Bike polo: Hone your skills, make friends, have fun

Learn the ins and outs of bike polo  Credit: Courtesy <a href="" target="new">USBPA</a>
The joust in the third chukkar was disrupted by veering.


Welcome to bike-polo speak, the obscure language of an otherwise very inclusive game. While some Americans may have seen conventional polo on TV, Washingtonians can see, and play, bike polo on The Mall on Saturday mornings.

That's when Mark Gross and his polo-playing cronies do battle with mallets, bikes, grins and a relatively little white ball. They leave the horses at home.

Like its equine cousin, the objective in bike polo is to use the mallet to drive the white ball through a goal. Sound easy? Imagine high-speed lawn croquet on an ice rink, played by one-armed hockey players without skates. Adding order to chaos becomes the main challenge in this game.

Certain rules are in place to minimize collisions and prevent a horde of club-swinging cyclists from converging simultaneously on the ball. Players approaching a loose ball, for example, must ride parallel to the sidelines for at least three bike-lengths before striking it. That way, most contests for a free ball put opposing players in exactly opposing directions. Approaching from an angle is "veering," and is not permitted.

But even without veering, a head-on contest might be a recipe for a head-on collision, were it not for one diabolically simple rule all players must keep their mallet in their right hand. You're a lefty? Tough. Two righties don't make a wrong, but when rolling toward a stationary ball from opposite directions, two righties are much more likely to hook mallets than smash handlebars.

And so begins every chukkar. (Bike-polo glossary: chukka r a quarter, four in a game.) Two players sprint for the centerfield ball from opposite goals in a dynamic face-off known, appropriately, as a joust.

Like many fledgling sports with an offbeat flavor, the rules in bike polo aren't entirely a matter of consensus. Take the ticklish topic of contact, for example. U.S. Bicycle Polo Association rules are plain:

"Intentional contact of any kind with an opposing player or bike is illegal!"

Those rules and a lot more information can be found at

D.C. players generally use the U.S. Bike Polo Association rules. But West Virginia players take a different tack. At the famous Slatyfork Mountainbike Festival, a survivor reports that the style of play is a little more robust (emphasis on "bust," as in your spokes or, maybe, your arm).

A refuge for bike junkies of a rugged stripe, Slatyfork's bike-polo players "can do pretty much anything, short of T-bone someone," says Baltimore bike-aholic Eric Crawford. (Bike-polo glossary: T-boneto collide at a perpendicular, or broadside.) By some accounts, Slatyfork bike polo suffers more from veering and beering.

But even the more formal USBPA rules permit contact between mallets, which have shafts made of cane. Gross, one of the chief co-conspirators of the regular D.C. game, says that players need to anticipate action. And that means some use their mallet to snare, oppose and otherwise obstruct the mallets of the enemy team, Gross says. Short of a sword fight, mallet-to-mallet contact is common.

The ball, too, varies from venue to venue. The more common and official USBPA ball is an inflatable sphere a little bigger than a softball. Even when struck with the force of a full swing, the ball would be unlikely to damage a bike or a player. Not so in Slatyfork, where the ball is similar to a baseball or a lacrosse ball, "but less rubbery," Crawford says. Ouch.

But the game is by no means all speed and bravado. Because riders are not permitted to put their feet on the ground, skills of slowspeed maneuver are crucial. Dab your foot, and you must leave the playing surface via the nearest boundary before returning to play. As a result, ball control means bike control. To pilot the bike effectively with only the left hand, many riders swap their brakes, putting the lever for the more powerful front brake on the left side of the bar. Riders sometimes go over the handlebars in abrupt stops.

To overcome this dilemma of physics, Gross has proposed bike polo with tandems. Two players per bike, but only the stoker, in the rear, wields a mallet. Theres little chance of going over the handlebar in that case, he argues. Unfortunately, Gross says, it's hard to get them to play:

"Tandemists tend to be a little prissy about their bikes" given the cost, he says.

As a side note, the emphasis on slow-speed maneuvers makes bike polo a favorite of bicycle-mounted police. Off-duty bike cops in D.C. and elsewhere, says one player, get to hone their professional skills and get a workout at the same time.

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