The Madeleine Brand Show

The Madeleine Brand Show is a daily, two-hour program that looks at news and culture through the lens of Southern California. Hosted by Madeleine Brand

Not in the Olympics: playing polo on a bike

by Jed Kim | The Madeleine Brand Show

Bike polo players tripod using their mallets in order to stay upright. Megan Hazle

The hardest part of bike polo is that you’re never allowed to put your foot down. Instead, to stay upright, you have to do something called “tripoding.”

“It’s just where you have both feet on the pedals, and you use the mallet as your third leg to just stand up like this and balance,” says Matt Simmons, a veteran of the bicycle polo scene in Los Angeles.

Tripoding is basically becoming a human kickstand, where the tip of your mallet handle digs into your palm.

This rec center just north of Downtown L.A. is a regular meeting place for the participants of Los Angeles Bike Polo. They’ve taken over the center’s two tennis courts, which apparently are ideal playing surfaces.

“You can play it anywhere. All you need is some orange cones and an open area where you can play,” said Simmons. “I mean we’re ecstatic if we get a fence around the court so the ball doesn’t go in the street. That’s, you know, as high-tech as it gets.”

On the other court, a game is underway. Cyclists are hacking away with homemade mallets, trying to put the ball through the cones. There’s a lot of contact, and occasionally someone bites it.

Apart from the lack of horses, bike polo looks different from regular polo in a lot of ways. For one thing, there’s a lot more tattoos and piercings.

“We are a little bit, I guess, gritty,” said polo player Krista Carlson. “We’re tough, you know, we’re adventurous. I’d say it appeals to people that are adventurous.”

Carlson’s been playing for ¬almost four years, and her hands are permanently stained black from bike grease. Like her fellow players, she’s fiercely proud of her sport.

“Did you know that bike polo was a demo sport in the Olympics?” said Carlson.

It was in the Olympics, only once back in 1908, but the sport is much different today. It was reinvented in recent decades, bringing it onto hard surfaces from grass. That made it possible to play pretty much anywhere there’s asphalt and a biking community. Bike polo is all over the globe now.

It’s been in L.A. for about four years, and L.A. Bike Polo has about 50 members, 30 of which are regulars. One is Robert Guevara. He’s relatively new to it — only been playing for four months —but he got hooked from his first game.

“I felt like a little kid playing kickball again, you know, I was like, ‘Yes! I wanna go out and do this again!’ The next day I went on Craigslist, and I was just searching all night for a bike,” said Guevara. “I found my bike online for 20 bucks, which was like, I don’t know, it was like meant to be.”

Jed Gives It A Try
Soon, the game’s over, and it’s my turn to try. I line up with my two teammates on one of the baselines.

I haven’t ridden a bike in years. They say you never forget how, but apparently you can get really bad at it. It’s strange only having one hand to steer, while my other hand holds the mallet.

While everyone else is racing towards the ball, I’m turning in slow, awkward circles, trying not to put my foot down. That’s called a dab, and it’s against the rules. If you do it, you have to go tap the fence at midcourt before you can play the ball again. I spend basically the entire game shuffling back and forth, tapping out.

Still, at one point, by some miracle, I’m at the right place, heading in the right direction when my teammate feeds me the ball perfectly. I line up my shot and swing. And whiff.

Games are played to five points, and since I’m basically useless, it’s over quickly. Our only point came when one of the other players accidentally scored on his own goal.

The hardest part of bike polo is coming up with a good comeback for the insults. It’s not until I’ve driven halfway home that I think of one.

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