Polo is for posh people. You need to buy a horse for a start, which is why the sport is usually played by princes or the offspring of oil tycoons. Bike polo, however, is open to anyone ‘that can ride a bike and see’, according to the owner of Natooke bike shop, Ines Brunn, who runs the sessions. ‘Bikes are better than animals anyway,’ she says. ‘You don’t have to feed them, they don’t get tired and they don’t s**t all over the place.’
Dating back to 19th-century colonial India, bicycle polo saw a modern revival in ’90s Seattle when bored bike couriers began playing to fill time between deliveries. Jacob Klink, a bike fanatic from Albuquerque, introduced the sport to Brunn’s nascent group of cyclists in 2007. The sport is played by two teams of three on a court roughly 20 metres by 30 metres; the aim is to hit a small, hard ball with a long mallet through a pair of goalposts.
Belying the sport’s genteel heritage, the games tend to be fairly rough-and tumble; bike polo is definitely not for the faint of heart. Players accelerate rapidly on bikes modified to be as fast as possible, racing from end to end at break-neck speed. There’s a healthy dose of contact.
Brunn shrugs off the danger, however. ‘We don’t really get any broken bones or anything like that, but we’re playing on asphalt so you do get a bit of road rash [a fall on concrete that strips off the top layer of skin].’ Painful as that sounds, the risk of injury doesn’t seem to deter people. Players practise without helmets, but Brunn assures us that proper head protection is mandatory for competitions.
Eager to try the sport for ourselves, we join Brunn for one of her weekly Sunday sessions at the Workers’ Stadium west gate and are sent straight to the sidelines to practise with the mallet and ball. As the other players zoom around the court, their grace and finesse is accentuated against our clumsy and uncoordinated swings (made all the more pathetic by the fact that we haven’t even mounted a bike yet). Like a golfer after a few too many at the clubhouse, we miss wildly. On the occasions we do connect mallet with ball, we must immediately give chase, running down the errant plastic sphere as it does its very best to elude us.
Eventually, we graduate to the saddle. A friendly American was kind enough – and a bit foolish, as well – to lend us his gorgeous, gleaming fixedgear bike. We shakily make a few laps of the court with one hand behind our back to practise manoeuvring solely with the other. Later, adding a mallet and ball to the mix makes it all feel like some kind of circus skit. We focus considerable mental and physical effort on keeping the ball a few paces ahead with sustained tapping.
Even with our tenuous grasp on dribbling, turning and shooting remain a challenge. Our assault on the goalposts is an abject failure; the ball goes embarrassingly wide and almost hits the stereo speakers blaring French electro.
But bike polo master isn’t as elusive as our bumbling first try might suggest. A chat with a fellow player revealed him to be as green as us – or thereabouts. After only three weeks of practice, he was hanging with the veterans. Natooke even provides an extra bike so those without can get involved. Where there’s a wheel, there’s a way.
We’re hardly ready for the big leagues just yet, but the sport, as it stands, is only so competitive. There is no China-wide bike polo tournament, but Brunn has hopes to start a league as bike polo grows in different cities. ‘Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu have multiple teams,’ Brunn explains. ‘There’s a big bike polo community in Taiwan and it’s recently started in Hong Kong.’
But is the sport really growing so rapidly? We have our suspicions. Of the ten or so players gathered here, all but two are expats. Asked why bike polo doesn’t seem to have caught on in a big way with the Chinese, Brunn points to the decline of cycling in the country on a whole. ‘China used to be the bicycle kingdom, but now many people see the bicycle as something for poor people.’
Brunn also notes that bike polo requires a sturdy bike made from high-quality materials to cope with the stress of collisions. Many people who buy an expensive bike don’t want to get it all dinged up, no matter how fun acquiring those dings might be.
The fun isn’t just in the sport itself, however. There’s beer, as well. ‘In Shanghai they always drink when they play. We wait until after ward,’ adds Brunn. It makes us think: why not both? That would be the YOLO approach to polo, after all.
Natooke Bike Polo meets every Sunday at the Workers’ Gymnasium west gate.