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Bike polo may seem like a modern phenomenon to most, but it has a long and colourful history. The first recorded game took place in the Scalp, in Wicklow, Ireland, on October 4th, 1891. It was organised by Richard J. Mecredy, a former national track champion, and the first set of rules were printed in The Irish Cyclist magazine that same year.
One of the first recorded games took place on Bray seafront, and before long the game had grown in popularity and made its way to England. The first international match between Ireland and England was held in 1901 with the Irish winning by a margin of 10 -5.
The game became so popular it was included in the 1908 Olympics in London as a demonstration sport with Ireland beating Germany 3-1 in the final to take gold. It was hoped bike polo would make it into the 1912 games as an official competition but this never came about and the sport went into decline as Europe descended into war. It grew again in the 1930’s with regional leagues being set up across England and France, but the advent of the Second World War marked another decline.
1938 Phoenix Park bike polo
Post-WWII the sport began to boom again, with new nations taking up the mallet. India and the USA soon became new superpowers in the sport. The Cycle Polo Federation of India was set up in 1966 and the Bicycle Polo Association of America founded in 1994.
2006 Phoenix Park bike polo
While grass polo is still played the world over, the modern ‘hardcourt’ version of bike polo began in Seattle around 1999 when a bunch of bored bike messengers fashioned some makeshift mallets and started knocking a street hockey ball around. This style of play quickly spread through the messenger scene of the United States and in 2008 the first North American Championship took place. As of this year in addition to the many national championships there exist World and European, Australasian and South American hardcourt championships with hundreds of teams playing regularly in cities across the globe.
The first grass polo bikes were traditional fixed gear bikes with very short wheelbases. The bikes ran a very light gear to assist in maneuverability and sprinting, with heavy duty wheels to withstand the rigours of the sport. The mallets were made from the same material as horse polo mallets, bamboo cane with a wooden head, but with shorter shafts. The riders wore no protection. Modern grass polo allows for freewheel bikes but many teams prefer to still ride the traditional fixed gear bikes. The ball is generally a small inflated ball, like a miniature football.
Hardcourt polo bikes began as messenger’s work bikes, usually 700c fixed gear bikes with no brakes, although this was more down to the proliferation of those bikes in the scene than any hard and fast rules. As the sport grew framebuilders began to design bikes specifically for the purpose, and the technology developed.
Most hardcourt players now run singlespeed freewheel bikes, again with a very low gearing to assist with maneuverability and sprinting, they also run a front brake, with some manufacturers even offering disc brake protective covers to allow riders to have maximum braking power without fear of damaging the rotors. Many riders also install protective wheel covers to avoid damage to spokes during a game.
Hardcourt polo mallets started out as second hand ski poles modified to accept a section of thick pvc pipe at the bottom. As time went by these were professionally manufactured and there now exist many small companies specialising in the production of hardcourt mallets and mallet heads. Hardcourt polo uses street hockey balls.
There have been many variations of grass court rules over the years with Ireland, France and England having their own. A team generally consists of 6 or 7 players, 4 or 5 of whom can be on the pitch at any one time. Games are played for 30 minutes and are divided into 4 chukkars of 7.5 minutes.
Hardcourt rules have evolved into teams of three players as the courts are generally much smaller than grass polo pitches. The game continues until a team has reached 5 points, or the game has gone on for a certain amount of time, 12-15 minutes. The ball can be played with any part of the mallet but goals can only be scored with either end of the mallet head, otherwise it will be disallowed as a ‘shuffle’.
London Invitational 2012
Where to play
Most major cities have hardcourt polo teams with a fairly comprehensive list available at Leagueofbikepolo.com . Most groups will have beginners games and offer a lend of a mallet for your first few games until you get the hang of it. If you don’t have a local group then just get a bunch of friends, find an empty basketball court/car park/piece of wasteland, and do it yourself! It’s a great sport that is easy to pick up and tough to master. Get on your Funked Up bike and give it a go!