Photo by Chris Casella

A New Spin

Half a dozen bizarre mallets are piled up near the entrance to the caged court on 11th Avenue. Kind of like croquet equipment placed in a blender—neon green, hot pink, beat-up white, black, all attached to what look like hacked curtain rods. The mallet stack is similar to quarters on a pool table—it indicates who gets to play next.

The bouquet of cracked and gnarly hammers are tossed mid-court and where each lands lets its owner know what “side” he or she is on for that particular game. Bicycles, some tricked out with White Castle wheel covers or blacked out completely, and their riders converge on the small orange ball that gets smacked up and down the court by tattooed arms swinging mallets like mad. The stands are filled with beards, tattoos, Geiger-esque bike helmets, knee pads fallen around ankles, and conversation. Bikes lay on their sides in the grass, waiting to be put into action.

Welcome to bike polo. Every Tuesday and Thursday night, the court comes alive with 10-minute pick-up games and casual aggression. Pete Brown, who has been playing with this club and spreading the bike polo word for seven years, explained that the game was started back in the day when Seattle bike messengers—a crazy lot—got bored during work downtime and started to bat a ball around. Then it spread to New York, and from there spoked out across the U.S.

The popularity of the sport is growing, alongside the rise of bicycle culture, and has recently been featured on Mike Rowe’s Dirty Jobs show. The game is loosely based on hockey, explained Brown, and is played three on three. You can only hit a scoring shot with one of the ends of the mallet; the horizontal plane is used to move the ball around, shuffleboard style. The original mallets were made of PVC piping and ski poles, but now commercial companies have gotten hip to the game and are crafting equipment. Many players wear face masks and a variety of pad combinations—knees, elbows, thighs—and everyone wears huge gloves. “It looks like a dangerous, crazy game,” says Brown, “but it’s pretty safe, and these pick-up games are friendly.”

Cailyn Driscoll, one of three women at the court, was introduced to the sport by her sister, Shannon. “She wanted me to play, and I said no way in hell! It’s intimidating, it’s fast and I can barely ride my bike,” Driscoll says. “Shannon kept begging me to play, and I told her to let me know when all the good players were out of town.” Well, there was a weekend all the elites were gone, and Driscoll rolled onto the court. “I was hooked,” she says. “I’d never done anything like that before, and you can actually see your progression in one game; you are constantly growing in this game and that makes it really enticing.”

Beyond the game, the community keeps everyone coming back. “Big John” Blake started bike polo when he was 56 years old; he’s 64 now. “You meet so many people in the sport,” he says. “If I went to any city and I saw a polo bike on a vehicle, I would know that person.”

“Yeah, I can find housing in any major city,” adds Driscoll. “When we held the Midwest tournament here, I had 10 people in my apartment; it’s this big community, it’s always like this big weird family reunion.”

As we sit back and watch the game, Andy Willis leans over and points out that Brown and his team buddies, Travis Davis and David Frankhouser, are among the top seven teams in the country. “He’ll never tell you that though,” whispers Willis, whose wheel guard features praying hands draped with a bike chain instead of a rosary. “They’ve really kept this club together—they encourage the new people—like when there are new people on the court, they slow the game down, and they also give you stuff to work on. These are the most open and welcoming people.”

Willis, along with Kaleb Christian and Paul Liska, produces a biweekly bike polo podcast. Listen in and you’ll hear interviews with players, as well as information about upcoming events. The North American tournament is taking place September 17-20 in Lexington, Kentucky and Brown’s team will certainly be there.

In the group, much is made of Lexington’s courts—built specifically for bike polo, with awesome lights and boards—and there is a lot of envy in these stands. The group has proposed bike polo courts to Columbus Parks and Rec, so far to no avail. “We’ll try again next year,” says Driscoll.

As Driscoll’s mallet gets propped up in the stack, she adds, “This is just a great social thing outside of the everyday, a physical activity, I mean, you can call people and go to a bar, or come here.” ν

For information on the Columbus Bike Polo Club, join the Columbus Hardcourt Bike Polo Facebook group. To check out the podcast, visit theshufflepolocast.wordpress. com. The group welcomes new players, spectators, and future fans every Tuesday and Thursday, 7 p.m., at the 11th Ave. court, next door to the OSU Jesse Owens South Rec Center.