Except instead of Friday, it’s Thursday. And instead of stadium floodlights, it’s flickering tennis court lights. And instead of screaming fans filling the stands, it’s a few drunk guys leaning against the fence and an occasional pedestrian stopping for a closer look at the group of bikers wielding mallets and racing up and down the slick black court.
But even without the uniforms or sponsorship, this is a sport, and bike polo players love slinging their legs over their steel frames as much as football players love pulling their jerseys over their heads. And they play just as hard.
If you happen to be one of those pedestrians walking past 21 st and Shotwell on your way home or to the bar, what you’ll see is a gaggle of mostly 20- and 30-something guys chasing a bright red street hockey ball toward a makeshift goal, all the while avoiding the basketball players who occupy the next court over.
If you listen closely, you’ll hear the sounds of brakes squealing as a rider nears the goal, the crash of metal when two players collide, and the clink of two mallets that clearly means, “Nice goal, dude.” And interspersed is the sound of cans of cheap beer being opened by the players waiting patiently for their game to start.
Tonight, I am one of those players.
My mallet’s lined up on the fence, second from the left, which means I’ll definitely be one of three players in the next game. The other three, our opponents, are the winners from the last game. There are only four rules in SF Bike Polo:
From a distance, my mallet looks like the rest. It has a thin metal shaft and plastic base. The handle is wrapped with tape and a series of screws connect the few parts. In bike polo, no two mallets are like. The DIY culture permeates all aspects of this sport, from the homemade wheel covers to protect your spokes to the retrofitted bikes with single speeds and only a rear brake. One player has a wheel cover made of carbon fiber, and it’s the envy of the other players.
Mojo Bicycle Café helped to retrofit my old mountain bike for the game. The staff there can swap out your brakes, so if you're right-handed, you'll use just the back one and avoid any unnecessary over-the-handlebar incidents. Plus, they'll replace the inevitable broken spokes you’ll get in the games. And, it’s a good idea to have a more upright stem so you can ride comfortably with one hand.
The mallet I used was formed from an old ski pole and PVC piping, but I’ve seen mallets made from crutches and broomsticks, and once saw someone use a beer can as a mallet head after the plastic one broke. Locally owned Cole Hardware has a good selection of both hardware and piping.
I watch the first game anxiously. It’s been years since I played and that was in an all-girl league where I was one of the fastest, strongest, and most likely to follow through on a head-on trajectory, even if it meant riding through someone else. I was also 25, and more likely to be stupid.
Here, I’m the only woman on the court, but I’m told that the Sunday grass games in Golden Gate Park are coed. I am, by no means, the fastest, strongest, bravest, and definitely not the most skilled among these players. Some of the guys on fixed gears ride backward circles to reach the ball and others wield the mallet like it’s an extension of their own body.
Dan is the spokesman for the group. He has the enthusiasm of a middle-school camp counselor and eagerly answers my questions. He even helps me find a place on a bike to open my bottle of beer – the horizontal dropouts on a fixed gear work great.
I ask him if anyone’s gotten hurt playing here and he tells me there have been concussions, smashed legs, and a few stitches. But all in all, Dan says, it’s not as bloody as you might expect, considering you have six adults on bikes racing toward one object on a small court. I agree, and gently stroke the knuckle of my left hand, remembering the piece that broke off in a game five years ago. Dan smiles and puts on his shin guards and helmet.
“Next game!” someone yells out from the court, and a flock of mallets are thrown from the fence. I’m in, along with Weevil, who had his finger run over in his first-ever polo game. I wonder if it’s a newbie’s curse.
Someone from the sideline counts down, “Three. Two. One. Polo!” And then the six of us all race toward the cherry in the center. My bike handling skills aren’t bad, but no matter how many times they pass it to me, I can’t control the ball. I either run it too fast and another player steals it or it gets caught under my bike. Mostly, I just panic when I see three sets of wheels headed my way, and I send the ball into Mario Land to be recovered by one of the more skilled players.
I can tell they’re using kid gloves with me this round, which is more frustrating than losing the ball. So, I take action and charge another player. Even if I can’t control the ball, I know I can control my bike. I play defense – ramming other players and track-standing in the goal. We lose 2-5. The games usually end at 5, but if they take too long, the crowd gets antsy and yells, “BOR-ing,” until you clear the court.
I throw my mallet on the right side and open another beer – liquid courage and a way to fill the time between games. My teammates high-five me for the aggressiveness and give me some pointers for handling the ball. “It’s all about the grip,” says the guy with the carbon-fiber covers. “Keep it loose so you can maneuver and scrape your mallet on the ground so you know which way the head is facing.” A skinny rider with an old-school cycling hat suggests I take it slow. “There’s no need to push the ball. Your bike’s already moving. Just allow that momentum to propel it.”
We hold a practice session on the other court, which by this time, has been cleared of the pickup basketball game. After a few drills, I’m starting to get a handle on the ball. In my second game, I dribble the cherry toward the goal slowly, scrape my mallet on the ground, turn my grip loosely, and flick it. It goes between a player’s wheels, nicks the corner of the cone, and sneaks through. The taste of victory, mixed with PBR, fills my mouth. I’ve done what I came here to do.
Around 9:30 p.m., Dan and another guy gently unwind the tennis net and hook it back in place. They have a somewhat contentious relationship with the city and were already kicked out of their home in Dolores Park. They don’t want to lose another one. Some of the Dolores Park riders were issued citations for playing an “unauthorized athletic activity” on the tennis courts.
So the guys follow the rules the best they can and reserve the 21 st and Shotwell courts every Monday and Thursday, but their hold on it is tenuous. The SF Recreation and Park Department thinks bike polo is just a fad and doesn’t want to invest in any infrastructure for a sport that a few drunken hipsters will stop playing in a month. Dan says this crew has been playing together religiously for two years, often four times a week, which is more often than for a lot of official sports.
“It’s time we got our own court,” says Dan. “What would that look like?” I ask. The suggestions fly as quick as the mallets do from the fence. The guys want one that’s designated just for polo, with good lights, no slick-painted boxes like the current courts have, with rounded edges so the ball doesn’t get trapped in the corners, and with taller walls so the ball doesn’t get stuck on the fence.
By 10:00 p.m. the games are done and cleanup begins. Many of the guys have wives and kids to go home to. Most of us have office jobs in the morning. If you’re looking through the fence from the outside, it’s easy to see the polo players as obnoxious dudes ruining the courts that are made for more proper sports. But if you get inside, hang your bike on the fence, slide your mallet next to the other homemade ones, and hang out with these guys, you’ll see that they’re just a group of friends with a love of bikes and an addiction to a sport that’s here to stay.
Want to hit the cherry around yourself? The SF Bike Polo crew plays hard-court games at 21 st and Shotwell every Monday and Thursday, starting at 7:00 p.m., and grass games at 4:00 p.m. on Sundays at Speedway Meadow in Golden Gate Park. Sign up for both the hard-court and grass listserves and you’ll never miss a game. The guys have a few extra mallets, but to ensure your spot on the court or field, it’s best to bring your own. Head to your closest Cole Hardware and ask the staff to cut you a 4-inch piece of their toughest and lightest PVC piping, and go to any thrift store for ski poles. There’s a great how-to article on the Hardcourt Bike Polo blog. Plus, swing by Mojo Bicycle Café to retrofit your bike with a more upright stem and shorter handlebars, and switch the brakes.