Bike polo a fast-paced, adrenaline-pumping good time for all skill levels
The first time David Moore showed up to play a game of pickup bike polo he asked whether he could practice first.
"They told me to get in on the next game," he said.
The "welcoming" atmosphere is one thing the 30-year-old graphic designer likes about CU Bike Polo, one of the newest street games to pedal into the twin cities.
"Everybody's welcome to play, no matter your skill level," he said. "Everybody keeps it friendly even when it gets competitive."
The players — most are bicycling enthusiasts in their 20s and 30s — play hardcourt bike polo, a once underground sport that's beginning to surface here and in other cities worldwide.
The CU Bike Polo players meet Wednesday evenings and Saturday afternoons for pickup games on a city of Urbana parking lot tucked away behind an apartment building at Griggs and Central in Urbana.
So what is bike polo? It's a team sport, similar to traditional polo, except players ride bicycles instead of horses.
There are two versions: grass and hardcourt. Interest in the latter took off around 2007.
"Bike polo has been 'invented' dozens of times," reads the intro on the website of the League of Bike Polo, which formed in 2008.
"Whenever and wherever bikes have been popular, cyclists have picked up mallets of one kind or another and hit balls while riding."
The first bike polo on record was played on a traditional field in the 1890s in Ireland. The sport spread; soon bike polo leagues were competing in North America along the Atlantic seaboard.
Then the bicycling culture and bike polo waned after World War I and the rise of the automobile.
The League of Bike Polo traces the origin of the recent surge in hardcourt to bike messengers in Seattle, who began playing with homemade mallets on roofs, parking lots and tennis courts.
Hardcourt is now played in 400-plus cities (and counting) in more than 50 countries, with hundreds of tournaments every year.
Illinois cities with bike polo scenes include Chicago, DeKalb and Decatur. And now C-U.
Moore first saw bike polo played here this past spring at a tournament on Broadway Avenue in Urbana, across from the courthouse.
Neutral Cycle Workshop co-owner Tim Chao and his friend, Grace Kyung, a University of Illinois graduate student in urban planning, organized the event, receiving a permit for the city to close the block.
"I started playing back in April because I joined the bike scene and I saw what it was and got pretty involved, pretty fast," said Kyung, a friendly young woman from Naperville.
"It's a great way of bringing people together. Because the bike polo scene is pretty new no one is at the point where they are afraid to start playing."
So how is it played?
In hardcourt, each team fields three players. They play for 10 minutes a game, or until a team makes five points.
Once a team scores five goals the game automatically ends.
There are other rules. One is when a player's foot or feet fall from their bike pedals and touch the court, the player has to "reset" by touching a designated spot or item, like a parking cone.
"I might have fallen off my bike but no major injuries," Kyung said, echoing the refrain of the other players — so far scrapes and bruises but no serious injuries.
"It's not that dangerous of a sport if you're careful," she continued. "We have the right equipment."
Most of the players wear helmets and many wear face masks and shin guards as well. They use homemade mallets — Chao said when they first started the players cleaned thrift shops out of ski poles to transform for bike polo.
Most say the hardest thing at first is learning how to maneuver your bicycle using just one hand. Most of the polo bicycles are stripped down, with disc brakes and a single gear.
"You don't need a $1,000 bike," Chao said. "It's almost better to have a beat-up bike.
"It's all maneuvering. You're in a confined space. The more you are familiar with your bike and the more you're not afraid to fall, the easier it is."
James Roedl, who's played for a year and a half, calls the game exciting.
"You get like a laser focus on everything, especially when you have a good team," he said. "It forces you to rely on your teammates for drops and passes."
After a while, he said, players zoom in on their teammates' voices to discern where the ball is going.
"Straight to the left, under the bike," he gave as an example of a direction a teammate might give.
Other players also describe the adrenalin rush that comes with playing bike polo.
And all of them mention the inclusivity.
"They're always encouraging new people to play," Chao said. "So there will be bikes available for newcomers. We always teach them."
Chao often mentions community building as part of his and the local bike culture's efforts. Toward that end, Mukhtar Kojo "M.K." Ali, who owns LifeCykle, a cooperative bicycle shop in north Champaign, was invited to the CU Bike Polo games and tailgate Wednesday evening.
Ali has not yet played bike polo. But he liked what he saw as he photographed and videotaped the competition.
Now he would like to put together a bike polo team for youths in the north end. One of his goals with LifeCykle is to show them options.
"Bicycles give people the ability to explore," Ali said. "I'm trying to get people to ride them, to get people into the community and out of the community."
In turn, Chao said the players hope to see more new faces this fall on the hardcourt, as well as another tournament here and eventually a permanent court, somewhere in Champaign or Urbana.
They hope to persuade city officials and others of the spiritual and health benefits of bike polo.
To help they might enlist Debbie McCoy, activities coordinator at the Stevick Senior Citizen Center in Champaign.
She lives in the apartment building next to CU Bike Polo hardcourt. While grilling out, she and her friends watch the players arrive and play — they're always preceded by a bicyclist who brings the equipment including the wide white goal nets in a pedicab, owned by Neutral Cycle.
"There's never been a problem with it," McCoy said as she watched the games earlier this month. "They're really good about keeping the ball in the court. They often take breaks and they hydrate a lot. They drink Gatorade and water. You don't see alcohol over there."
CU Bike Polo
— Pickup games at 7 p.m. Wednesdays and 4 p.m. Saturdays. The games usually continue until past sunset.
— Court location is near the corner of North Central Avenue and West Griggs Street, Urbana. Map here: bit.ly/1lA9z0N
— Facebook: CU Bike Polo
— Google group: Those interested in playing may join bit.ly/1lAa6Qw