Every Sunday around 2 p.m. at San Lorenzo Skate Park, mallets swing, hockey balls roll and bicycles collide.
Its time for some bike polo.
Afternoon traffic on San Lorenzo Boulevard stops as rubbernecking drivers swivel their heads to ogle at pick-up games of the emerging sport in which teams of three bikers each attempt to shoot a small plastic ball through the opposing goal using four-foot mallets.
“The most common question we get asked is ‘What do you call this thing?’” said Mike Donahue, a 25 year old UCSC alum, who has been playing bike polo for over a year now. “As if we invented the sport or something. People are pretty curious.”
Hard court bike polo originated in 1999 in Seattle and is developing followings all over the world, especially in large cities like New York, Los Angeles, and London.
Mike and his friend Brandon Bradford, a 25-year-old Santa Cruz resident, lead the informal bike polo league. Together they build all of the mallets, made of an aluminum ski pole attached toplastic ABS piping. Usually between six and fifteen people show up, and teams are assigned by shuffling players’ mallets. Mike notices that different players have different styles and strategies. Brandon is no different.
“Brandon is more of an aggressive in-your-face-type player. He’ll just run straight into you and try to take you out sometimes,” Donahue said of his friend. “He’s just a wild man in general.”
“Yeah, I guess I’d agree with that,” Bradford said, grinning and puffing on his cigarette. “I’m not the best at bike polo, and I’m not very tolerant of people getting in my way. At the same time Mike’s always getting in my way.”
In April, Donahue, Brandford and their teams entered the Youngblood Inaugural bike polo tournament in San Francisco. The competition proved more difficult than they had expected when some of the worlds best bike polo-ers showed up to play.
“We like to say we broke more spokes than we scored goals,” Donahue said with a smile.
The tournament motivated the Santa Cruz Bike Polo players and they started playing games three or four times a week, instead of only once a week, as they had before.
“We kind of knew that we were going to be one of the worst teams there, but we didn’t realize just how bad we were,” Donahue said. “It was more of a wake-up call for us, and after that we started playing a lot faster.”
Jon Westdahl, a 27-year-old cyclist originally from Alameda, CA, has been playing the sport for a few months now. He loves seeing people bring passion to the polo field, saying that the challenge makes everyone play better.
“We’re obviously a team,” Westdahl said, “but we’re also rivals. We’ve gotten to the point where we can *push* each other and literally push each other. If someone is going for the ball, you can push them over and they understand.”
The game can get physical, but Santa Cruz polo players do try to limit the possibility for injuries to an extent. Although bike-on-bike, mallet-on-mallet, and person-on-person contact are all permitted, the players say they encourage new people to come out and see the excitement for themselves and go easy on people new to the sportat least until they get the hang of it.
Sometimes the ball glides gently as players make sweeping passes to one another across the court. Other times the ball gets wedged between two wheels in stalemate with players jabbing at it, battling for control. The mallets are often used like lances or swords making games appear to mimic some sort of modern-day, urban joust.
“I love riding around on my bike with my friends, and after you play a good game, I get almost drunk on polo,” Bradford said. “It changes my whole attitude about everything.”
Many of the players say that playing polo improves their bike handling skills. After one year of the sport, Donahue feels more comfortable on his bike than ever.
“[Bike polo] teaches you to be a good defensive bike rider,” Mike explained. “Cars will cut you off too when they don’t know what they’re doing, just like a Donahue would. But if you can maneuver your bike with only your left hand steering, even when there all of these maneuverable bikes trying to get around you and cut you off, you can be pretty sure that you can survive on the streets with the cars.”