Polo Carnage at the Tennis Courts

There’s a clatter of mallets hitting the cement, echoed by the sound of bicycles racing into the tennis court. Two teams set themselves up on opposite sides, and with a call of “1 – 2 – 3 – KILL!” the race for the hockey ball in mid-court begins. With ski-poles-turned-mallets in one hand and handlebars in the other, only a fool would get in the path of these bike polo players. It’s been just over a year since bike polo found a home in our city, starting right here in East Vancouver, but after countless hours of practice, the polo-istas fly across the court with ease. Originally meeting every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday at the courts in Grandview Park, now you’re more likely to find the polo players behind Britannia School, patiently waiting for the die-hard tennis players to call it quits before claiming the courts. Bike polo is a distant, scruffy-looking cousin of old-fashioned horse polo. The rules are similar—guide the ball to the goal with your mallet without touching the ground—but every city has a slightly different style. Urban bicycle polo has been played elsewhere in the world for awhile, even beyond North America. Our version crept up via bikers from Portland and Seattle, who have been playing on asphalt for close to a decade. The courts are a little longer here, the goals a little smaller, but just like other West Coast crews, it’s a bit of a fight club, says Lisa Moffat. “Contact rules: bike on bike, body on body, mallet on mallet, but no combinations thereof! We want to keep this safe, you know!” The DIY ethic is strong in the sport. Players make their own mallets, re-appropriate spaces to play in, and there are regular makeshift bike repairs off court, where players can fix new damage before the next game begins. Unless it’s a tournament, there are no set teams. Instead, mallets are tossed into the court for each game, then blindly divided into two. It’s a way to invite anyone to play, newbie or expert, school teacher or bike courier, young or old. And appearances can be deceiving­—a thirteen-year-old kid can easily take out older compatriots at weekly games. It is also a way of diluting cliques and potential animosity—the person you battled valiantlymay well be your teammate in the next round. Tournaments are almost as integral as the weekly jousts, and a tournament happens somewhere on the West Coast at least once a month. This October, there was one in New York City and another in Seattle the following week, and some of the Vancouver players were at both. When Vancouver hosted a tournament in September celebrating their first year anniversary, people came from as far away as Victoria and Portland to play. And now that winter is upon us? “We get wet,” says Simon. Last year the crew found space below the Cambie Bridge. They’re currently looking for a lit, covered space for this winter, though the game will go on no matter what. Simon remembers playing on ice last year. “We had to steal a bunch of sidewalk salt to try and clear the court a bit—there were a lot of funny bails that week,” he says. Wounds are the best trophies in this sport and every player is eager to show off their latest scars. Wipe-outs are rarely reason to put a game on hold—it’s a sign of where the die-hard polo-ista’s priorities lie. But if you’re really curious about the grace of bike polo, come and check the sport out at the Cascadia Fall Classic tournament taking place November 3 and 4 at the Grandview tennis (polo!) courts. Chances are you’ll want to make a mallet of your own.