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Sport of swings

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ASHLAND — With a makeshift mallet in one hand and his bicycle handlebar grip firmly in the other, Jake Crawford pedals his beater bike fast enough to put some distance between himself and a guy on a unicycle sporting a similar mallet.

Crawford’s mallet guides the ball down the repurposed tennis court toward a goal, winds up as if he were a British royal on a gallant steed and swings at the moving ball.

He whiffs. Then laughs.

When he’s playing bike polo, it’s hard not to.

“It’s a lot of fun to be terrible at something and try to get better,” Crawford says.

Playing the sport of kings while riding $30 bicycles is the essence of bike polo, and it’s a love-it-or-leave-it endeavor for a small cluster of polo-ists who meet at 7 p.m. each Monday at Court 5 in Ashland’s Hunter Park for an evening of action — rain or shine.

They square off three-on-three in this two-wheeled version of high society’s game on horseback, trying to whack a small ball into street hockey nets sometimes blocked by an opponent’s wheel fortified with chicken wire over the spokes.

The action is quick, quirky and more than a bit random, with tires and mallets and sometimes bike frames clashing in collisions that would lead to calls for animal control officers if real animals were subjected to this level of contact.

“It’s just plain old fun,” says Geoff Houghton, an Ashland physician and veteran bike poloist, who is the one on the unicycle. “To be in some light form of combat, it’s a challenge. Being out there, being able to bash people about, take tumbles. As humans, we need a little of that.”

Bike polo traces its roots to Britain in 1891, during the heyday of horse polo.

The bicycle was a relatively new thing but it didn’t take long for someone to figure that replacing horses with bikes was pretty cool. Historians say that someone was R.J. Mecredy, a pretty forward-thinking guy also known as the Father of Irish Motoring. Within five years it was an English club sport, with different towns fielding teams.

It was an unofficial featured sport at the 1908 Olympics in London, where the underdog English squad took gold by beating Germany 3-1.

But World War I got in the way and bike polo kind of fell off the map. It was revived in the 1930s in Europe, then shelved again by world war.

It came late to the U.S. The unofficial lore is that in 1999 some members of Seattle’s bicycle messenger fleet were bored one day and started knocking a ball around alleys, parking lots and even rooftops. It caught on quickly within the bike culture, spreading to other cities and eventually to Ashland.

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.

Ashland police would run them out in what Houghton calls a “hug-and-release” exercise, and the polo players would set up shop in a nearby parking garage before they were run out there.

Things changed in 2015 when team members met with a sympathetic ear from the Ashland Parks and Recreation Department, which designated Court 5 on Monday evenings for them.

Houghton says the department has remained a great partner for them, legitimizing their game and even adding side boards to keep their ball in play.”

Having the boards up and not wondering if the cops are going to surround us like they did one week, it’s great,” Houghton says. “It’s like getting into mischief, except it’s allowed.”

The Monday crew has a little more than a half-dozen regulars, with newbies welcome.

Bike are often tall, single-gear bikes that favor quickness over raw speed and sport a single hand brake for the rider’s non-shooting hand.

Most are beaters like Crawford’s, which he bought for $30 at an Ashland Bike Swap event.

While all are welcome, it’s not for everyone, Crawford says.

“A lot of people show up, they see it and they want nothing to do with it,” Crawford says. “Or they’re crazy and they want to do it. They love it, instantly. And I fell into that camp.

“The guys are great,” he says. “Not a bad way to spend a Monday night.”

Houghton always plays on a unicycle and eschews two-wheelers, which he says “give me the heeby-jeebies.

This is simple and effective,” Houghton says. “I can go backward and they can’t. But I’m a terrible goalie. I can only block with one wheel.”

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

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Daryl Witmore, left, and Geoff Houghton play bike polo at Hunter Park in Ashland on Monday.
Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Daryl Witmore shoots at Jonathon McKinnon while playing bike polo at Hunter Park in Ashland on Monday.