Great bike-handling skills. This is the first thing that strikes you when you watch the Madison Bike Polo group play. It's a warm Sunday afternoon on the tennis courts at Reynolds Park, and two teams of three riders - each with a mallet in one hand, handlebars gripped in the other and both feet on the pedals - are going after a street-hockey ball yet somehow avoiding collisions with each other. Except for that one collision a minute ago. And the solitary wipeout several minutes before that.
Still, with six players accelerating and braking and maneuvering back and forth across the court, it's impressive that crashes are not more routine. It's as if each player is hard-wired with some combination of radar, sonar, GPS and innate court sense that gives them a heightened awareness of where they are in relation to everyone and everything with which they might come into contact.
"It's good to have strong biking skills," understates local bike-polo veteran Jonny Hunter. Even so, the learning curve "is really steep. I'd say it takes a good three months to learn to not run into people on your bike."
At 29, Hunter is one of Madison's most experienced players. He, his brother Ben and their friend Kevin Walsh constitute a team that stands as the three-time defending Midwest champion. At the third biannual Midwest Championships last October in Milwaukee, Hunter and company overcame their opponents' home-court advantage in a victory that was emblematic of the developing rivalry between Madison and Milwaukee.
"We've had some very, very intense games with them," says Hunter, whose team will defend its title on Saturday, May 3, when Madison hosts the fourth biannual Midwest Championships at Reynolds Park, a.k.a. the Thunderdome. Hunter expects 15 to 20 teams from Chicago, Milwaukee and elsewhere to try to wrest the title away from Madison.
The contemporary version of bike polo gained traction around the turn of the century out in Portland, Ore., notes Hunter, who adds that an earlier form of the game has been traced back some 100 years.
A partner with his brother in Underground Catering, Hunter took up the sport in the spring of 2004, when "some bike messengers from Chicago came up here and put on a game. My brother and I played with them." Both were hooked, and soon found themselves at the nucleus of Madison bike polo.
They crafted mallets out of used ski poles and segments of quarter-inch pipe. Before long, they were building their own bike-polo steeds out of lugged steel bike frames dating from the 1970s and '80s, equipped with strong Velocity Deep V rims, front brakes, shortened mountain-bike handlebars and one-speed drive trains with low gear ratios.
Starting out on grass, they soon switched to the hard-court surfaces favored by players in other cities. There are now enough local players, Hunter says, that Madison often sends three or four teams to a tournament. At least two Madison teams will venture to the World Championships in Toronto this June.
Much of the game's appeal may be attrib-utable to its simplicity. "The rules are pretty minimal," Hunter says. Games go to five points, and tend to last 20 to 30 minutes. Starting sometime between 2 and 3 on a Sunday afternoon at Reynolds Park, local bike-polo enthusiasts might be able to squeeze in nine games before sundown.
If you touch a foot down you're out of the play and must tap a designated point on the court with your mallet before returning to action. "It's considered bad form to take someone else's bike out," Hunter adds.
"We haven't had any serious injuries yet," he continues. Bruises and scrapes are the most common, despite a general reluctance by many players to wear protective gear. "We don't feel like helmets will help because we're not really moving that fast," Hunter explains. "I think it's more about being smart. Knowing when to back off."
Other casualties of the game include the bikes themselves. Spokes get broken, wheels mangled, frames dented and sometimes trashed. But for bike-polo enthusiasts, such hazards are dwarfed by the thrill of playing the game. "It is," Hunter says, again understating, "pretty addictive."