Sport of dings

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Rumbling and tumbling, squeaking and screeching they come up High Street from Clintonville, the Short North and Olde Towne East to a small roller hockey court just south of Lane Avenue.

Leaving their custom frames chained at home, this pride of bikers convenes atop rotting mountain bikes, stripped-down Wal-Mart schlock and garage-sale kiddy rides with rusted tubes, missing brakes and wheels that wobble perilously on the journey to Campus.

They come to play bike polo - a growing urban sport that works much like its country-club cousin - and bike polo can be dirty business.

"I like that you have to build your own bike. You can't buy a manufactured bike-polo bike," said Zack Baird, a Harrison West resident who's played for about four months. "They have to be destructible. You have to be a craftsman as well as a sportsman."

The sport can be rough, and parking-lot rules are much cruder than the version of bike polo played on grass, a demo sport at the 1908 Olympics.

Teams of two to five bikers attempt to hit a small, plastic ball through a goal using the end of a mallet, usually an old ski pole screwed to a piece of PVC pipe. If your foot touches the ground, you must ride to the center line and tap the wall before returning.

Tackling and punching are prohibited, but light contact with your bike or mallet is allowed. Games are played to five goals.

"Rules are basically set wherever you play," said Peter Brown, a local veteran who often rounds up a weekly game via mass text. "When we played a tournament in Florida, we played by their rules."

Maneuvering with one hand on the bars, another on the mallet is one challenge; dribbling, fending off opponents and controlling speed are others. Gnarly falls are common, and a thousand spokes have been mangled. This reporter once got excited near the goal, clenched his front brake and toppled kidney-first into a shameful, goal-less heap.

A few bumps and bruises haven't stopped bikers in numerous cities from organizing tournaments, including the sixth-annual Midwest Bike Polo Championships May 24 in Dayton. Dedicated players in New York, Portland and Chicago form teams, practice strategies and assemble specialized polo bikes.

In Columbus, though, few polo players invest in $1,000 equipment or put much stock in organization of any kind. Here it survives almost exclusively as a series of friendly pickup games - sometimes on Sunday afternoons and Monday and Wednesday nights, more often when it's warm.

It helps to know a regular player to keep updated on games. But if you're looking to organize your own, the formula's simple: Piece together a mallet and an old bike, text some friends and line up.

"It's an excuse to be outside with friends, riding bikes, exercising and having fun," Brown said. "We're always happy to have people come play. If you show up, we'll get your number for next time."

Getting started

Bike polo is pretty simple. Here's what you need for your first game:

Bikes: That old BMX in your basement is perfect. All it needs are inflated tires, a working brake on your off-hand bar and a decent ride in a low gear. Try fitting cardboard or wire mesh outside your spokes to avoid bum wheels.

Mallets: Wooden croquet mallets will shatter, so use an old ski pole screwed to an eight-inch length of PVC pipe or tough plastic tubing.

Ball: Most players choose a high-density plastic ball, the kind you'd see in a street-hockey game. Get the brightest color you can find. Always bring a spare.

Court: There are two lit street-hockey courts on Campus - one at Lane Avenue and High Street, another on West 11th Avenue and Worthington Street. There's also an unlit court at Tuttle Park. You can use a smooth parking lot, but if it's not enclosed, you'll be chasing loose balls everywhere.