ANYONE FOR POLO?
Polo is the sport of kings; bike polo is the sport of everyman" (or woman). Although often thought of as a trendy new invention, the noble game of bike polo actually began in the 1890s and featured as a demonstration sport in the 1908 Olympics, believe it or not. Although Great Britain scooped the most medals that year, Ireland won the bike polo.
So, what is it, and how do you play? It's similar to polo on horses, but simpler and considerably less posh. It's also a lot like hockey, but bike hockey sounds daft. It's a friendly, inclusive game that's enjoying a surge in popularity at the moment. Originally the game was played on grass; its modern, urban descendant is hard-court bike polo, typically played in basketball courts, five-a-side pitches and sports halls.
All you need are five friends and a fairly smooth, rectangular court with a small goal at each end. You ride a bicycle and use a mallet to hit a ball into said goal. Games last ten minutes. There are usually three players per team; the first team to score five goals wins. If you put a foot down on the ground, you have to return to the middle of the pitch and "tap out" (knock your mallet on the floor).
It's as simple as that, and it's partly this simplicity – plus the fact that it's great fun – which is spurring bike polo's current renaissance.
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Ady Scott, mainstay of the Bristol bike polo scene, said: "It's great exercise, it's really good fun and it's very sociable. You don't have to lay down a load of money to get started.
"As long as you've got a bike and you can ride it one-handed, you're in. We've even got a couple of modified polo bikes people can borrow if need be, and there's always a spare mallet knocking around. We're really supportive of newcomers; we'll show you how to play and take it gently – to begin with at least."
The Bristol scene has been established for five or six years now, meaning there are experienced, tournament-standard players happy to pass on their skills.
"Which means you can get expert coaching for free," says Ady. "Many of the practice sessions are free too.
"Sometimes there's a court fee of around a fiver, but for three hours of polo that's still pretty good value. We try to meet up for as many free sessions as we can at council-owned courts around the city, so anyone can come along and try. You don't need an amazing level of fitness – whatever size you are, whatever age or shape you are, you can play bike polo – the courts are quite small, and they've got no hills."
Bike polo features mixed teams and players' ages range from 12 to 60. This broad, inclusive appeal also helps to drive the sport's popularity. "We've been introducing bike polo skills to kids at schools and council-run adventure playgrounds, which has been successful. Once people come along and play it, they soon get hooked," says Ady.
"We've had an influx of newcomers over the last few months. There are at least six local teams competing at a national level now. We played at the London Open in August, pretty much the biggest tournament in the world. There were 82 teams there from 15 countries including Australia, Taiwan, all over Europe, North America – and Bristol had half a dozen teams there. One was a really new team, they came in the bottom five or six, another came around halfway up the table, and the most successful Bristol team was Team Warin, three brothers called Alfie, Robbie and Tim, who played amazingly and came 13th overall. Alfie's only 13 and he's tiny, yet he's representing Bristol at world level."
Though meeting at free council-owned courts has worked okay so far, many are unlit or too uneven to be ideal for polo, and the ad hoc nature of meet-ups has not been ideal, Ady admits.
"All we've been lacking is a proper venue where we can definitely play every week, same time, same place." So he decided to get on the case. In between running his two businesses, Ady has been busy securing a new home for Bristol Bike Polo at St Paul's Community Sports Academy. "It's just the perfect place to play polo. The position of it in the city is really good, the facilities are amazing. It's unheard of finding courts that are so good for playing polo. We're going to have members' nights on a Thursday, and public sessions on Tuesdays for newcomers and beginners. People can either just turn up and pay and play on the night, or become full members, thereby getting four weekly three-hour sessions for £15 month. "
The hope is that Bristol, thanks to the superb facilities at St Paul's, may soon be hosting major tournaments. "We might even get to host the European Championships in 2013 at St Paul's," says Ady. "We've been contacted by the organisers, and having heard about St Paul's Community Sports Academy, they've expressed an interest in Bristol hosting it. It was in Geneva in 2010, Barcelona in 2011, Paris this year – next year, Bristol. Bike polo is really putting the city on the map."
Find out more at Bristol Bike Polo Facebook Group www.Facebook.com/ groups/bristolbikepolo/ or email firstname.lastname@example.org