On Tuesday evenings, on a local Corvallis tennis court or under a highway overpass, grown men on bicycles clash and spar and shout in competition.
It’s hardcourt bike polo.
It’s really fun.
One evening in early June, on the basketball court adjacent to the Corvallis skate park, I met Trevor Heald, a lanky and bearded man with a friendly smile. Trevor is a Corvallis bike polo regular; he’s been playing in Corvallis for “three or four years.” He explained the rules to me: Two teams of three players on bikes use mallets to guide, pass, and shoot a street hockey ball into a goal. You can control the ball with either the end or the side of the mallet, but score only by striking it with the end. No putting your foot down for balance. If you put your foot down you must bike to either side of center court and “tap out”—in this case you tapped either a cat litter container that had been converted into a bike pannier or the wooden bike trailer Trevor uses to haul the equipment. At this point in the conversation, Ben Leland, another regular, added that this particular tap-out ritual is “regional, of course.”
Hardcourt bike polo is more pick-up street hockey than traditional horse polo, more Road Warrior melee than Tour de France decorum. As the story goes, bike polo originated in Seattle in the late nineties as bike couriers whiled away the slow workdays. It developed a small but dedicated following among Northwest bike couriers and other urban bike fanatics before spreading across the country and world. There are now multiple continental and world Championship Tournaments held every year.
And yet for all that it remains a scrappy, do-it-yourself (DIY) alternative sport. This was made even more obvious as people trickled in with their polo gear: pieced-together fixed-gear bikes, hand-made spoke covers, floodlights rigged against the basketball hoops with a 100 foot extension cord running to a nearby soda machine. They used mallets made of four-foot-long ski poles ending in half-foot-long sections of ABS sewer pipe. Their bikes sported individualized spoke covers: a Corvallis Energy Challenge sign; a black-and-white hypnotic spiral; a Clash of the Titans-style copper shield.
I asked Trevor what kind of turnout they get.
“We usually get about a dozen, sometimes up to twenty people. They kinda trickle in,” he says, looking around. “You want to play?”
The skill, I quickly realized, lies not so much in one’s ability with the ball and mallet as it does in one’s ability to maneuver a bike in tight spaces: coming to a dead stop and maintaining balance while simultaneously jabbing at the ball; accelerating, spinning, then accelerating again while avoiding five others doing the same; leaning steeply over the handlebars to bat at the ball without going end over the front wheel; falling gracefully, or, if not gracefully, falling without breaking a wrist.
I managed to fall gracefully, which may have been my only redeeming quality on the court. It’s easy to see how this would lead to injury. One of the better players, Sam, who’s been playing bike polo for ten years in Arcata, San Francisco, and Corvallis, spoke of tendinitis and arthritis. Trevor was gimping around on a sprained ankle, an accident I assumed he got on the hardcourt. “No,” he grinned sheepishly. “Trampoline.”
I played a few games, and then sat out, able to appreciate the regulars’ skills all the more. Their ease on their bikes gave them greater control of the ball, which they kept close to their front tire, where it’s easier to maintain control, defend, and push ahead for a shot or pass. They used their long mallets as central pivots for quick spin moves.
Meanwhile, the talk on the sideline alternated between the friendly heckling of the players, comparisons of local burrito joints, and general bike talk. Many of the regulars work or have worked at bike shops; cycling caps and capris abound. But Corvallis bike polo is neither exclusive nor male-dominated: a number of women showed up to play, all the players were welcoming, and there were plenty of bikes and mallets to go around. At one point Trevor convinced some local teenagers in the skate park to come play. Ben, for his part, repeatedly yelled “BIKE POLO!” at people passing by, whose reactions ranged from bemused to intrigued.
As for me, well, I had a blast.