Story by Colleen Kirley
Photos by Christopher Kaiser
It’s eight p.m. at Scadding Court and the autumn sun has already set behind the trees of Alexandra Park. It’s dark, except for the large spotlights beaming down on the ball hockey court. Six men sit on single-speed bicycles - three on each side of the court. With white knuckles (covered by gloves if they're smart) they grip their handlebars.
A twenty-something girl on the sidelines cups her hands around her mouth and yells, “THREE, TWO, ONE…POLO!” and players from each side pump their legs hard, racing into the centre of the court, charging at the ball like knights at a joust.
A young guy with a blue bike and no helmet hooks his homemade mallet around the ball and smacks it across the court. Two opposing players follow the ball as it hits the boards, pedalling hard on its tail. Scraping down the wall, the only player on the court wearing elbow pads manages to free the ball, but not before a member of the other team crashes into his front tire, bringing both men to the ground.
One player topples over onto his side, his bike crashing on top of him. He lies on the ground clutching his shoulder tight to his chest. The other player has jolted forward, over his handlebars, face-planting on the concrete. A teammate drives around the pile of bikes and limbs, scoops the ball from underneath, and the game continues. Crashes like these are a regular scene in the sport of bike polo.
Bike polo is a rough, gritty reinvention of the traditional game of polo most commonly played on horseback by the British upper-class. In a time where everything is pushed to extremes, bike polo is no different. This obscure sport mostly goes unheard of in Toronto, but in the past few years – this past summer especially – it’s finally starting to gain the attention it deserves.
The game is played three on three and the first team to score five points wins. You can only score by hitting the ball with the narrow end of the mallet – using the wide end to score (known as “shuffling” the ball) forfeits the point. No player is allowed to touch the ground with any part of their body, so if a player falls off their bike – which is a usual occurrence – the player needs to “tap out” of the game by announcing that they have fallen. They need to ride to the centre of the court and tap their mallet on the centre line to “tap back in” and continue playing.
In bike polo some contact is allowed, but only mallet to mallet, bike to bike, or player to player. Accidental contact is part of the game and players all have their fair share of collision stories. “I’ve been hit in the face with a mallet,” Christopher Kaiser, a 24-year-old Toronto-based player and photographer says. “It can get pretty physical.” Players wear minimal protection and even if the hits aren’t intentional bikes can get tangled up easily and knock players off balance and to the ground. Kaiser said that he’s been crashing a lot in the past few weeks, “I’m just banged up in general.”
The history of bike polo can be traced back to the 1890s and was played as a demonstration, non-medal game in the 1908 Olympics held in London, UK. The recent resurgence of the sport is credited to young cyclists who became intrigued with the old sport in the late 1990s with teams forming worldwide. Bike polo didn’t reach Toronto until around 2005 when Navid Taslimi, a then 33-year-old bike messenger, stumbled upon an impromptu game being played on the streets of New York City.
In New York for the 13th annual Cycle Messenger World Championships, Taslimi watched a man make a polo mallet out of an empty Sapporo can and broom handle that he found in a nearby garbage can. A group quickly formed and began playing. Taslimi didn’t really understand what he was watching, but in getting a closer look, he realized that he was sitting in on his first game of bike polo.
When he returned to Toronto, he brought his friends together making their first set of mallets out of ski poles and short pieces of ABS plumbing piping. Bike Polo Toronto was born, and the players started learning the rules as they went along. “At first we only had three or four people – not even enough to have a proper three on three game,” Taslimi says.
Today, new players must learn the game quickly to be able to keep up with the veterans. Members of Bike Polo Toronto introduced welcome nights as an opportunity for new players learn the rules of the game and experience game play without feeling intimidated by the skill and intensity that the experienced players possess.
Christopher Kaiser started playing after seeing a bike polo championship in Toronto in 2008. He heard about the game while he was working as a mechanic at La Carrera Cycles on Harbord Street. “It seemed like a lot of fun. I saw the people who were crazy into the game,” Kaiser says. “I got hooked, and after that – I started playing.”
Playing three to five nights a week the league plays for a growing number of fans who sit in and watch the games. “Some of the regulars don’t even know any of the players,” Taslimi says, sounding surprised.
While the sport of bike polo is on the rise in Toronto it still has a few obstacles to overcome, such as finding a dedicated playing court. At Scadding Court the ball hockey and bike polo teams work with each other to set playing schedules. The league has also recently started playing at Dufferin Grove Park, and has worked with the staff to secure dedicated playing time on Thursdays and Sundays. In other cities, such as Ottawa, dedicated polo courts are starting to appear meaning that players don’t have to deal with the scheduling problems the Toronto league has when sharing the public ball hockey rink.
In addition to finding space and time for games Toronto players are face another challenge. Scadding Court is made of slick concrete, so whenever it rains, they have to call off games because the court won’t dry fast enough. “Unless someone wants to go out and squeegee,” Kaiser says, “we usually can’t play.” Plus, the courts get turned into an ice rink once the temperature drops past zero, ending the season.
For winter games, Taslimi is considering moving polo to indoor gymnasiums, either at a local school or YMCA. The players will have to temporarily switch their bike tires to grey wheelchair tires so they won’t scuff the gym floor, and they’ll have to rent out the space, but Taslimi seems confident in the size of the league and the amount of money they can raise from players.
Along with their Facebook page and Twitter account, Bike Polo Toronto recently created a web site to keep players up to date with events and news about the club. The symbol for the group, naturally, is the letters ‘T’ and ‘O’ made from an upside-down mallet and red rubber ball.
The Toronto league has now hosted two largely successful tournaments, with players coming from all over north America and as far as Paris, Geneva, and Sydney. Most recently Toronto held the Northside Regional NAHBPC Qualifier, which was a qualifying tournament for the North American Hardcourt Bike Polo Championship, which was held in Calgary. “The whole club is really coming together,” Taslimi said. “I’m there five nights a week – polo has totally changed my life.”
Emily of Toronto at Northside Regional Qualifier 2011
On this night, while the weather is still playable, they get the most out of the court. A boy on a dark blue bike with a thin frame extends his entire body off of his bike, reaching his mallet out as far as he can stretch. He lightly taps the ball into the net and the force knocks him off his bike with a “thud” so loud that you know he’ll be feeling it still the next morning. “At least I got the point,” he yells victoriously from the ground.