal trying to sneak a shot in the back or strike a clear shot on the rebound. The tactic is ruthlessly effective to the tune of 18-2. As I leave the courts in the afternoon, I cannot help remember what Chandel said about the need for bike polo to be more selective in tournament play.

By mid-day Sunday, the tempature hits the low-90s. Tallboys suited up in paper bags are plentiful. Wisps of smoke from casually attended cigaretes form thick clouds in the humdity. Conditions render the late play into a test of endurance. As the temperature rise so too does the level of play. Tactics are more easily discernable. A French team, Dans Ta Gueule Puceau - which translates to either "In Your Face, Virgin" or "In Your Virgin Mouth" - gut out a defensive victory with a counterattack style reminiscent of Continental football. One player forever stays on goal, a rarity in bike polo, while his teammates concentrate on tight defense. They counter with three-quarter court shots or try to knock free the ball for a lightning quick fastbreak.

As more and more teams fall in the knockout stages, the number of spectators naturally starts to swell. Most observers are players. Some friends offer support. Only a few curious passersby stop long enough to take in more than a few minutes of play. Bike polo is not exactly a spectator sport. It talks about sponsorship, for tournament prizes and tournament supplies, not spectators, even if the sponsorship dollars traditionally follow the crowds. It's not to say the community is unfriendly. Far from it. Perhaps the crass capitilization some charge ruined counterculture sports like skateboarding keeps them wary.

As the quarterfinals near completion, tension runs through the assembled like a current of electricity. Leisure Suit Larry Bird are set to play Silent Majority on one side of the bracket; the Beavers are rematched Machine Politics on the other. Throughout the tournament, the games of Leisure Suit Larry Bird, a team from Richmond, Virginia, have attracted a following, mostly for their star player Nick. During their quarterfinals match-up, one poloist near me leans over to a friend and observes, "That dude's really fucking good." His friend replies, "He's the best player on the East Coast, no shit he's fucking good." As if to add an exclamation point to it, Nick scores a thunderous goal, speeding between two defenders, and shouts to the crowd, "You can't fucking stop me!"

However against Silent Majority in the first semifinal matchup, Nick and Leisure Suit Larry Bird find themselves behind early. Silent Majority's coordinated attacks on the goal net points made to look easy. Nick pleads with his teammates to communicate with him on court. The situation is beginning to look dire. With speed Nick weaves past one then two defenders, he wheels in front of the defended goal opting not to shoot right away, but to hesitate then lift and smack the ball on target with the back end of his mallet, a bit like Cristiano Ronaldo scoring a goal with his back heel. The crowd roars. Less than thirty seconds later, Nick knocks a shot cross court, a heater that finds the back of the net, unleashing another thunderous roar from the crowd.

These heroics however only postpone a harsh reality of team sports: the best player doesn't always, or even often, win. Silent Majority's attacking style wears down Leisure Suit Larry Brown. The scorecards read 13-9 as the timekeeper counts down the final seconds. As the rest meet at the court's center, Nick rolls away to the court's far side far from the crowd, his look of laser-beam intensity transmuted into smoldering frustration.

The rematch between the Beavers and Machine Politics is physical like the first, overall more civilized if no less brutal. The Beavers have ascended through the tournament on the strength of their defense. The Beavers often stack themselves three deep in front of the goal when they fall back on defense. They invite a long shot from halfcourt, ready to pounce on the rebound. They're content to fight the game out at the boards where elbows and hooking mallets provide the decisive edge. On the strength of their defense and counterattack, the Beavers take an early lead and hold it. Machine Politics makes a charge with minutes left to play, scoring a couple goals by perforating the Beavers defense with shots, but the Beavers answer and grind down Machine Politics for the victory.

After Machine Politics top Leisure Suit Larry Bird, 9-7, in an entertaining third-place game, Silent Majority and the Beavers face off for the championship. The championship game portends to be an almost philosophical debate of bike polo. Silent Majority are a highly skilled, uptempo attacking team, often scoring in double digits. The Beavers, on the other hand, rely on their defense, capitalizing on one of their natural advantages, all three players are not small guys. Offense versus defense. It's been a long, hot day though. The Beavers start hot scoring a couple early goals. Silent Majority fall to defending rather than gamble for the steal. The pace of the game clearly suits the Beavers.

Shortly before half, though, Silent Majority shake free of their lethargy. They score quickly once then again. It's 4-4 at the break and a Beaver's bike is upside down, being repaired quickly, not with the blinding efficiency of a NASCAR pit crew, but with a communal sense of purpose. As the game resumes, it's clear that tactics are falling by the wayside. Both teams push the pace. But it's Alexis of Silent Majority gambling for steals and in two magnificent scoring sweeps of the court, nets his team the lead. The Beavers go for broke, bringing the game close, but they exhaust themselves before the final minutes. Much of the crowd urges the Beavers on. But Silent Majority proves too much, too fast. The scorecard reads 10-7. A voice behind a megaphone counts down the finals seconds.

The crowd claps and hollers as the two teams embrace at the court's center. A few friends and fellow players jump the boards and join in the scene. A couple of organizers heft a trophy table onto the court. Handbuilt wheel sets for the tournament winners. A new frame for the tournament MVP. Judges confer. The emcee thanks the players, volunteers, and organizers. Nick of Leisure Suit Larry Bird takes home the MVP honors. Silent Majority drink freely from the challenge cup then hoist it in triumph. The emcee tells the crowd that Silent Majority is one of the best teams to ever play the sport, confirming the high voltage of the electrical charge running through the crowd since the semifinals.

As the prizes are handed out to cheers and applause, a couple members of the New York club squat, power drills in hand, dissembling the makeshift court with all the speed they can manage.

[Cian is writer and editor based in Brooklyn, New York. If you like the magazine, he suggests subscribing for free.]

Copyright, all rights reserved. Photo: jonnystiles (Flickr). Print this page.


  1. I agree, the first part of this article was the best description i've heard. We need writers like this!


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