One cold night in early March, a few hardy souls mounted their steeds with mallets in hand and gathered on a tennis court near downtown Spokane to play some polo.
It was to be the first official match of the Spokane Bicycle Polo Club.
Four players from the Pullman/Moscow Bike Polo Club, formed just a few months earlier, drove up to join in after hearing about the milestone on Craigslist. Kyle Howerton, 22, was among them.
“We were really excited to play new people, but when we got there it was dark,” Howerton said. “There was this old tennis court with a huge sinkhole in the middle and no lights. At first we were bummed, but we all had a blast.”
That was just what Maria Pringle and Will Trimble, both in their early 20s, had in mind when they co-founded SBPC. “From the beginning, our biggest hope was that it would evolve into a community event and bring people together,” Pringle said.
Trimble said the club came about when he was laid off from his job as a waiter and grew bored sitting around the house.
“I saw an Internet video where they were playing polo with bikes on grass. It looked like fun, and I thought about how we could modify it,” he said.
Bike polo enthusiasts say their sport goes way back in time. A French organization, Polo-Velo.net, claims the original cycle polo emerged in the late 1800s when an Irishman thought it up as a way to play the “sport of kings” without costly horses. Other groups, including the American Bicycle Polo Association, say that after a demonstration match at the 1908 Olympics, the sport spread across the globe, reaching the height of its popularity in 1930s Europe before coming to the United States in the 1980s.
After some research, Pringle and Trimble decided to try an urban, “hardcourt” style of bike polo. In this less standardized, do-it-yourself version, two teams of three bicyclists each use mallets to smack a small ball into a goal on any hard, level surface.
Modern hardcourt polo got its start about 10 years ago among Seattle’s bike messengers. Matt Messenger, 38, heads the 206 Bike Polo Club in Seattle. An occasional player since 1998, Messenger got serious about the sport after a friend gave him a couple of homemade mallets before shipping out with the Coast Guard in 2001.
“It’s huge now,” said Messenger, who traces the roots of the resurgence to the 2003 Cycle Messenger World Championships in Seattle. “On the last night of the competition we held a bike polo demonstration in an uneven parking lot. Now there are hundreds of people playing in cities all over the world – it just blew up.”
There have been regular competitions in the United States and Europe as well as sporadic tournaments in locales as far-flung as China, although the sport so far remains under the radar of most corporate sponsorship. Its practitioners seem to like it that way.
“No big industries have poked their heads into this yet,” Messenger said.
Seattle will host the first official North American Hardcourt Bicycle Championship in August. It’s expected to draw 40 teams from across the nation.
For now, Trimble said SBPC won’t be among them. “We aren’t quite ready for that level of competition,” he said. “Right now it’s just about having fun.”
Since that first match, the club has created a blog and gathered a loyal core for weekly matches in Peaceful Valley.
The group ranges from six to 16 people, and there’s no need for a referee. Pringle said good sportsmanship is the norm and the rules are fairly simple: Mallet in right hand, handlebar in left, if your foot touches the ground you must ride to the side of the court and touch a post before resuming play.
Trimble said after a steep learning curve they quickly figured out what equipment to use and how to best adapt the game to fit their needs. Croquet mallets were too heavy, so he fashioned mallets from ski poles and sections of heavy PVC pipe – a suggestion of the Pullman/Moscow team.
While some clubs play a lightning-fast game on six-speed bikes with no brakes, Pringle said the Spokane group chooses to take it a little easier, with brakes in place and fewer body checks. Accidents still happen, however, including scrapes and bruises suffered by others, and Pringle’s own broken nose a few months back.
“All’s well if you walk away from it,” she said.
Pringle’s mash-up didn’t muzzle her love for the game, and she’s committed to helping the club grow.
“I hope we get the word out and keep on building,” she said. “Things like this are good for the community because anyone can do it; you don’t have to be good to play.”
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