You don't need a lot to play bike polo, and perhaps that's part of its appeal. Take bikes, homemade polo mallets (ski poles and PVC pipes will do the trick) and a field hockey ball. Then find an empty parking garage and six willing participants.
The rules are simple: Your feet can't touch the ground, the ball is always in play and you have to score with the ends of the mallet. Oh, and unofficially, "Don't be a dick." Easy enough.
For the past seven months, a ragtag group of polo players has assembled every weekend to play this game on the empty fourth floor of a Raleigh parking garage. Some take the game very seriously, sporting custom-built bike frames designed specifically for polo. Others take a more homegrown, DIY approach, playing with road bikes adorned with large cardboard circles duct-taped over the wheels—that's to keep the ball from getting stuck in the spokes.
Still others seem mostly into the social element. On this cold Sunday afternoon, a group stands around a hammock, grilling sausages and downing cans of PBR, seemingly oblivious to the shouts and clinks and scrapes of metal against concrete coming from opposite ends of the garage.
Most of the 20 or so players gathered today are recent college grads and young working professionals. There's a lot of flannel and tattoos and cigarette smoking in sight. ("Those that smoke together stay together," one player jokes.) It's a far cry from what the traditional game of polo connotes: horses, elegance, royalty. This is gritty and underground, urban polo that's at once accessible and a little bit dangerous.
"Bike polo attracts tough, independent people," John Durkee tells me. Durkee graduated from college last year and now works as an optical engineer, but he says he thinks about polo even when he's at work. "You have to be strong to play this game—that's the biggest thing. You fall down on concrete and have to get right back up."
Perhaps the game's rough-and-tumble nature is part of its appeal. Steven Beckmeyer, 28, who works by day as a car mechanic in Raleigh, tells me he's had his hand, elbow and knee all X-rayed due to various game-induced bike wrecks—and this seems to be a point of pride. "I had to walk with a cane for a while. I was like Tiny Tim!"
Bike polo was first played in Ireland back in 1891, a clever workaround for those who couldn't afford horses. In the past decade, the game has spread from the field to the hardcourt, and the inaugural North American and Europe Hardcourt Bicycle Polo championships were both held in August 2009. Yes, there are official leagues and tournaments for the hundreds of bike polo clubs around the world.
The Raleigh Bike Polo club has traveled to Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and Gainesville for tournaments. In early March, the group hosted Raleigh's first polo tournament, the Oak City Open, part of a weeklong bicycling festival called Oaks and Spokes.
Michelle Willcox, a 23-year-old software developer who Durkee calls the group's "bike mama," organized the event. She helped found Wilmington's polo league and then brought the game to Raleigh when she moved here for work. Four teams competed, and the club from Charleston, S.C.—a group of seasoned players who have played for years longer than the Raleigh team—won.
"They basically killed us," Willcox says. "But it was more fun than anything else."
Indeed, it's the fun that seems to be the glue of this group, whether on-court or off.
"When I came to Raleigh after graduating from college, I hardly knew anyone," Willcox says between sips of PBR. "Now these guys are my closest friends."
This article appeared in print with the headline "This ain't Ascot."