I first stumbled upon the enigmatic game that is bike polo on Vimeo about 18 months ago. It seemed fascinating at the time, a strange mix of both skill and brutality, but despite being invited to come down to a local game to check it out I promptly forgot all about it. Until this morning, that is, when a message on Facebook drew my attention to the 2014 Australasian Hardcourt Bike Polo Championships being held at Tempe Reserve in Sydney this weekend. Given the sun was out and I was already looking for something to entertain the kids anyway, what better excuse to get courtside, take a few photos and soak up the atmosphere?
Within moments of arriving at the venue, directly under the flight path of Sydney’s busy Mascot airport, it was clear there’s a certain grunginess about the bike polo scene. Tattoos and skulls and long hair abound. And apart from their tell-tale chainrings – in most cases barely bigger than the rear sprocket – every bike is unique, plastered with stickers and spoke covers and mismatching wheels. It’s not exactly an extreme sport in that Red Bull death-defying adrenaline type of way, but there’s certainly an infectious buzz of authenticity about this two-wheeled caper.
Coming from the conservativeness of road cycling, where leg shaving abounds and at many events you can’t even take part unless you have the right club kit, there was a type of raw acceptance everywhere which was hugely appealing. To quote Nirvana, come as you are. Even the very best teams compete with an eclectic array of bikes and mismatched kit. And no one could care less.
Like any new sport, it’s always a good idea to learn the rules so you have some idea of what the hell is going on. The good news for us was the rules of bike polo are pretty simple. There aren’t that many. As a beer-swilling kiwi standing beside us gladly revealed, you just ride your bike hard, show no mercy and get the ball into the other team’s goal pretty much anyway you can. Oh, and when you fall off you just get back on. Don’t expect much sympathy.
The bitumen courts themselves seemed similar in size and configuration to an ice hockey rink, complete with plywood barriers (braced by what seemed a small warehouse’s worth of of timber palettes) around the perimeter to slam either ball or opponent into at your leisure. There are two sides of three riders each. Twelve minute matches with no breaks. But should one team reach five goals, regardless of how long is left in the match, that’s it. Game over.
Oh, and no matter how violent it may seem, every match ends the same way. With hugs between the combatants; as awesome to see as it was unexpected.
In the time we spent court side, mingling amongst a surprisingly healthy crowd of sweaty bodies, beer drinking fans and the largest sea of single-gear road bicycles I’ve ever seen, we managed to watch three games which I can best describe as a two-wheeled hybrid of ice hockey and roller derby. The first two matches were somewhat consolation-type affairs of high bravery but moderate skill. They turned out to be little more than appetisers for the main course – one of the tournament semi finals between two fired-up teams about whose identities I still have no clue. From the opening exchange the pace of this match was frenetic. The bike handling skills were seriously impressive; hopping, spinning and sliding everywhere. There were crashes galore, both into fellow riders and the bitumen. Heaps of hooting and hollering from the boisterous and well-lubricated crowd. And after going behind to an early goal, the blue team surged home to win 2-1 (whoever they are). The crowd loved it. My kids loved it. And I loved it too. If you ever get the chance to see bike polo for yourself, make sure you do.