Smile Politely

A different kind of polo

On Friday nights in a deserted parking lot in downtown Urbana, a strange sight can be seen. Half a dozen grown men are riding bicycles in circles, chasing a small fluorescent orange ball in between pairs of similarly-hued traffic cones. A few others are gathered around the periphery, hurling friendly jeers at their saddled friends when they cut a corner too close and take a spill onto the unforgiving asphalt.

Such was the scene I stumbled onto shortly after arriving on campus in the Fall of 2011. Having become quickly acquainted with the altruistic do-gooders at the Bike Project of Urbana-Champaign, it wasn’t long before I was dragged into the seedy underbelly of midwest micro-urban bicycle culture: C-U Bike Polo.

I had heard of bicycle polo before coming to the University of Illinois, but witnessing my first live, in-person match, I realized I had struck on something beautiful. Bike polo is one part punk rock (all the paraphernalia is repurposed components from existing sports cobbled together in a garage workshop) and one part fight club on wheels, purging the perils of a 21st century western lifestyle through frequent and violent collisions with other players, the ground, and occasionally the ball.

Hardcourt bike polo (as distinct from traditional bicycle polo, which is played in grassy fields and has existed since the late nineteenth century) came into being approximately 20 years ago in Seattle as a way for bicycle messengers to spend their down time. The competitiveness of the courier industry transitioned over into the bike polo matches and it wasn’t long before a set of rules was codified and the trend began to spread across the messenger community. In 2010, the North American Hardcourt organization was formed, which divided the continent into seven regions with individual representatives. Around that same time, infrequent pickup games began happening in Champaign-Urbana, but momentum didn’t build until the Fall of 2011 when weekly matches became a regular occurrence.

When it was discovered that I had the tenacity to annoy people on a weekly basis, I was handed the keys to a Google Groups LISTSERV and nobody in Champaign-Urbana with a bicycle and an email address has heard the end of bike polo happenings since. So with this article, I’ve been given a slightly bigger soapbox to stand on. If you’re a cyclist with a flair for the masochistic or just a thrill-seeker of the general variety, I implore you to hop on our Facebook group or join our mailing list for more info about how to join us for our weekly pickup matches. The dramatic rhetoric serves primarily as literary flair; we are a very amateur club and as such, are extremely welcoming to beginners. And even if you are the sort who wouldn’t be caught dead on two wheels, take pride in knowing that there are many people in this town who work ceaselessly to bring the accoutrements of urban lifestyle to our own community, and our greatest desire at C-U Bike Polo is to be counted among the ranks of those fine folks.

Keep on pedaling, Champaign-Urbana!

Photos by Sean O’Connor

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