COLUMBIA — When Tim Donahoe was growing up, he considered himself to be a part of what he called the “punk rock and hardcore scene.” Years later, he is part of a new subculture: bike polo.
“You go to these tournaments and you’re fighting tooth and nail against these guys on the court. Off the court, you’re best friends. You go out drinking with them and hang out and get into all kinds of shenanigans in whatever city you’re in.”
Donahoe was at the outdoor roller hockey rink Wednesday at Cosmopolitan Park, wearing a red and black-striped shirt, tight-fitting black jeans cut off below the knee and sporting a thick mustache and several tattoos. He is a member of COMOPOLO, an informal club with 12 to 15 regular members that gathers at the rink twice a week to play pickup games of bicycle polo.
Several members of the club periodically travel to competitive tournaments, where they compete in teams of three. Christian Losciale, an employee of Sparky’s Ice Cream, began playing the sport in March. He said the obscurity of the sport creates an instant bond between competitors.
“The community is incredible,” he said. “Traveling you just meet these people and immediately you’re friends. You have this thing in common that’s bizarre to some people but is just so regular and fun to everybody at the tournaments.”
The COMOPOLO community communicates through a message board on its website between game days. There, members of the group arrange games, plan travel to tournaments, work on promoting the club and chat about the sport. There is even an "Off Topic" section on the forum, under which the question "There's life outside polo?" is sarcastically raised.
Members of the group, who often modify bicycles to meet their own preferences, also use the message boards to trade and sell parts. Recently, user "Air in Hand" informed the club that he has a surplus of ski poles, which players use for the shafts of mallets. The mallet ends are shortened pieces of gas pipe.
"I keep running into good deals on ski poles so i cant help but buy them," the post reads. "So yeah, i have 7 ski poles now haha let me know if anyone needs one!"
The Wednesday night pickup session was split up into loosely timed 12-minute games, which include two teams of three players. While six players are out on the court, the rest of the group sits on bleachers and benches, where several players take sips from beer cans, some in brown paper bags, and one from a metal flask. The more attentive members of the group provide commentary on the action.
A midcourt collision that sent two players to the concrete garnered a collective “Ooooh” from the spectators. “Wipeouts” and “spills” are a regular part of bike polo, which Charlie Hill, who had a scar below his bottom lip, said he considers a contact sport.
“It’s definitely dangerous,” Hill said. “But this lip is probably the worst injury I’ve had. A guy hit me with a mallet, and my tooth went right through it (the lip). Actually, I also cracked a rib, and I kind of have some chronic shoulder pain.”
Despite the risks, Losciale said aggression is an important part of the game, and toughness is part of the sport’s culture.
“I think it’s meant to be played physically,” he said. “You’re supposed to get in people’s faces. A lot of people hop on the court and don’t get that. I’m still learning it, everyone is.”
When asked about the physicality of the game, several players recalled an incident from a pickup game a few weeks ago where a player’s chain snapped and he went flying over his handlebars. He fractured his wrist and a few days later, he posted a graphic picture of the injury online for the whole club to see.
“GOOD JOB VINCE, SUPER EPIC INJURY. Way to outdo my mad dog 20/20 thumb dislocation,” a user named “BoozeKruse” posted about the photo.
Hill said the bike polo community in Columbia has come a long way in the past few years.
“We went from six people riding commuting bikes to 15 people with polo bikes," Hill said. "They're dropping money on bikes just for polo, as well as competing and becoming really good at it and into it.”