Polo for the masses: Bike polo gains traction

Bike polo players swarm the ball during intramural bike polo at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Mich. Bike polo is not a newfangled sport. It was invented in the 19th century, included as an exhibition sport in the 1908 London Olympics, went through a heyday in the 1930s. But it’s been reinvented and rediscovered a few times since and is now primarily an urban sport played in parking lots, on tennis courts, in street hockey rinks. Its history as an organized activity at MSU runs back about five weeks. (AP Photo/Lansing State Journal, Kevin W. Fowler)

Follow the links for information on bike polo nationally and in Utah.

BY MATTHEW MILLER
Lansing State Journal

EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Tim Potter gave the plastic trash can two sharp whacks with his mallet, a repurposed ski pole with a length of PVC pipe fastened to one end.

“Let’s play,” he shouted.

The bicyclists who had been smacking and rolling a Wiffle ball up and down the indoor turf area at Michigan State University’s IM West lined up at the ends of the field, four on a side, the Lansing State Journal reported. This was the start of a polo match and not a pony in sight.

Bike polo is not a newfangled sport. It was invented in the 19th century, included as an exhibition sport in the 1908 London Olympics, went through a heyday in the 1930s. But it’s been reinvented and rediscovered a few times since and is now primarily an urban sport played in parking lots, on tennis courts, in street hockey rinks. Its history as an organized activity at MSU runs back about five weeks.

Potter is the man responsible. He’s the manager of the MSU Bikes Service Center, a longtime volunteer with the MSU Bike Project, which fixes up donated bikes for loan to students and staff on campus.

Volunteers from the Bike Project started playing impromptu games of bike polo on Munn Field four or five years ago as “a way to break up the monotony of wrenching on bikes,” he said. Holding regular Friday evening matches seemed like a way to “build more of a bike culture on campus.”

Drew Vandegrift, an MSU senior, was giving his girlfriend Stason Schafer a quick introduction to the sport.

“You can shovel like this,” he said, pushing the ball with the side of his mallet, “but you have to hit it with the end of the mallet to score.”

The lesson took. Schafer scored the first time her mallet made contact with the ball.

The basic rules are simple. Hit the plastic trash can (i.e. goal) with the ball, score a point. Put your foot down, and you have to leave the field and tag back in. Squash the Wiffle ball and the action stops.

But the players are mostly new to the sport, still mastering the trick of steering with one hand while accurately wielding a mallet with the other, still hit or miss about helmets and the cardboard disks that keep mallets from getting tangled in spokes. At least one, a bike deliveryman named Richard Luellen, played in a hat and tie.

“Going excessively fast is not the best way.” said Adam Sinder, an emergency room scribe at Sparrow Hospital who is taking classes at MSU. “You’ve got to have some control.”

He’s gotten to the point of working on trick shots, knocking the ball between his wheels and so on.

“I watch polo videos online, actual horses, to see what kind of shots they use, because it kind of translates,” he said.

Bike polo has a way of drawing spectators. Both the men playing soccer on the other side of the turf arena and passersby did their share of rubbernecking. Potter wants to draw more players, to make bike polo an MSU club sport, to bring in members of the wider community. Where the last of those is concerned, the venue is a limitation. To get into IM West requires a university-issued ID. He’s looking for an off-campus alternative.

Eddie Glayzer had come to watch. A torn rotator cuff kept him from joining in. But the MSU graduate student had thoughts about the attraction of the sport.

“It’s polo for the masses, right?” he said. Played with horses, polo is expensive, beyond most people’s reach. “But we’re kind of rebelling against that by playing with our beater bikes and playing for free on this indoor court.”

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