Riders on the Storm
“You smell that? Smells like comeback season!” Zachary Tate wildly chirps on another seemingly endless Alaskan summer night. “Oh yeah? Watch this!” yells Liam McMahon as he slams on the front brake of his one-speed bike, deftly maneuvers a plastic field hockey ball around his front tire and dishes off a pass to a teammate using a makeshift polo stick.
Yep, you read that right. Easily one of the coolest sports you’ve never heard of, bike polo has made its way to Alaska and has been a summer staple at the Ben Boeke outdoor rinks since 2013. The rules are relatively simple. Three plastic polo stick-waving cyclists on a team with the goal of putting as many balls in the other team’s net as possible. The complicated part comes when the players must spin, jump and balance on one wheel just to get a pass off, all while dodging a check. Contact, while not an integral facet of the game, is permissible. If a player’s foot hits the asphalt that player has to go to mid-court and whack the boards with their mallet before returning to play. It’s not uncommon to see some circus-worthy balancing acts from players as they struggle to find equilibrium on two wheels.
“Bike polo requires a lot of skills on the bike and it is also a fringe of a fringe sport. I like it because it uses a lot of stuff that wasn’t intended to be used that way,” explained Henry Coleman of the Anchorage Bike Polo Club.
In the past few years, there have been a few specialty shops popping up in the Lower 48 but the equipment used by hardcourt players is largely DIY. Sticks are fashioned out of old ski poles and outfitted with a large piece of PVC pipe with one open end for scooping up the ball and one closed end for shooting. Rear wheel covers which help players block shots from the opposing team are made out of cardboard and plastic. Headgear consists of everything from old hockey helmets to hair gel, and bikes come in all shapes and sizes. It is a sport that requires a lot of ingenuity from gear construction to how the game is played.
Although the first incarnation of the sport dates back to 1891, the modern reinterpretation of the game known as “hardcourt” did not gain popularity until early 2000 when bike couriers in Seattle were looking to pass time between deliveries. As the old adage goes, idle hands are the devil’s workshop, and so hardcourt was born. Its relative newcomer status means that the game can be played anywhere there is a rectangular plot of asphalt and two nets. Much like streetball in New York, the rules vary from court to court and even coast to coast. It’s the typical nonchalance that leads to adventure.
For the 60 Hawaiian, Australian, Floridian and Pacific-Northwest players that came to Anchorage last weekend for the Fourth Annual Midnight Sunburn Bike Polo Tournament, the adventure was gritting out 80-degree weather in the name of growing the sport.
“We play at night, this is brutal,” remarked Hawaiian John Lucas. “Like, I’m running out of gas halfway through the game,” he huffed in between games. Lucas wasn’t the only feeling the heat, as one Southern Californian player was nearly sent to the hospital with heat exhaustion. Fortunately, heat exhaustion, a few cases of road rash and maybe a couple bruised egos were the only injuries over the weekend.
“Yeah, when you get to a tournament, there is more body contact. You’re definitely allowed to bump into each other, especially in the corners. But here, we all came to have fun. The biggest rule of the weekend is: don’t be a jerk,” said Tacoma-native and hardcourt vet Leon Nettels.
With no referees on hand, the players took matters into their own hands and created the “wheel of justice” to deal with rule disputes. Fashioned out of the front fork of a bicycle, the wheel was expertly adorned with numbered painted triangles. If a player called for a dispute resolution, justice was promptly served with a quick spin. Players from each team would have to race to finish the task associated with their selected number in order for the dispute to go their way. Physical tasks such as arm wrestling, thumb wars and cartwheels were offset with brain teasers like naming four prime numbers greater than seven and spelling your name backwards.
“Anchorage has built up a reputation for being an excellent host, so I think we will continue to see players from all over coming up for the Sunburn,” said Henry Coleman who has watched the sport grow over the past three years. “It can be hard getting people out to play because in Alaska we have such a short season and a lot of our guys do road races in the summer so they can’t make the time to train.”
One player who is hoping the sport will begin to catch on is Rikki Peck who moved to Anchorage a few years ago. As one of only three women playing the sport in Alaska, Peck is optimistic that more women will start joining the bike polo ranks. “It can be an intimidating sport. You show up and people are in armor and you are falling a lot and not seeing other women there, it can be a little tricky to get started,” said Peck. “But our club isn’t like other clubs. The people are really supportive here and I feel really fortunate because we are all friends so it’s nice because we play and we have fun. It’s social and I like that.”
Although Peck was lured into bike polo for fun, she is a serious competitor and has been dubbed as one of the most skilled trash talkers around. According to Liam McMahon, “if you’re talking trash, you’re winning in my book and Rikki is the best in our club. She traveled to a tournament with us in Fresno and she won best heckler of the tournament. She’s shameless!” McMahon should know, he’s often a victim of Peck’s best chirps: “I mean I get distracted playing against cute girls so Rikki keeps me in line,” he chuckled.
Internationally, the game isn’t just lighting quick wit and fun get-togethers. In 2009, the North American Hardcourt Bike Polo Association (NAHBPA) was founded to standardize the game and bring it to the mainstream. The 2016 World Championships were played in Timaru, New Zealand and featured 55 teams from five continents. The championship website boasted 344 matches played on three courts over a six-day tournament. For those athletes looking to compete, bike polo has ample opportunities for both men and women. McMahon and his team the “Meese” just returned from a regional tournament in California, while Peck cut her teeth at an all-women’s tournament in Mexico.
“The best part of bike polo is the people. You can travel all around the world and always have a place to stay. The community is so small you always end up knowing everybody and these people become your friends,” said Peck when asked about her favorite part of bike polo.
Bike polo may be a few years away from any feature in Sports Illustrated but to those who play, it transcends sport and becomes a lifestyle and they are always looking for new members.
“We always have a few bikes and mallets laying around for anyone who wants to try. We started with just a couple guys looking for something to do and now we have almost 20 players and I think we will keep growing. This is a special group of people,” said Coleman as he looked over the group of hardcourt players raucously laughing and dancing in between games Saturday.
After watching the tournament last weekend, there’s a good chance the club will grow by at least one more next summer. I just hope they let me borrow some of that body armor.
You can find out more about the Anchorage Bike Polo Club by visiting their Facebook page Anchorage’s Finest Bike Polo or stop by the Ben Boeke Outdoor arena located at 534 E. 16th Ave. on Tuesdays at 7 p.m.
*Originally published by the Anchorage Press