It’s a sunny 25 degrees at the Reynolds Park courts on the near east side, yet a dozen cyclists ride in tight circles and swing mallets at a small rubber ball. It’s perfect bike polo weather.
“We’re at the Thunderdome,” says Megan Saucke, a bike polo veteran. “This is the original site of Madison bike polo.”
It looks like bike jousting while chasing a ball. “Bike polo is...hmm,” Saucke says, struggling to describe it. “It’s basically hockey on bikes.”
An emissary for the sport, Saucke gives a quick, practiced rundown of the rules. “You have three-versus-three on the court, you play first-to-five or whoever has the highest score in 12 minutes. Can’t put your foot down, so if you put your foot down you have to go tap your mallet at the center of the court to re-enter play,” Saucke explains.
One end of the mallet is hollow, allowing a skilled player to scoop the ball. The other side is flat for shooting goals. “There are no set goalies; you kind of rotate in and out of positions based on how the game goes,” says Sauke. “It’s pretty dynamic.”
It can be a rough-and-tumble game, with high speeds in close quarters. Body-to-body contact is allowed, as is stick-to-stick. Some players wear shin guards and hockey gloves, but just as many take their chances.
It doesn’t really require specialized equipment, but Saucke has a few tips for those looking to get into the sport. “You want a bike with a shorter geometry, so it can turn faster. You want a single-speed with a low gear ratio so you can get going pretty quickly. Straight bars, no drop bars — those can be pretty dangerous. Most people go front brake only — though some people are still old school and go back brake. They skid around; that’s fun to watch.”
Winter on Wheels
Bike polo was born in Ireland in the late 19th century, with the first games taking place on the verdant fields south of Dublin. The modern variant traces its roots to the Seattle bike messenger scene of the late 1990s.
“I want to say the summer of 2005 is when we started playing bike polo here in Madison,” chef and player Jonny Hunter says. A few bike messengers came up from Chicago, where the bike polo scene was starting to grow. “They put together a game, and the next week, we all built mallets and started playing.” Jonny and his brother Ben became polo evangelists, organizing games and loaning equipment.
They stumbled onto the tennis courts by accident. Most Midwestern bike polo teams are dormant in the winter. But at Reynolds Park, the courts are heated by the water reservoir below, making for a pristine playing surface regardless of the weather. “We were wondering when the snow was going to stick up there, and it never did, so we finally thought ‘oh, we can play all year long.’ That was huge.”
The Madison scene grew quickly, and soon city teams were placing high at nationals and the world championships. There were growing pains. “We needed to have courts [at Reynolds Park], so we were taking two-by-sixes and placing them out into a court, then moving them off to the side of the tennis courts for storage,” Hunter says. “And Parks would come and take our stuff, or the water utility.” Hunter and others lobbied the Parks Division to get polo recognized as a legitimate use for the neglected tennis courts. “But they were not very interested in new sports at that time,” Hunter says.
The department eventually came around. In 2014, the city officially designated the Reynolds Park courts as bike polo courts. The following year, they replaced the makeshift wooden boundaries of the court with durable prefab walls. Now the club plays regularly — Sunday afternoons in the winter; Tuesdays and Thursdays once the days get longer.
Polo is a small sport, but when people get into it, they tend to go whole-hog. “It’s also a really progressive community. It’s one of the few all-gender sports, where you’re not segregating by sex or gender,” Saucke says. “We have lots of trans and nonbinary players. Vegans, anarchists, people all over the spectrum. Mark over there is a cellist and a music teacher, Tony’s a helmet research engineer. Tommy is an apple farmer. We’ve got lots of interesting people.”
1891: The year bike polo was born, the brainchild of Irish cyclist R.J. Mecredy. The first games took place in County Wicklow south of Dublin.
3: Consecutive national titles won by the Beaver Boys, formerly of Milwaukee, which eventually relocated to the West Coast in search of tougher competition. The team also won two world titles, in 2010 and 2013.
1908: The only year bike polo made it to the Olympics. Then called “cycle polo,” it made the Olympic roster as a demonstration sport at the London games. Ireland beat Germany for the gold, 3-1.
.97: Number of miles I rode during a single 12-minute game. Average speed: just under 5 miles per hour, or barely enough to stay upright.