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Sport of Kings — on wheels

ASHLAND — Two opponents get tangled in the corner when the purpose of their confrontation, an orange ball, squirts toward Eric Michener, who's quickly off to the races.

With short, powerful pedal strokes, Michener glides his bicycle down the tennis court while pushing the ball along with his mallet, circling behind the goal before eyeing a teammate coming into play.

With a hard whack of his plastic mallet, the ball, about the size of a tennis ball, flies toward his racing teammate but ends up striking the goalie's tire and caroming into the net.

"I try that shot all the time, knocking it off the tire from behind, but that was supposed to be a pass," Michener laughs. "Hey, a goal's a goal."

But a bigger goal of Michener is to have others discover how fun it is to swap hooves for tires to partake in the growing sport of bicycle polo, a hard-court version of the Sport of Kings but on wheels.

The growing niche sport has taken hold in Ashland, where the group Rogue Valley Bike Polo is showing any and all who will watch what transpires when you blend beater bikes, mallets, a ball and a couple of goals. 

For bike nerds like Jonathon McKinnon, it represents the perfect blend of sporting aggression and kicking around with the guys. 

"Being aggressive and at the same time being playful," McKinnon says. "It's having fun being adults but playing with your friends like kids."

Play starts after the tennis net comes down at 6 p.m. every Monday on Court 5 in Ashland's Hunter Park. The club has more than a dozen members and a half-dozen or so show up rain or shine year round. They all wear helmets, and some wear an assortment of knee and elbow pads.

Newbies are welcome, whether they have a beater bike of their own to trick out for polo or they use a loaner that club member Eric Michener keeps at his Rogue Bicycle shop in Ashland.

That's how Emily Cureton came to play. She was jogging through the park last month when the regulars called over to her because they were short one player.

"I thought they were cat-calling me," Cureton says.

She quickly took to the fast pace and randomness of it — to the point where bike polo beat out a women's running group for her Monday workout.

"It's something new and exciting," Cureton says. "It's kind of terrifying with a bunch of dudes coming at you on bikes real fast. But they slow down when I play. It would be good to get more beginners."

While exciting, it's hardly new.

Bike polo traces its roots to the United Kingdom in the late 1800s, when men played in large teams and on vast green lawns like the equestrian version. It was even an unofficial featured sport at the 1908 Olympics in London, but its popularity quickly waned and it all but disappeared.

Then some members of Seattle's bicycle messenger fleet were bored one day in 1999 and started knocking a ball around alleys, parking lots and even rooftops. It latched on quickly within the bike culture, spreading in larger cities to a point where it is now represented by North American Hardcourt, which has standardized the equipment and rules.

Games are three-on-three and played with street hockey nets anywhere from open lots and parking garages to tennis courts. Teams are chosen randomly by one person blindly picking the players' mallets. The first to five goals wins.

The bikes are stout and tall, with a single handbrake for the player's off hand. Gears are a single low speed to emphasize darting quickness over top speed. Wheels have spoke protectors so they can block shots more effectively while playing goalie.

"That's my favorite shot of all-time, hitting it through someone's spokes," says Michener, a four-year vet who joined Jefferson Bike Polo two years after it was formed.

One player typically will guard the goal while it's two-on-two on the open court. The play suggests hockey more than polo, with players carrying the puck forward with their mallets, passing back and forth before winding up for shots.

Individual games last anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes before they reshuffle the mallets and play again. Games here last as late at 11 p.m., when Hunter Park's lights wink out for the night.

Wrecks are part of the game, like when Cureton and John Mattingly collided, bending one of the wheels on Mattingly's bike. He literally tossed it aside for a loaner so play could resume, then smashed the tire on the ground until it spun again in the bike frame.

"That'll work," he says.

Michener once put a mileage counter on his bike and tallied a half-mile of riding in fits and darts in one game. The game, however, can take cyclists much farther.

Nicholas Lidtke was living off the grid on 300 acres in Minnesota when he came to Ashland to attend the United Bicycle Institute in October 2014.

"Someone said, 'Go play bike polo,' " Lidtke says. "I did and never left."

At first he dismantled his electric bike because juiced wheels are illegal. Then he bought a beater bike at Michener's shop and rarely misses a Monday.

"Come back every week, you get better and better," he says. "I wouldn't consider myself that good, but pretty decent."

Likewise, so is Rogue Valley Bike Polo.

For the first five years, club members played at various tennis courts, taking down the nets and playing until they got run off the courts. Then Michener lobbied the Ashland Parks and Recreation Department for space and found a friendly ear.

The club's been legit for a year now, with Court 5 at Hunter Park set aside for them each Monday — and no more cops.

"Now it's like 'over the counter,' " Michener says.

The club plans to host a tournament this summer, drawing teams from throughout the Pacific Northwest to showcase the splendor of their growing sport.

"We're trying to show people we're an actual sport," Michener says. "We're not just a bunch of rag-tag kids, but that's part of the truth."

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

Nicholas Lidtke, left, reacts as Emily Cureton collides with John Mattingly, bending his rear tire and sending him off his bike Monday during a bike polo game at Hunter Park in Ashland. Mail Tribune / Denise Baratta