What do you get when you put four to six cyclists armed with mallets in a community skating rink? Well, if you visit the Ritchie Community League on a Monday or Thursday night, you’ll get a glimpse of Edmonton Bike Polo in action. Every year, as soon as spring allows, they take to the blacktop and boards to engage in one of the more unique sports you’ve likely never heard of.
While traditional polo — played on horseback — is historically a sport of the elite, hardcourt bike polo is a grassroots game. Started by couriers in Seattle in the early 2000s, players built their own mallets from aluminum ski poles and PVC pipe, engaging in three-on-three matches wherever they could find an empty stretch of asphalt. As the sport spread, they began making use of tennis courts and paved community rinks to play both locally and in league tournaments around the world.
True to these roots, the game allows for a wide variety of personal expression as players customize their bikes to suit their style of play, protecting their spokes with decorative homemade wheel covers, and themselves with their chosen selection of hockey, skateboarding and cycling gear.
According to EBP founding member Neil MacDonald, the basic skills aren’t hard to acquire.
“Normally it takes one or two nights. It helps to know how to ride a bike. Having played team sports — knowing positions, plays, when to pass — definitely helps,” he said.
The rules are simple. Players, in teams of three, hit the ball with their mallets, trying to score on the opposing goal. If their foot touches the ground (a fault known as a “dab”), they have to tap out on the boards at the court’s center line before they can re-enter play. They are, however, allowed to “tripod” with their mallet. Players mutually agree on the level of physicality, with a general rule restricting contact to mallet-to-mallet or body-to-body.
EBP got its start in 2009 when MacDonald and some fellow cyclists decided, over a post-ride beer, to try starting a regular game. After investigating several locations around the city, they settled on the Ritchie rink and began playing two or three nights a week. While the core members have varied, they’ve kept up momentum from year to year, attracting new players and connecting with similar groups across Western Canada.
“We’ve had a few tournaments [at Ritchie],” MacDonald said. “Calgary, Saskatoon, Winnipeg and Vancouver — the West Coast teams will come out.”
EBP members also make trips to participate in tournaments in other cities, with three of them recently taking fourth place amongst 10 teams in the Great Plains Qualifier in Saskatoon. “For big tournaments, there’s qualifiers all over North America,” MacDonald explained. “We’re part of the Prairie region and our top three teams get to go to North Americans.”
As a niche sport, bike polo generates a strong sense of community and co-operation. “Calgary really helped with starting us off five years ago,” MacDonald recalled. “And then a year or two later, one of our players moved to Saskatoon and helped start their club off.”
In this spirit of evangelism, EBP actively welcomes new players, readily supplying bikes and mallets for anyone interested in trying the sport. They currently play Monday and Thursday nights at the Ritchie Community League (7727-98 St). To arrange gear or confirm dates of play, prospective players can contact EBP via e-mail or their Facebook group.