By Judith Stiles
Passing by the corner of Chrystie and Broome Sts., one could easily miss the hottest new sporting event in town. That’s because the arena is tucked below ground level in a funky, 7,000-square-foot asphalt pit. Here a bunch of daredevils in jeans and scruffy shirts play a lively game of polo on bicycles, as they circle and glide back and forth at a mesmerizing pace.
Each gripping a mallet with one hand and maneuvering the bike with the other, these athletes skillfully pass and control a street hockey ball in a balancing act that would send most cyclists crashing to the ground.
With this no-frills brand of polo, there is no need for the niceties of equestrian etiquette. These city renegades have custom-built bikes that are perfectly suited to the rider, rather than the horseman having to adapt to a horse with a mind of its own.
Although bike polo was a demonstration sport at the 1908 Olympics, it is only in the last decade that tournaments and teams have sprung up in major cities such as Philadelphia, Boston, Seattle, Chicago, Ottawa, London and Berlin.
In New York City, the seeds of a rapidly growing underground bike culture were planted by bike messengers in the 1970s, and this sprouted a group of men and women who convene every week to play polo in the “The Pit” at Sara D. Roosevelt Park.
The games have a few simple rules, which is in keeping with their East Village “show up and play if you feel like it” philosophy. There are three players to a side and the first team to score five goals wins. The flow of the game is similar to street and ice hockey, which allows the players to circle behind the net or, in this case, two orange cones set up as goalposts. If two players are tangling for the ball, whacking mallets is allowed.
“Touch ground,” or a foot on the pavement, results in the player having to ride to the sidelines before joining the game again. A goal only counts if it is from a “hit” off the end of a player’s mallet, not a “shuffle,” which is coaxing the ball along with the broad side of the mallet.
On an afternoon of multiple games and revolving players, a quick random pick of teams is made between games when the players toss their mallets into the middle of the court. The owners of the three that land closest together on one side of the court become teammates.
“It doesn’t matter much what team I’m on,” said Doug Dalrymple, who plays even when they have to shovel snow to the sidelines. “With a good player like Zack, well, I’m happy to be with him or against him, because that makes for a good game and just as much fun.”
The weekly pickup games are largely self-regulated. But there are referees for tournaments, such as the Cycle Messenger World Championships XVI polo matches that will be held in Toronto in June. Tournaments can become very competitive with “heaters,” which are rocket slap shots, according to Corey Hilliard, who sees himself as more of a defender in the crossfire of heaters.
“I wear glasses, shin guards and a helmet because I often position myself as a goalie,” he said. “The only time I didn’t wear shin guards, well, you could hear me yell all over the neighborhood because someone blasted a hard shot right into my shin.”
As the games begin, it is a majestic sight to behold when the players line up in a row on their steely steeds, facing their opponents at opposite ends of the court. Like a cavalry ready for battle, they shout “3-2-1 Go!” and charge a ball in the center. As the match progresses, there are no soccer-like moments of standing still while waiting for a pass, because of the “touch ground” rule. Instead, the players weave around in circles as they stealthily cruise the court, ready at any moment to charge the ball with a burst of speed.
This is usually followed by accurate passing and a shot on goal. When a goal is scored there is no restart or face-off in the middle, which makes for a beautiful continuous flow to the game.
Even with international tournaments becoming part of the bike culture, the competitions are relatively unspoiled by sponsors and prize money. In spite of the neighborhood’s gentrification, the mavericks who play bike polo on the Lower East Side still live and play by their own rules. Along with a handful of fans and a few songbirds from the nearby Wah Mei Bird Garden, anyone is welcome to watch the games on Sundays for free. This sporting event has no plugs for products and no tiresome television commercials, making it a welcome alternative to Super Bowl Sunday.