Bike polo—or, to be precise, the streetwise variant known hardcourt bike polo—is easily one of the coolest underground sports stories right now. From its extremely humble origins among a few bike couriers and assorted fellow travelers, this rambunctious child of cycling culture has rapidly become a full-fledged international sport, with clubs all over the world and an emerging calendar of major tournaments. At the same time, the sport hangs on to its DIY nonchalance and its grassroots verve. And, as you can see here, the action can be intense.
In sports-evolution terms, polo is moving at warp speed. In my new book on independent sports, I observed that the scrappy bike polo scene I found during my research looked like “traveling back in time to the 1840s, before sports standardized and rationalized.” But that dates me a couple years already. Since then, polo’s big tournaments have made radical strides in size, scope, and polish, and now attract inter-city (and international) “superteams.” Footage from a major polo-world event, like this year’s Greif Masters in Germany, now looks just about as good as footage from any sporting event.
This weekend, the bike polo world goes into serious overdrive, as the North American and European championship tournaments unfold simultaneously in Madison, Wisconsin, and Geneva, Switzerland. While these continental tourneys serve as a mere prelude to August’s World Championships in Berlin, the synchronicity marks a good time to learn what’s it's all about.
I caught up with North American organizers Jonny Hunter and Kevin Walsh, who runs League of Bike Polo, the pivotal North American polo website.
GOOD: Give me an idea of the Madison tournament’s scope and a competition preview.
Kevin Walsh: We’re going to have 68 teams, with players from something like 44 different cities, playing three to a team. There are about a dozen teams that everyone would probably describe as being pretty good, and about four or five serious podium contenders. There’s a team that includes one guy from New York, one guy from Philly, and one guy from Richmond, and they will be very strong. Smile, a team from Seattle, won both the North American and World tournaments last year, and they’ll be back. A team from Milwaukee will be strong.
Jonny Hunter: I think a couple of things are worth noting about the Madison tournament: First, this will be the largest hardcourt bike polo tournament in history. Second, it will probably—almost definitely—be the last tournament of its kind, the last one where any team from anywhere can register, show up and play. In the future, there will be qualifiers for all continental tournaments, and probably for the regional tournaments as well.
JH: Because there are such different tiers of quality, and players who are at the top tier don’t want to play tier-three teams anymore. And at the same time, tier-three teams don’t want to get beaten 18-0 any more. That doesn’t make any sense.
G: How stable are these high-quality teams? Are you seeing dynasties?
KW: Teams switch around a lot, and I think we’re seeing a little more of that. People who have chemistry want to play together, so you’re starting to see these super-teams of players from different cities coming together for major tournaments.
JH: There was a whole generation of top-tier teams that all got knocked off in the last year or two. So that’s why you’re seeing all these players shifting around. I think what will happen is, top players will hook up to form teams that will last for six months or a year, and then shift around again.
KW: At same time, the most recent major tournament, in New York, from the quarterfinals on the quality of play was out of control. And there was only one so-called “super-team” there—the rest were teams of players from one city. But I think, in general, we still have a huge curve of talent. And I think that’s a good thing, because it means there’s a long future of growth in the sport. We see the best teams evolving and getting better, but we also see new teams coming in and learning very quickly.
G: Let’s talk about the growth. Kevin, you register new city clubs on League of Bike Polo. What are you seeing?
JH: We had 48 teams playing in the Midwest Championships, 48 teams playing in the Eastern Championships. Internationally, you’re starting to see teams in Latin America—Santiago has a club, Buenos Aires has a club, there’s bike polo in Colombia now. That’s really exciting, because it means you can go anywhere and play. And, obviously, it’s exciting for the future of the competitive game.
G: How will the Madison tournament compare to the European Championships in Geneva?
KW: I think the European tournament will be more balanced, because they actually had city playoffs to determine who was eligible, and they shaved it down to 48 teams. The weakest teams have already been eliminated. But overall, North American teams are still better, and I think will do better at the Worlds. They need to come over here more. We need to go over there more. I guess the tournament in Berlin will redress that a little bit.
G: It seems to me that bike polo is somewhere on the path that leads, if not to professional teams, then at least to tournaments that guarantee that the best players are playing.
KW: That’s kind of something that will have to emerge out of the future. The winners of this tournament get their plane tickets to Berlin covered, but that’s about it—and that’s just three players of the 55 or so North American players who are going. People are still on the hook for their own expenses. There’s still no money involved, so the atmosphere around the game is pretty much the same as it’s ever been.
G: Have these larger tournaments standardized the game at all? When I started researching polo, different cities were using different rules.
KW: We’ve had a lot of institutional change—we’re experimenting with ways to make our refereeing more consistent. At the same time, we recognize that there needs to be an openness that allows people to experiment. There were some different rules used at the New York tournament that everyone seemed to like. We need to let stuff like that happen.
G: So where do you see the sport going?
JH: Well, there are definitely some barriers. One is, the equipment needs are very individual and specific. The mechanic at your local bike shop isn’t going to know how to work on a polo bike. There have been a couple of bikes manufactured specifically for bike polo—the Fleet Velo Joust and Milwaukee Bike’s Bruiser—but the sales, so far, are low. So I don’t see it becoming commercialized.
On the other hand, we have a major sponsor involved in this tournament, Trek, and that has been fantastic. We have an organizing body now, and I think that within the community we have enough organizing talent and potential to steer the sport in the direction we, as players and fans, want it to go.
G: And I understand that you guys are both playing in the tournament—on the same team, even. What are you hoping for?
KW: We were sixth in Worlds last year. I’ll be upset if we’re not in the top 10. But I’m definitely not expecting to win this one.