There was a time when skateboarding didn’t just stand for cool, it was cool, back before Tony Hawk made a million dollars and Bart Simpson made a billion.  Sports have their underground glory days when heads get bust, when communities are small enough to be cohesive, equipment is cobbled together and rules are fast and loose. 

 

The second annual London Bike Film Festival’s Bike Polo Tournament played out today, despite a hell of high-water.  Tournament organizer John Hudson was full of enthusiasm: “It’s going to be a great day, we’ve got 22 teams down to play, although they probably won’t all come now.”

 

Put simply, urban bike polo is played on a concrete or asphalt court (usually tennis or basketball) in a fenced in area with cones placed at either end for goals.  Two teams of three score by hitting a hockey ball through the opponents goal with their (usually home-made) mallets.  Contact is like-for-like, mallets can touch mallets, bikes clash with bikes, and people with people – which makes for a very physical game, with the bikes usually taking most of the punishment.  If a player’s feet touch the ground they have to tap their mallet at a designated spot court-side.  There is a referee but he’s usually not paying attention so players keep an eye on themselves and each other. 

 

Tomastito plays for the ‘Mallet of Cocktail’ team, he said: “To start a game you put the ball in the middle, the teams start in their semi-circles, shout 3, 2, 1 and then charge for the ball.  Which is fine when it’s two right handed players, but at the last tournament we had a leftie and a right handed player going for it and there was a nasty head on collision and one guy fractured his skull.”

 

 

 

A lot of the sport’s early adopters were cycle couriers, hence the courier’s cut-off handlebars, a customization that enables them to squeeze through tight traffic, but reduces stability.  

 

The scene has a charming DIY mentality: any rider can ride any bike and wield any mallet.  Serious players usually ride racing bikes with fixed gears, meaning they have only one gear combination.  The wheels only move when the pedals move, so riders apply the brakes by stopping the pedals, often locking the back wheels in a controlled skid.   

 

“It’s all homemade,” Thomastito said: “The mallets are made from ski poles or golf clubs with water or electrical piping for heads, and the disk wheels are old estate agents signs – they stop your spokes from getting messed up.”

 

Today’s tournament took place at the Three Corner’s Park in Clerkenwell.  22 teams were down to play, mostly from London and across England, although returning stars “The Fabulous French F***ers” from Paris remain a dominant force. 

 

“Each time we have a tournament,” Tomastito said, “More teams show up out of the woodwork.  They’ve been active on the message boards and then they just show up one day.” 

 

Thomastito plays at Brick Lane every Sunday: “It’s a really social game there, anyone can come and you all put your mallets in, six are chosen and away you go.” 

 

John Hudson said: “The London leagues are only just kicking off locally.” 

 

 

Bike Polo was an exhibition event at the 1908 Olympics, but declined in popularity during the second world war.  It’s very recent surge in popularity, notably the urban “hardcourt” variety (as opposed to the field variety), has led to excitement at the sport’s potential professionalization, but also dread at it’s standardization and possible corporatization. 

 

The London Fixed Gear and Single Speed website www.londonfgss.com provides an online gateway to fixed gear cycling, with blogs and message boards about the bikes and bike polo.   

 

One of the most contentious issues under discussion is the sport’s impending standardization.  Many don’t want to see their sport lose it’s alternative edge, the freedom of casually arranged leagues and tournaments, of home-made equipment and an ethos that welcomes newcomers no matter what their skill level.   

 

Mike (Tramps Paradise) posted: “If you push for hardcourt to become a ‘proper’ sport and it gets in the hands of Nike and co., raped and pillaged for all it’s worth you lose the DIY community aspect a’la skateboarding and it will become about as interesting to watch (and play) as doubles table tennis. 

 

“[There are] two positive things to gain. Financial abilities such as sponsors, paid players, managers, owners, etc etc. And a big party which is f***ing selfish to risk ruining something for the sake of instant gratification of a few out of many.”

 

 

 In response Skoota posted: “Really we’re talking about trying to get a sport we like into the Olympic games. Can you imagine that? Here in London in four years time seeing people that we have met and supporting teams full of people we know, for an Olympic medal!”

 

Bike polo is still a tiny sport, with perhaps a few hundred devotees in London, but it’s becoming more popular, notably in France, Germany, America and Canada.  For now at least it is what it is – a vibrant and open community of customizers, bloggers, organizers and riders.

 

 Find out more about bike polo in London at: http://londonbikepolo.wordpress.com.

 

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