These essays both appear in The Bicycling Book. Both describe a bicycle polo played on a grass field, not a hard court. And this was printed in 1982.
British Bicycle Polo
Bicycle Polo was first played in 1891. The sport started when Richard Mecredi, an Irish racing cyclist, decided he was no longer able to continue competing, and not being capable of accepting a premature retirement, he invented Bicycle Polo as a means of keeping fit and of keeping his cycling blood flowing. The first game was played at the Scalp, just outside Dublin.
The game grew in popularity and spread to England in the early 1900's. One of the highlights was the Olympic games at Shepherd's Bush, London, in 1908, when an experienced Irish team beat England on their home ground. Then came the First World War which dealt a body blow to bicycle polo in terms of players and interest slowly waned.
In 1930 a gentleman by the name of Cyril Scott found himself in much the same position as the game's founder and reinvented the game, not having heard of the earlier version. The Bicycle Polo Association of Great Britain was formed that year when the constitution was drawn up at a meeting at Cyril's house, so 1980 sees its fiftieth anniversary.
The game spread quickly and several bicycle polo clubs, often affiliated to cycling clubs, were formed. Competitions and leagues were also formed including the English Cup, which is still regarded as the major domestic competition.
A bicycle polo team consists of six players, male or female, five of whom (including the goalkeeper) may be on the field at any one time. The sixth person may be used as a substitute at the beginning of a period, or at any other time at the discretion of the referee. The fame is divided into six fifteen-minute periods called chukkas. Pitch (field) dimensions are similar to those of soccer, but the goalposts are set four yards apart with a crossbar nine feet up.
The game is started by a sprint. One player from each team lines up his front wheel on the goal line on the left hand side of his goalposts. At a signal from the referee each races toward the center spot to gain possession of the ball. The best way to "trap" the ball is to use the wheels but it can be stopped by any part of the body to bring it under control. The ball may be struck in any direction but not while the player is dismounted (one foot on the ground is deemed dismounted). You may not catch or throw the ball but it is permissible to use the hand to stop or knock it; you may kick it as well, but only when it is airborne. Although play can be robust it is not dangerous. It is very rare for a player to receive an injury worse than a minor bruise or two, yet players are allowed to shoulder charge, tackle, crook a mallet, or "ride off" an opponent challenging for the ball.
Once a player graduates from the initial stage he begins to learn the finer points: stroke-play, bike handling, and team tactics. It is a delight to watch two top teams in action - the high-speed interpassing and clever "practiced" attacks with the resultant abundance of shots. The referee (who, incidentally, is on foot) is usually assisted by two goal judges and two linesmen - necessary because of the fast pace of the sport.
The mallet must be held in the right hand and can be either thirty-two or thirty-four inches long, with a head of either four or seven inches. Wrist straps are not allowed, and metal must not be incorporated into the head, although this does not apply to the shaft.
The ball has a diameter of three and a quarter inches and is usually made of bamboo. In recent years, limited success has been experienced with a plastic version that tends to last several games, as opposed to the bamboo counterpart which usually needs replacing every fifteen minutes.
Tony Knight is a competitor and secretary of the Bicycle Polo Association of Great Britain. He can be reached at 72 Upton Road, Haylands, Ryde, Isle of Wight, PO 33 3HX, England
American Bicycle Polo
Walter K. Ezell
"Bicycle Polo fills a gap in cycling," says Richard Grubb of the United States Bicycle Polo Association. "You don't have to be in super shape to enjoy it, so it fills the gap between touring and racing, a sport you can do on a bicycle the you don't have to spend ten hours a day practicing.
"There are plenty of cyclists who will go out and play softball on the weekends and later ride their bike. Bicycle polo enables them to 'play softball' and ride their bikes at the same time."
With four teams and a twelve-game season, Charlotte, North Carolina, probably has the most bicycle polo activity in the United States. There are also teams in Chicago, Wisconsin, California, and possibly Colorado. There is also some interest in starting teams in Oklahoma and Minnesota, according to Grubb.
In 1897 in Milton, Massachusetts, a bicycle polo club was formed, but with the decline in popularity of the bicycle in the early twentieth century, the sport lost ground in the United States. It has experienced several faddish revivals since, but has never gained a strong footing.
Bicycle polo has been described as the "poor man's polo," though the bicycle polo enthusiast can spend five hundred dollars on equipment if he wants to do it the deluxe way. The sport greatly resembles horse polo, and some people play both sports. But just as field hockey and ice hockey have developed some basic differences, so have bicycle and horse polo.
