In the suburbs, where I live, cycling is a distance sport. Packs of riders, often neatly turned out in matching team jerseys, whiz silently along winding roads, across a landscape that grows ever more green this time of year. Shortly after dawn on a weekend morning there can be 100 or more in a group, a homegrown peloton that meanders mile upon mile as it leaves civilization behind.

In the city, riders are just as serious about their cycling. But at one location, the feel is entirely different.

Hardcourt bike polo is like pickup basketball on wheels. In the District of Columbia, it is played on an asphalt rink sandwiched between an elementary schoolyard and a pickup basketball court. Three-on-three teams go at it hard (five goals wins) before the losers retire to the sideline to schmooze and smoke with other players waiting their turn.

There are no smooth Pearl Izumis here. Many of the men and women under these lights on a warm spring evening could be mistaken for bike messengers; a couple are bike messengers. Tattoos and piercings abound. Trash talk is encouraged. Road rash is inevitable.

“There aren’t exactly a lot of team sports on bikes,” says Eric Ransom, a 27-year-old federal government attorney who helps organize the twice-weekly games. “A lot of people are interested in hockey and interested in team sports. What we have in common in this group is being fairly serious bike riders.”

The allure, he says, is to play “a team sport and … a sport that has physical contact: bike on bike, body on body, mallet on mallet.”

Martin Lechleitner, who recently moved here from Germany to take a job with a political foundation associated with the Green Party, told me he needed to find only three things when he arrived: his job, an apartment and a bike polo game.

Riding fixed-gear or low-gear bikes, one hand on the handlebars, the other holding a homemade mallet, players chase a street hockey ball around a rink about the size of a basketball court – sprinting, stopping, starting and mixing it up in the corners, in a game that crosses polo and street hockey. The mallets are constructed from a short length of high-density gas pipe or industrial plumbing plastic bolted to an old ski pole. The low boards around the rink are also homemade. Each goal is defined by a pair of traffic cones. Most riders have installed spoke covers to deflect hard shots.

Almost everyone wears a helmet, and some wear knee and elbow pads, because collisions and falls are frequent, though the night ends with all collarbones intact. There are surprisingly few rules: no T-boning, give a competitor a fair line to the ball, no hard contact with new players. No quarter is given to women, who don’t want it anyway.

The game emphasizes control, maneuverability and technique over speed, as I quickly found out when I took the court on a borrowed bike for one game. Even with the other team taking it easy on me and with my teammates feeding me the ball, I was utterly worthless. It was almost impossible to balance the bike, put the mallet on the ball and avoid other cyclists at the same time. Actually, it was nearly impossible to simply put the mallet on the ball. Ransom says it would take about six weeks to achieve minimal competence.

While the other five players held their bikes still as they battled for the ball or blocked the goal, I never could figure out how to accomplish that, even by leaning on the mallet. I kept putting my foot down, a violation that meant I had to quickly pedal to midcourt and touch the side wall before I could resume playing.

I crashed a few times, though it was nothing serious, and worked up a decent sweat in 10 or 15 minutes of start-and-stop pedaling.

There is some evidence that polo was played on bicycles and a grass court more than 100 years ago. But the current incarnation is generally credited to a band of Seattle cyclists, many of them messengers, who started playing and compiling rules about 10 years ago.

Now bike polo is played in cities across the United States, Canada and Europe. There are North American, European and world championship tournaments. According to some of the players at the rink, the D.C. crew has a way to go before it can compete with New York, Philadelphia and Ottawa squads.

Despite its anarchic history, the D.C. group and others across the country are slowly becoming more organized as the game grows and spreads. Mehgan Murphy, a photographer by day, has been appointed D.C.’s first representative to bike polo organizations elsewhere, and she wants to attract more people, especially women, to the Tuesday and Thursday evening games, where about 10 or 15 regulars play. They begin at 6:45 and end when the floodlights over the court automatically click off about three hours later.

“It’s a great, great community of people,” Murphy says. “We’ve traveled so much, and in every city it’s a great group of people.

“You have competitive games on the court, and as soon as you’re done, you’re great friends.”


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