There’s no greater fear than slowly tipping over the precipice, or in my particular case falling off a bike. Time slowed and the horizon slipped from beneath me I swung my mallet, flailing like an upriver salmon. By the end of my journey towards the concrete I resembled a piece of art that belonged in the MET, my bike and body had eloped with another’s as we crashed together. “If only they still played on grass”, I thought to myself as one of the lads, who had un-knotted himself from the collision, offered me a large padded hand.
It was my first experience of falling on ‘Hardcourt’, the preferred court of the Dublin Bike Polo Association. There was seven us playing in the vacant basketball court in Sundrive park on a wet October morning, where the enthusiasts (and I do mean enthusiasts) had met to spent a day playing one of the most bizarre games any passer-by had ever seen. Many had in-fact stopped, with their dogs and children to watch the peacock coloured bikes and helmets as they whizzed about the court.
Johnny, one of the most experienced players and an old salt of the sport had agreed to talk to me about the game, so a few of us made our way back to his. The house, which he shares with a few bike messengers like himself was, well, covered in bikes. Bikes in the hall, bikes behind the couch, a few parts about living room. He offered me a cup of tea and I almost expected a small bike to be floating in it. “The game had started off with [bike] messengers, now it’s anyone who could play”. We sipped our tea, bit into a biscuit and he continued, “It had started off four years ago in Dublin, Kroppa here had started it here with some messengers”.
Kroppa, a fellow messenger and a brother in ‘bike polo’ arms had said earlier that he didn’t feel comfortable being interviewed, but once the conversation began he couldn’t help himself. “Well it had all started off as grass polo about a hundred years ago, it was an Olympic sport […] its quite different now”, barely pausing for breath between sentences. Kroppa hadn’t been able to resist talking about his passion, none of them could. They spoke like love-sick teenagers who had fallen hopelessly in love with metallic femme-fatales, appearing at her basketball court every Saturday morning to woo her.
“It’s still a niche” said Greener, another victim to the game’s allure. “People who enjoy it, really enjoy it. Their committed to it […] but there is no financial incentive”, he explained, stating that the game is played by impassioned zealots rather than career hunters. Unlike other sports where people dream of greenback vistas and champagne showers, the Bike Polo community play for the thrill of the game, but also for the camaraderie. Sipping on my warm tea amongst, which were only hours before strangers to me, I understood what they meant.
The game itself was logistically as difficult as one might assume, a meticulous ballet of body movements. One hand would be tasked with steering and breaking, the other with swinging and scoring. It’s a task which requires some years of experience with bikes, a dual mind-body exercise in balance and precision. Attempting to learn by example I watched the others balance their weight on the mallet, adjusting and jumping the bike out of corners filled with sweet wrappers and debris which littered the court. Each game started with the players lined up at either hoop of the court before members of the opposing team sped toward center court clashing, and often breaking their mallets in a collision of steel and rubber.
Although I was playing, I found myself stopping in amazement at the speed and delicacy with which they shepherded the ball. Each player had decorated their steed with a rainbow of coloured bike parts, like the flag colours of jousting knights. Between the spokes of the bikes were pieces of painted cardboard to stop the ball from breaking through. ‘Dublin Bike polo’ and been painted by Greener onto his, a symbol of pride.
Midway through the day it had begun to rain, making the court slippery and, for a novice like me as safe to play on as a unicycle on ice. All except Johnny retired to a children’s playground, vacant because of the weather. Crouched beneath slides and council approved castles I got to know the team and could sense they were a well bonded group of players. We joked intermittently about the strange sight passers-by would see, a gang of bearded men huddled under a playground. Bike jargon, a foreign language to myself was tossed around, a compulsive expression of their shared passion.
The more we spoke about the subject in Johnny’s museum of bikes, the more I understood it. “In the beginning it was a bit of fun for messengers playing on [fixed gear] bikes, it was silly, you would fall over but its way better when you get a good play. That’s why people began improving their bikes. Shorter frames, better breaks […] then there was a big split”. Johnny explained the change that has occurred in the four years the game has been here in Dublin, Those who wanted to play seriously did so, adjusting and fashioning their own bikes into fine-tuned bike polo machines. Those who did not simply stopped playing, explaining the small number of players who arrive each week.
That’s not to say however that the game itself is as secretive or as unknown as it may have appeared to me that October morning. The bike polo ‘scene’ in Dublin are part of a global network of players. From countries ranging from France to Japan the game is played in almost every city in the world. Greener described their recent tournament in London saying, “When you’re at a tournament you’re trying to represent the Dublin scene so you want to play some good polo. The teams come from differing countries but its more about the ‘Dublin scene’, it’s a better banner than Irish.” “We have about nine to ten players, London would field about 50 teams” interjected Johnny.
It seemed evident that the bigger the city, the bigger the bike culture thus the more people that want to play the game. “We’ve left flyers in bike shops and posters in colleges”, but the number of bodies appearing each morning has yet to soar. “People who play Bike polo tend to travel a lot for whatever reason”, began Greener, “it’s the best thing about tournaments, the sense of community. We meet up, play some polo and get a bit rowdy”.
Although I had simply been a tourist that day, slipping and crashing like an over enthusiastic foal I had gotten an insight into a rare sub-sect of Dublin life. Bike polo is a niche, whether or not the team would like to admit it, but it is an incredibly inviting and accommodating one. They assure me that every Saturday there is a spare mallet, even a spare bike for those who wish to dive into their world. Their great ardour for the game is infectious, and when situated within its global context it has a romantic air about it. To think, that in cities across the world, in basketball courts and vacant lots players are sweating, crashing and picking each other up, playing with friends and never for pay, a popular culture that most of the world doesn’t know exists.