The field is one third the size of the horse polo field, with maximum dimensions of 140 by 60 yards, the same as a football field. There is a goal at each end of the field, marked by posts twelve feet apart. A point is scored when a player knocks the ball between the goalposts of the opposing team.
Because of the reduced size of the field the player may only hit the ball three times in a row, while the horse polo player is allowed an unlimited number of hits. As a result, team play is important, with passing patterns to move the ball down the field.
Bicycle polo is also much less of a contact sport than horse polo, with "riding off" forbidden. Riding off allows an equestrian player to bump into an opponent, preventing him from lining up the shot correctly. But since bicycles don't have the resiliency of horses, contact is more hazardous and is not allowed.
Polo ponies are trained to follow the ball. "When horse polo players play bicycle polo," says Grubb, "it takes a while for them to get used to the fact that their 'horse' doesn't just take off after the ball."
Who plays bicycle polo? John Bowers, chairman of the Charlotte Bicycle Polo League, says that no more than twenty-five percent are avid bicycle riders. "Bicycle riders are about the last people to take it seriously, because almost all other phases of bicycle sport are actually solitary. Even though bike racing has teams, their tactics are not equal to the kind of teamwork required to win a polo match.
"Very few sports lend themselves to family activity the way this one does. Most are involved with matching people of the same ages, but that hasn't proved to be necessary with bicycle polo. It is good for all ages, from about twelve up.
"The younger one starts to learn this game the better. With handlebar modifications, the small scrambler or motocross-type bike that most kids ride would be ideal for the young player," Bowers said.
In the Northeast United States, where bicycle polo enjoyed passing popularity a few years ago, the sport drew almost all its players from the ranks of horse polo players.
But the Charlotte players learned the sport the hard way. John Bowers became interested in the game after reading about it in the League of American Wheelmen magazine in 1974. He and others studied the rules, went to a horse polo match in South Carolina, and learned by doing.
Their first encounter with other players was at a tournament last year in Chicago - which they won. "We learned a lot," says Bowers. "Having now had the experience of playing against Bill Matheson's team of horse polo players on bikes, I feel that our emphasis on the bicycle equipment was somewhat misplaced. The name of the game is stick skill and play anticipation. The bicycle itself can definitely help or hurt one's game, but can never compensate for lack of skill and knowledge of play."
Bowers says September through November is a good time for the season, because other bicycling activities are tapering off. "It is a good cold-weather sport. You generate a certain amount of heat."
Grubb advised starting out with inexpensive bicycles. "Get a twenty-six-inch wheel coaster brake bike with a drop frame, straighten the front forks, and substitute a twenty-four-inch front wheel. Slice the handlebars down. Remember, the less bike the better. Inevitably you are going to fall, and you don't want protruding parts or a high top tube to hurt you or another player."
The mallets and balls and often the helmets used in horse polo are also used in bicycle polo, and it is therefore not too difficult to get these items.
But the polo helmets are expensive - retailing and fifty to seventy dollars. Bicycle helmets are not adequate as they lack crucial face protection. The teams in Charlotte and Chicago use construction helmets with clear Lexan face protectors added.
Grubb used to build polo bikes of his own design one at a time, till his physician told him the fumes from brazing were causing lung problems. Bowers bought about a dozen of the frames from Grubb, and still owns nine. He rents them to players on a per-game basis to cover maintenance costs.
The bikes are light - twenty or twenty-one pounds. And strong? Grubb claims one "took the door off a taxi and only bent one of the front forks." (The rider suffered a broken collarbone and the woman in the taxi became hysterical.)
Some of the Chicago players including Grubb used a fixed gear - like track bikes use. Others us a coaster brake or disc brake, sometimes in combination with a front caliper brake.
Professionally Bowers in an industrial designer. He likes to polo bike design so much he has no other kind of frame. He has set up one of his frames as a touring bike with a six-speed free-wheel. He is working on designing a bag that will hold the bike so he can carry it on an airliner like a garment bag.
He has used the bike on sixty and one-hundred mile tours, and likes the quick steering. He finds it fits nicely with the front wheel removed in the back seat of a VW Rabbit.
But like Grubb, Bowers suggests that newcomers to bicycle polo put together bicycles from readily available parts.
Walter Ezell reports on all phases of the cycling scene for the LAW Bulletin, of which he is editor. He also contributed the plea for cyclists' right to the road, "You Can't Get There from Here."
Krausz, John and Vera van der Reis Krausz. "The Bicycling Book: Transportation, Recreation, Sport" The Dial Press. 1 Dag Hammarskjold Plaza. New York, New York 10017. 1982