Alternative cycling: Bicycle polo

BALTIMORE -- For those tired of zoning out on a stationary bike for exercise, a twist on one of the world's oldest sports might be the answer.

Fans say bicycle polo is a great workout, and is less hazardous than many other weekend sports.

"There's a perception that it's dangerous, but the reality is that it's a very safe sport," said Aaron Meisner, a stockbroker from Baltimore who founded the Mount Washington Bicycle Polo Association with his brother, Dan. "It's an amazing workout without drudgery."

Three years ago, the brothers invited friends to play along with them as a one-time experiment. They had a great time and have tried to keep it going ever since. Now a core group of six people meets Sunday afternoons at a suburban park in Pikesville, not far from Meisner's Mount Washington home.

Bike polo in the United States is still a very small pastime, with no one really keeping track of how many people play it. One official estimated at least 500 players, but many horse polo players do some training on bicycles, too.

Sometimes, Meisner's group draws up to 12 players -- and curious looks from passers-by.

The game

With a call of "Tallyho!" one of those core players, Baltimore architect Doug McCoach, rides onto the field and draws his mallet back to hit the ball. He's aiming to get the grapefruit-sized ball between two goal posts on the opposite end of the field.

The players ride bikes with special U-shaped handlebars and must have just one brake for the rear tire on the left side to keep the right side free for mallet swinging. Like horse polo, a match is divided into four 7 1/2-minute "chukkars," or quarters, with breaks in between.

Officially, the game is played four against four, with substitutes, but the Meisners' team will play with fewer depending on how many show up.

"We play by the rules, but we do not take it to extremes," Aaron Meisner said. "For us, it's about having fun. Nobody's even really keeping score most of the time."

Most rules deal with right of way to keep players from crashing into each other.

"You are swinging around a wooden mallet," he said. "There's some danger involved, but it's relatively minor compared to a lot of other activities."

On a field, there's little chance of getting road rash from nasty falls or of being hit by a truck, Meisner said.

In the last three years, the Mount Washington group has traveled to Charlottesville, Va., and Philadelphia to play. The group plans to get together with a couple of other groups soon at a horse polo field in Potomac, Md.

Taking it on the road

Bill Matheson, vice president of the Bicycle Polo Association of America, plays every day and is a member of a group of about two dozen people in South Carolina who meet regularly to play.

"I just like it because it's fun, and I'm good at it," he said.

Matheson, who lives in Aiken, S.C., started playing at 15 -- almost 35 years ago in New York. He's competed across the country and even in India, where the Cycle Polo Federation of India claims there are about 10,000 players.

Polo's history

Polo is said to be one of the oldest sports in the world. The first recorded game in 600 B.C. was between the Turkomans and Persians and may have started with soldiers batting the skulls of their slain opponents around the battlefield, Matheson said.

The British picked up the sport in the 1850s in India, and the game made its way to the British Isles -- where the first clubs were formed in the 1870s. Around the same time, the bicycle was evolving. Since a bicycle was more affordable than a set of horses needed for a traditional polo match, the common man's version evolved on two wheels.

The rules and style of the game vary around the world. There is even a related game played in Germany and Eastern Europe in which players strike the ball with their front wheels, Matheson said.

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