Polo on Wheels

Some people play polo on a horse. Some play it in the water. Some even climb onto an elephant for a match. Now, a two-wheeled version of the sport is catching on, in places like a park in Washington, D.C.

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Some people play polo on a horse. Oh, I think most do. Actually, some play it in the water; some even climb onto an elephant for a match. Now, there's a two-wheel version of the sport that's catching on.

Reporter Jocelyn Frank recently spent a cricket-filled evening watching bike polo at a park in Washington, D.C.

JOCELYN FRANK: He's known as Tink. David Sachs may have the nickname of a sweet and innocent fairy, but get him out a park and it's a whole different story.

Mr. DAVID SACHS (Bicycle Polo Player): I'm not going to say that I'm not going to play dirty because I will.

FRANK: This neighborhood of Southeast D.C. is known for being a bit rough around the edges. The park's floodlights function erratically. In one dark corner, there's a shadowy jungle gym complete with a few shadowy people sitting near the swings and slides.

Not far is the tall fencing of a former tennis court transformed into a roller hockey rink. And tonight, it's been born again for use by a group of grungy-looking 20 to 30-year-old men and their bicycles.

Mr. SACHS: And some dudes found this roller hockey rink. We're, like, this is perfect. You know, the rounded corners make - you can really whale a ball in there.

FRANK: Tink is one of six guys with bikes who fill this tiny rink for a weekly game of bike polo.

Unidentified Man #1: South side, ready?

Unidentified Group #1: Yeah.

Unidentified Man #1: North side, ready?

Unidentified Group #2: Yo.

Unidentified Man #1: Three, two, one, go.

FRANK: And they're off. Bikes circle one another. There are burst of pedaling then skids and stops. At one point, three riders raced towards steaming collision, each hoping to get a clear swing at a little red ball. It's about the size of a soft ball. There are no goalies. So when there's a break away, each rider races to get a shot off before the bike wheels sweep in and block the path to the goal.

In this instance, there's no head-on collision. But, sadly, there isn't much action at all. The first rider to get to the ball, swung, and…

(Soundbite of laughter)

FRANK: …missed. The guys play on. First team to successfully score five goals wins the round.

Mr. BRIAN PEDDED(ph) (Bike Polo Player): You have to be quick. You have to be able to maneuver in a tight space in different directions, like back up real quick and kind of turn around.

FRANK: Brian Pedded is a bike messenger in downtown Washington, D.C. and he spends all day every day on his bike. But he's a rookie bike polo player, and he's not quite at the top of his game.

Mr. PEDDED: The good ones are good at blocking and boxing you out. That's a good (unintelligible), to be able to anticipate that situation so you can block someone, putting yourself in between the other guy and the ball, you know. And not falling down at the same time.

FRANK: Indeed, it appears that the hardest thing about bike polo is just staying up right. If your feet slip off the pedals and touch the ground, you have to quit the play and ride to the middle of the court before you can come back into the game.

Unidentified Man #2: Ball, ball, ball.

Unidentified Man #3: Put down.

Unidentified Man #2: Ball.

Unidentified Man #4: Nice pass. Nice pass.

FRANK: And if that didn't sound quite tough enough, there's one more important detail: None of the bikes in this polo ring have brakes.

These are called fixed-gear bikes. If you want to slow down, you pedal backwards. But pedal back too much and you actually go backward. If you want to stand still, you have to sort of rock back and forth on your pedals. And with a combination of brazing, wobbling and swinging mallets, Tink brags that injuries to men and machine are a common.

Mr. SACHS: Let me - you're going to get hurt. I destroyed this wheel set a couple weeks - a couple months back. (Unintelligible) triangles all bent up. I mean, I got this rusted frame for, like, 20 bucks, and, yeah, I don't care what happens to it because if it brakes, it brakes. I was, like, what's the deal, whatever.

FRANK: Part of the fun of urban polo is constructing and reconstructing your equipment. Homemade plastic mallets are usually made of what was once a ski pole with a chunk of PVC pipe entailed on to the pointy end.

Unidentified Man #5: Diamonds up.

(Soundbite of polo playing)

Unidentified Man #6: He ducks.

Unidentified Man #7: Open goal.

FRANK: There's a lot of trash talking, but not much genuine team allegiance. Here in D.C., each competition is just a series of pick-up games. In fact, after each round, whoever wants to play the next just tosses their mallet into the middle…

(Soundbite of mallets)

FRANK: …and new teams are chosen, kind of like drawing straws. The break between rounds is never long.

Unidentified Man #8: Come on, get off the wall.

FRANK: Bike polo is aggressive, strangely graceful and gaining popularity. In addition to these ad hoc city games, there are more formal tournaments that go on in California, Pennsylvania, even Canada and Scotland. And if you were hoping to get in on a match, don't worry. You haven't missed the season.

Tink says, last year, in D.C., they played year-round.

Mr. SACHS: There was, like, an inch of snow in the ground. It was maybe 10 degrees. We're out here playing ice polo or snowlo(ph). Yeah, we're playing snowlo. We're all out here playing, yeah, yeah, yes.

FRANK: For NPR News, I'm Jocelyn Frank in Washington, D.C.

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