Bikers gear up for polo season

Minneapolis bike polo players are trying to make an impact on the growing sport.

by Jennifer Bissell

In south MinneapolisâÄô McRae Park, someone shouts from the sidelines of a tarred outdoor hockey rink, âÄúThree, two, one, polo!âÄù

Six bikes on opposite ends of the rink rush to the center, all chasing after a small red ball.

Wielding mallets fashioned out of ski poles with colorful gas pipes, one player wears a hockey mask and gloves while another has soccer shin guards on.

One player groans as he slides into the wall of the rink, missing the ball.

âÄúHowâÄôd you like that shot?âÄù another player laughed in response.

ItâÄôs springtime and the Minneapolis Bike Polo team is back outside gearing up for the summerâÄôs tournaments.

Team members, some of whom practice three times a week year-round, said they hope to perform well at this yearâÄôs North American championships.

In late March the team placed fifth out of 36 teams at a tournament in Little Rock, Ark.

âÄúSometimes people on the outside looking in are mystified by how much we play,âÄù player Sven Mattson said. âÄúI donâÄôt feel odd saying itâÄôs one of the major passions in my life.

âÄúEvery time you play you can learn something and feel yourself getting more skillful.âÄù

Bike polo was invented in Ireland in 1891, when bicycles were used as a substitute for horses. Traditionally it was played on grass, but in 1999 players in Seattle adopted the game to a hard-court version.

Since then the game has spread to cities around the world. The East Side Polo Invitational has grown by 10 teams every year since 2007, and in 2009 the World Championships was capped at 48 three-person teams.

While the Minneapolis players arenâÄôt world champions, Mattson said, the players are dedicated to the sport, paying occasional travel expenses and practicing several times a week.

Nick TenBrink, who recently moved to Minneapolis for a new job, played bike polo when he lived in Michigan. He said MinneapolisâÄô bike polo team made the move easier for him.

âÄúIâÄôll play until my job interferes with it or something else gets in the way,âÄù TenBrink said.

TenBrink said the assimilation into MinneapolisâÄô team has gone smoothly, though the team has less finesse and more skidding and sliding than heâÄôs used to.

Playing a scrimmage on a Sunday afternoon, about 10 players with varying skill levels gather informally. Three-on-three, the players crack the ball ahead, aiming toward goal nets, usually blocked by a player.

Andrew Curtis, 22, is one of the teamâÄôs newest and youngest members. He joined in the winter when the group was practicing in a warehouse near Target Field.

âÄúI never knew anything like this existed before,âÄù Curtis said. âÄúIt takes awhile to get good âÄî which IâÄôm still working on âÄî but itâÄôs a lot of fun.âÄù

The gameâÄôs popularity has grown in Minneapolis as it has nationally, Mattson said. In the past few years,  60 people have come to try the sport, he said. Now the group has started Saturday events for beginners to help ensure growth and new talent in the future.
MattsonâÄôs 14-year-old son, Andrew Bates, said he couldnâÄôt wait to start playing, which he hoped to start doing later in the spring. He often watches the team practice on the weekends.

The game can be dangerous, and with experienced players, often intimidating.

During a match that Sunday, a player who wasnâÄôt wearing any protective gear was hit in the head with a ball. Pausing after the hit, he put two fingers to his forehead above his eyebrow.

âÄúI want to make sure IâÄôm OK,âÄù he said, bringing his bike to the side of the court.

âÄúEveryone crashes at polo,âÄù TenBrink said.

He said itâÄôs rare for a player to be seriously hurt, but that the players do take precautionary steps to avoid injury. They use a mix of facemasks, helmets, leather mechanicâÄôs gloves or even lacrosse gloves.

âÄúItâÄôs controlled chaos,âÄù TenBrink said.

The injured player sat out the rest of the game but eventually got back out on the field.

âÄúCrashing is just one of those things,âÄù TenBrink said. âÄúYou have to get back on the horse.âÄù