The Great Lakes Winter Classic: Debunking Bike Polo Myths

Competitors in the Great Lakes Winter Classic bike polo tournament last weekend. Photo courtesy of Navid Taslimi.

The Great Lakes Winter Classic at the Toronto International Bike Show: Debunking Bike Polo Myths

Story by Sonya Allin. Photos by Robin Sutherland.

Before this weekend’s Great Lakes Winter Classic Bike Polo Tournament at the Toronto International Bike Show, the picture I had in my head of Bike Polo was one that looked something like polo on horses, but supplemented with street savvy and plenty of knocks.  Fun to watch, perhaps, but maybe not for small people with an aversion to bruises, like myself.

What I learned after watching some game play and talking with some of the amazing players in this year’s competition, however, is that my picture is totally inaccurate.  Here are some of the bike polo myths that this weekend laid to rest in my head:

1. Bike Polo is not just horse polo on bikes.

While Bike Polo may have originally been inspired by horse polo more than 100 years ago, Hardcourt Bike Polo (which is the style of the Winter Classic) draws much more from sports like hockey and indoor track cycling.  Each team has three members with mallets and on bikes, the court is the size of a hockey rink and games last 10 minutes or until one team scores 5 points. There’s really no room on the court to see hitting and chasing of the ball like you might in a game of horse polo; instead, there’s a lot more dribbling and maneuvering of the ball, like you might see in hockey.

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The sport is set to become even more hockey-like given the growing popularity of the “bench” format.  In this format, teams are made up of five instead of three people; two members of each team are on the bench at any time.  Games are longer and there’s no limit on scoring. As David Corrin, from the winning Australian/U.S. team named “The Royals” explained, bench format games require “less short term play, more long term play; you use a bit of strategy. They are longer games and more athletic, less ‘smash-and-grab.’” Unlimited scoring potential also means players “play less defensively because each goal doesn’t mean as much; it’s better fun to watch and better fun to play.”

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Members of “The Royals”, winners of the Great Lakes Winter Classic. Members are, from left to right, David Corrin (from Melbourne), Ned Collins (from Perth) and Sean (from Seattle). The Royals beat the team “Rat King” in the finals, with a score of 5 to 1.

2. Player-on-player contact is not a Bike Polo mainstay.

While Hardcourt Bike Polo may resemble hockey in terms of its speed and the dexterity of players, it is really nothing like hockey in terms of player-on-player contact. There’s no body checking, no pushing and definitely no hitting. The whole time that I was at the Winter Classic, I saw perhaps one player take a tumble and no contact was involved.

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As Navid Taslimi of the Toronto Bike Polo League explained, contact rules that are permitted by the North American Hardcourt (NAH Organization) are very clear: only “bike on bike, mallet on mallet, and player on player” contact is permitted. And the rules are continually being revised to limit contact in ways that ensure that the game is safe. "They keep making smarter and smarter rules about contact,” said David. "There are very specific things: you have to go shoulder to shoulder with opponents, if you come up from behind someone much faster than them, it will be a penalty; you can’t check them off their bike.”

Bike Polo requires more in the way of balance and concentration than it does interplayer contact, and players at the Winter Classic were entirely respectful of one another’s boundaries at all times. As Kiki, a Toronto native and member of  “Snack Sabbath” team, explained: "sportsmanship is very important.”

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3. You don’t have to be big and burly to play Bike Polo.

While strategy, balance, poise and dexterity may be key ingredients of bike polo, personal size and gender definitely are not … and you don’t have to be in your 20s to play.

“We’ve got [players that are] a wide range of ages, genders and sizes,” David told me. “A lot of people are worried that if the part is too physical it will exclude certain body types … but I think the evidence says that’s not the case. We can be inclusive if we have the right rule set to allow safe physical contact and to dis-incentivize poor physical contact using penalties. And we’re doing that, and it’s getting much better.”

About a third of the teams in this year’s tournament had at least one female member, and many teams had several more.

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“We try to be as co-ed as possible,” Kiki told me. “There are sex specific tournaments; we have something called the Ladies’ Army which is held annually and that is only women. It’s amazing. But otherwise everything else we do is co-ed.”

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And the diversity of players in the sport is growing, in part due to the welcoming efforts of amazing local organizations like the Toronto Bike Polo League.  The Bike Polo League hosts weekly “rookie” nights on Wednesdays at Dufferin Grove in order to help new players get started with the sport. You can bring any bike and League members will help you slim it down to play. “You don’t want a kick-stand or any kind of racks,” explained Kiki, “because they get in your way.”  But most bikes, even mountain bikes, will serve to get started.

“We start at 7 and go all night,” explained Kiki. “If you have a bike, just bring it. We supply you with a mallet and a helmet ... it’s so fun!”

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Kiki, a Toronto bike courier and member of the team “Snack Sabbath.”

The Royals, who won first place in this year's tournament. Photo by Carlos Gray.

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Related on the dandyBLOG:

Ladies Army 6: International Bike Polo Tournament in Toronto

Recap of the 2015 Toronto International Bike Show

Ladies Army IV: Bike Polo T.O. fundraiser April 7 at Bike Pirates

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