Bike polo team to compete in Chicago tournament

Thursday, August 28, 2008 | 5:34 p.m. CDT
Drew Deubner, a junior at MU reaches with his mallet for a polo ball on the rooftop of Hitt Street Parking garage in Columbia. He and several other friends gather weekly to play bike polo.

COLUMBIA — "Game on!"

This was the cheer Wednesday night after police gave Columbia's bike polo team permission once again to practice in a downtown parking garage.


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The team tangles with police officers when they try to find a place to play. The players often move to a new parking garage after they've been banned from another.

Columbia's bike polo players have no team name, no designated home base and few fans. The team organized in February after a group of cycling friends decided informally to give polo on wheels a shot.

Their passion for the game has driven the team to practice twice a week, building skills that allow them to compete against teams from much bigger cities.

This weekend they will be in Chicago, participating in the 13th annual North American Cycle Courier Championship bike polo tournament. They will compete against players from Madison, Wis.; Boston; Chicago and New York. Games will take place on tennis courts in Garfield Park.

The bicycle has redefined polo as an old sport with a new purpose. It is no longer about pressed uniforms and manicured horse manes.

"It's glorified street hockey on bikes," said Drew Deubner, a member of Columbia's bike polo team.

Unlike traditional polo where riders on horses gallop across grassy fields, bike polo is played on an asphalt surface, often with PVC pipe as goals.

Columbia's team relies on homemade equipment — mallets made from old ski poles found at garage sales and wheel protectors fashioned out of Shakespeare's pizza boxes. Players ride everything from hybrids to fixed-gear bikes.

"It's a backyard-sport-kind-of-a-thing," Deubner said. "It's really DIY ... Our bikes are pretty much hand-crafted by ourselves."

Bike polo dates back to the early 1900s and was even a demonstration sport in the 1908 Olympics in London. Today's urban version was reinvented in Seattle with a do-it-yourself mentality that thumbs its nose at the elite nature of traditional polo.

In bike polo, players hit a ball into the goal with their mallets. Typically, the playing field is an outdoor roller hockey rink or a tennis court.

Three members make up each team. At the start of the game, the cyclists take positions on their own goal line, mallets in hand. The ball lies in the center of the court.

At "3...2...1...POLO," the players charge toward the ball and the game begins.

"It's equivocal to horse polo in a sense because you're playing with mallets," Deubner said. "But if you get into an accident in regular horse polo, you will have a half-ton animal on top of you.

"With bike polo, you have a 10-pound bike on top of you."

Bikers are required to keep both feet on the pedals. If a foot hits the ground, the player must cycle to center court and touch his mallet to the ground before returning to the game.

There are no officials, so players referee themselves.

"It all seems very self-enforcing," Christopher Williams said, a cyclist for Columbia's bike polo team. "It's kind of an honor system ... and about having fun, not necessarily getting really competitive or butting heads over rules."

Bike polo attracts cyclists who want more than to just ride solo. Columbia's team has a handful of members, including both college students and young professionals. Most are men, but a few women have come to the practices.

Deubner often compares his team to the one in "The Mighty Ducks," a 1992 film about a ragtag ice hockey club from Minnesota that rises from underdogs to champions.

"It's the first pop-culture reference that popped into my head. I think it's pretty fitting," he said.

"It's more empowering than having a car - having a bike and knowing how to fix it yourself and doing anything you want."

Ben Schultz said, the coordinator of Chicago Bike Polo and this weekend's tournament.

"Bike polo is my favorite game," he said. "It's a really beautiful game when it's played well."

While there are prizes at the tournament, Schultz said they aren't the real incentive.

"If there were no prizes offered, I seriously doubt that we would have a huge drop in attendance," he said.

"They come out for respect, they come out to win. That's the drive right now, and that's how it should be."



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