My first... game of bike polo
We head down to Tring FC to try out some mallet-based entertainment
That's the third time I've forgotten I'm riding a fixed with no toeclips. The consequences this time are more dire; As I'm extricating myself from Tring FC's advertising hoardings we're having another goal knocked off our lead. Opposing mallets are aloft, and the tide is turning, our early promise evaporating in a flurry of wheels. Welcome to my first bike polo adventure.
We're playing a 'demonstration' game with Oakenden Bike Polo club, one of the few remaining active traditional clubs in the UK. Traditional in this case means playing on grass rather than the increasingly common hard court game that's gaining in popularity in urban areas. Oakenden's story is a diverting one: four friends in a pub dreaming up the game and thinking they'd invented it, only to discover that the game is well over a century old; it was a demonstration sport at the 1908 Olympics in London.
But their enthusiasm has allowed the club to grow to an extent that is now able to field more than one team in the European Championships and, more to the point, send some willing players down to Hertfordshire to teach us the ropes at Tring Athletic FC. We were playing at a support event for the Willow Foundation put on by the Grass Roots Group, under the watchful eye of Willow patron Bob Wilson. Who didn't ride, sadly. Yanto Barker of Pendragon – Le Col cycling team fame was also about; he didn't play either. And also in attendance, bizarrely enough, was Linda Lusardi; she didn't play either. Anyway, an all-star crowd.
We were bike polo virgins, to the extent that we hadn't even read up on the rules, or what bikes to use. So when we swanned up with our tidy, road-geared fixers we were gently nudged towards Okaneden's stock of 'proper' polo bikes. There's a few required elements. Firstly, the bike needs to be small. Secondly, it needs to be running a low gear; fixed or free is fine. Thirdly, the handlebars need to be narrow, the better to wield the mallet. This is taken to the extreme, with some riders using the central section of a pair of BMX bars cut down and mounted horizontally. Most of the bikes we were riding could be generously described as 'affordable'. They were old beaters, basically. A ramshackle collection of converted Halfords specials and sturdy steel hacks. When you see the abuse they get, it's not hard to understand why.
The smaller the bike the better the turning circle, so tall riders often resort to a massively laid back seatpost so that they can actually ride the thing. That has the advantage of putting more weight on the back wheel, which makes the bike a bit more manouverable. Toe clip overlap is something you just have to get used to, and since metal pedals are banned there's not clipping into your fixer either. For all that they're perfectly rideable, and wheelies are easy...
Other equipment is pretty basic: a mallet (with an angled head so you can sideswipe the ball from the bike), a helmet and – for those that have played before – shin pads. We didn't bring our shin pads. The ball is a polo ball, which to the uninitiated (me) is basically a mini football. Hit the ball in the other team's goal. Stop the other team hitting the ball in your goal. Whistle. Go!
The first action of the game is a one-vs-one sprint to the centre spot from the touchline; first there takes a big thwack at the ball and the game commences. It's important to remember that you're on a fixed bike with no toeclips at this point, so you don't end up freewheeling with your feet off the pedals. Needless to say, I didn't remember when it was my turn. Once the play is underway, the game is remarkably similar to football in terms of tactics and passages of play. Only with a bike, and a hammer. And certain restrictions on the kind of shots you can play. Everyone – even left-handers – plays with the mallet in their right hand, to avoid too many collisions. The first thing you do is take a mighty thwack at the ball in the direction you're riding. The second is usually to hit the ball under you front wheel – pitching you over the bars – or stick your mallet in your spokes attempting a big shot, pitching you over the bars. It's also easy to get your front wheel sideways on a tight turn – pitching you over the bars – or ride straight into another player, pitching you over the bars. See a theme emerging here?
As a novice, it's pretty much all you can do just to stay on your bike and hit it in a straight line to begin with. More experienced players can play both sides of the bike, there's a lot of hitting backwards too and the odd cheeky pass between the wheels. But mostly the difference in experience between us and the Oakenden guys was obvious in two areas: all the riding they did, and all the hitting they did. It was pretty much impossible to get near them once they had the ball and were dribbling; a combination of ball control and bike control meant you'd always overshoot or not be able to turn tightly enough. If it was a straight chase or I was on my own dribbling away from danger, I was okay; as soon as it turned into a close-quarters affair the foot would inevitably go down, and as soon as that happens you have to move away from the ball, leaving your opponent in the clear.
Bike polo's supposed to be a non-contact sport too, at least these days. But it's impossible not to get entangled with other riders, either through lack of control or an over-zealous attitude. Most of the time it's shoulder to shoulder stuff, but now and then someone'll cut you up or you just won't see them. That's what the helmets and shin pads are for. Next time, i'll be bringing my shin pads. My shins have stopped bleeding now though.
Our game consisted of four chukkas: two where we heaped ignominy and shame on our ramshackle opposition, and two where we capitulated horrifically to lose 10-9 after surrendering a 7-4 lead. But it wasn't about the victory, it was about the thrill of trying something new. At least that's what I told myself afterwards in the Tring FC bar as I cried into my cider. And I did score a couple. And there was the hoarding incident. And the bit where my crank fell off and I had to play with one leg. In fact the whole game was packed with incident. There was inspirational play and comedy stacks in equal measure. Pretty much everyone nabbed a goal. Oli went over his bars right in front of Linda Lusardi; There's not many men alive can claim that. All in all, it was excellent fun.
Back in the heyday of Bike polo most teams were associated with a football club, playing one chukka before the first half and one at half time. This provided a bit of extra entertainment, but more importantly helped to roll the pitch ahead of the day's play. Today most traditional bike polo is still played on football pitches, albeit often with reduced size goals. We had full size goals though, which meant keeping goal was pretty tricky.
The goalie's the only team member who's allowed to rest a foot on the floor, although they have to be on the bike when saving a goal. To be good requires a certain amount of backpedalling skill, to be really good you have to be prepared to dive from your bike on occasion. The French are good at this, we're told. Currently the French teams of V.C Frileuse Sanvic and St Pierre de Varengevillaises lead the way in the European Championships, which include teams from England, Ireland, Scotland, France... erm, and the USA. Still, if Azerbaijan can win Eurovision...
With only nine teams contesting the bike polo Euros it's come down a long way from the heyday of the sport between the wars. Back then there were hundreds of teams up and down the country. But bike polo is a sport that's growing again, for a number of good reasons. It's cheap, for a start. A basic MTB frame from the local classifieds and a singlespeed conversion kit won't set you back much over £50, and a mallet's not expensive either. Secondly, you can play pretty much anywhere. Hard court bike polo has taken off recently for precisely that reason, well that and the glut of fixed bikes in cities. Thirdly, it's immensely fun. Most people that give it a go, the Oakenden guys tell us, go on to play it again. I'll certainly be playing it again. Chances are that if you fancy a game right now then your best chance will be to start up your own team with your mates, but there are active clubs scattered around the country so have a check online; the Oakenden chaps are a good first contact if you're looking for information on who's playing and where.
Big thanks to the chaps from Oakenden Pedallers, the Cyclescheme and Grass Roots crew and the Willow foundation, as well as the staff of Tring FC, for an enjoyable and eventful day...