NEW YORK — They call it “the pit.” On a shady asphalt lot between Chrystie and Forsyth streets on the Lower East Side, a young man in glasses and a faded tank top walked around with a leaf blower, sending twigs, grit and debris into its far corners.
Clara Flores, 37, showed up with a backpack full of gear. When she plays, she wears a regulation hockey face cage, cyclocross elbow pads, knee and shin guards. When the weather gets cooler she wears hockey pants as well, but it was too hot for that in August. Flores is from Mexico, and she started playing hardcourt bike polo with the New York team three years ago. “It was a little intimidating at first, but I feel very comfortable now. It’s like a second home.”
The game has been played in this urban lot for over a decade. To warm up, men and women in thick hockey gloves practice by biking in tight circles, holding a lightweight mallet and maneuvering around a small ball while pedaling constantly. (Putting a foot down is a violation.) One woman unpacked two nets from her backpack and started stringing them across the goals on either end of the court. The game is a bit like street hockey, with more tattoos, as a general rule. And on bikes.
As the action started, couples, families and a few older men stopped to sit on benches near the pit, trying to figure out just what was going on, cellphones raised to record the action. With two teams of three players each on the court, the objective was immediately apparent — to outmaneuver the other team’s players, and to keep the ball away from your team’s goal while scoring on theirs. The castanet-like sound of the mallets hitting one another is sometimes drowned out by the good-natured heckling of other players sitting on the sidelines.
This onlooker enthusiasm is just what the North American Hardcourt Bike Polo Association is trying to tap into and build upon. The sport has evolved from being a ragtag game played by self-proclaimed bike obsessives to one with national and international regulating organizations. Companies like Enforcer and Poloandbike are making polo-specific bike frames; you can now buy bike polo mallets on Amazon.
The origin story of hardcourt bike polo begins in the late 1990s, when, apparently, bored bicycle messengers in Seattle played around with makeshift gear to entertain themselves between jobs. It became a cult sport in the aughts. And in recent years, the sport’s governing body has made a bid to go mainstream, like ultimate Frisbee or even skateboarding. By trying to change the competitive format of the game from a traditional three-versus-three to “squad” or “bench” play, larger teams of up to nine members would be able to swap out players, games can be extended from 15 to 50 minutes long.
Attempts to recruit more women and younger players to the sport has also led to the barring of body-on-body contact like checking or high sticking — using your mallet above the handlebars as a parrying tool.
At tournaments, the game looks a lot different than it did back in the mid-2000s, when the New York team formed. “Rules happened, and when rules happened, fun stopped,” said a bike mechanic who calls himself Chombo, a longhaired player who was an early member of the city’s hardcourt bike polo community. “It’s drawn a little bit of a division from the people who want to play it like an organized sport to the people who want to come ride their bikes and have fun,” he said on a recent Sunday afternoon.
Alias Tagami, president of the North American Hardcourt bike polo association, put it this way: The prime rule of bike polo used to be, simply, don’t be a jerk. “That used to be good enough,” he said. “And now it’s not.”
Tagami is interested in attracting a more mainstream audience for the sport, which means new rules and higher visibility. “The game as it is now rewards technical skill, teamwork, and coordination in the way that most traditional sports do,” he said. He pointed out that if the games were extended to a defined 50 minutes, it would be ideal to fill an hourlong television slot.
Hardcourt bike polo enjoyed rapid growth between 2010 and 2014, when chapters popped up everywhere from Berlin to Buenos Aires, but the infrastructure lagged behind. Teams struggle to carve out spaces to play without official courts or permits, travel to tournaments is self-funded, and even organized teams lack uniforms. “With that kind of infrastructure gap, we need to be working backward, we need to be building courts and working with cities and finding sponsors,” Tagami added. “It’s not going to be appealing TV or entertainment if it’s just filmed underneath a bridge with bad lighting. There’s no compelling narrative.”
The sport is also feeling the pressure to evolve, with many of the game’s early innovators now in their 30s or 40s. Teams (like bands and other indie group efforts) fall apart when people marry, start families, move away, or just get tired. The challenge is to bring new blood in while honoring the original culture of the game.
For all of the regulations put in place over the years, hardcourt bike polo is still pretty quirky. When Youn, the firefighter, flew off her bike in a particularly hard tournament game against Pennsylvania, the New York referee flipped frantically through a printout rule book to try and find the protocol for time outs and injury.
The players at the pit remain devoted to each other and to the sport, but also to just having a good time. “At the end of the day,” Flores said, “you rode your bike in circles all day with your friends and had fun. How many adults our age wouldn’t want to do that?”