Bike polo surfaces with contact and skill as the main draw

Barry Sandland/TIMB - Bike polo riders at a Belgium competition

Barry Sandland/TIMB – Fewer thoroughbreds, more collisions in bike polo.

European Mobility Week – I had my first exposure to bike polo, at a competition level, during Brussels Mobility Week. A collection of international teams who gathered in a large square on Place Morichar and turned out session after session, game after game, for two straight days.

Barry Sandland/TIMB - Bike polo rider in a breakaway ride w the ball.

Barry Sandland/TIMB – Fewer thoroughbreds, more collisions in bike polo.

Think horses and polo and open green spaces, then replace the horses with bicycles and the open field with a multi-purpose paved sports court. Then replace the champagne glasses with plastic cups and beer; the hors d’oeuvres with bags of chips and schawarmas; and the Bentley-driving spectators and their swathe of millinery with the neighbourhood masses, mostly riding their own bicycles during Sunday Without Cars. If there were hats, they tended to be the short-brimmed cycling variety.

Beyond that, there may be similarities closer to the sports. The protective gloves are often repurposed ice hockey gloves, and the bikes a wide range of single speed, repurposed road, and mountain bikes, garage sale specials and some rather fine bikes that would be racing about the arena.

Matches run about 15 minutes (I never figured it out) and has three person teams trying to do the polo swing scores into what looks like ice hockey nets. The riders can use their polo stick or bike to advance the ball. Well, they can accept advancing the ball if their body takes the blow, but they cannot actually throw the ball ahead. Hands off.

Barry Sandland/TIMB - Two riders competing for the ball in bike polo

Barry Sandland/TIMB – Fewer thoroughbreds, more collisions in bike polo.

The court was surrounded by basic construction boards, supported by palletes (those palletes have a never-ending range of use). One served as the entry/exit point and, as soon as a game finished and the riders left the field, a new pair of squads entered. It was non-stop action for the spectators.

It is a vaguely impact sport. Shoulders press against shoulders, riders lean body weight into their opponents, and use their sticks to do some stick handling and ball control.

And the occasional, unwanted, “horse” fatality. Like the more traditional version, the steeds are the more vulnerable. Riders might take a tumble, get a bruise, scrape a tattoo, but the real casualties are the bikes. Some of these polo swings can propel the ball at some speed. It is a hard plastic and the impact on wheels would soon leave a steady twang sound of breaking spokes. That would also explain the helmets and full-face guards being used  – they prevent emergency dental work.

Rules are simple. Advance the ball with the polo stick or bike (no kicking, throwing). Feet must stay on the bike. If a foot touches the ground, the rider has to ride to the side of the court and touch his stick to the boards before they can re-enter the match.

Barry Sandland/TIMB - Protective equipment surrounding a bike polo bicycle

Barry Sandland/TIMB – Fewer thoroughbreds, more collisions in bike polo.

All the bikes are single speeds with incredibly low gear ratios that offer fast acceleration. There is little opportunity to shift, anyway, but any derailleur system would simply be a point of vulnerability. Most have front wheel disc brakes – and rear brake an unnecessary addition, since one hand is carrying the stick. The front brake has the sharpest stopping power, anyway, and it brings the key to some spectacular front wheel stands, pivots and blocks – all aided by the third leg the stick offers. I mean, these guys can do track stands that last forever, since they are using the stick as their support.

Bike protection is high. The wheels often have complete shields protecting the spokes, and barriers designed to protect the disc brake from an impact. A strip of velcro offers some extra protection to the tire valve.

Barry Sandland/TIMB - Broken frame at the bike polo competition

Barry Sandland/TIMB – Fewer thoroughbreds, more collisions in bike polo.

All this protection does not always help. In one match, a bad crash brought a completely twisted front wheel. A new bike appeared immediately so the match could continue. After the match, I saw the wheel being “trued” – bike polo style. This careful technique of tightening and loosening spokes to create a straight wheel had been simplified to the wheel being slammed on the ground wherever it was out of true until the wheel reformed to the basic rolling shape. If a hard knock put it out of shape, then a series of hard knocks would make it right again. I was slightly incredulous when the technique worked.

This tournie had only one fatality. A full impact, head-on and a frame sheared in two on the down tube, just behind the headset. Given the two days of full contact riding and the corner scrimmages for ball ownership, one frame down seems an acceptable tally. For frame builders, this has to be cringe-worthy product testing. Steel is definitely preferred. Vintage is high.

© Barry Sandland/TIMB - Teams chasing the ball in bike polo

Barry Sandland/TIMB – Fewer thoroughbreds, more collisions in bike polo.

Bike polo is in just about every city. An underground sport, its visibility in European Mobility Week was an entertainment. But there are matches most weeks, just often in parking garages and less frequented locations. Look on Facebook for a society near you.

And, if you are in Paris this weekend, there is a match to see at Place de la Bourse, Paris, September 24-25. Check the links.

Opel Paris Tournie page link here…
Sept 24/25, 2016

Paris Bike Polo Facebook page here…

Brussels Bike Polo Facebook page…

©Barry Sandland/TIMB - Bike polo riders in a Brussels competition

©Barry Sandland/TIMB – Bike polo competitions are still relatively unknown, but find them on Facebook for your local events.

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