Niche sport goes legit
ASHLAND — Jake Crawford realized recently that the nichiest of niche sports, bike polo, was becoming legit when the market began to assimilate some of their homespun methods for gerry-rigging gear.
For years, he played this two-wheeled version of the sport of kings by swinging a mallet made from plastic pipe and a broken ski pole while pedaling a beater bike with the spokes cloaked with chicken wire to keep the ball, and other players’ mallets, from getting stuck.
Now his two-wheeled steed is a “polo-specific” bike made in Portland with spokes fitted with special plastic covers. He swings a mallet crafted in Spain during games like those staged each Monday at Ashland’s Hunter Park.
Considered an outlaw sport just a few years ago, bike polo has gone legit.
“We’re definitely legit,” Crawford says. “We have gear now made just for bike polo.
“Maybe one of these days, we’ll be sponsored as pros and make hundreds of dollars,” Crawford laughs.
From their old days of sneaking into parking garages and tennis courts, bike polo aficionados in Ashland and elsewhere have shed much of those what-are-you-guys-doing looks to become part of the fabric of the cycle world.
Locally, the group is in its sixth year of games played at 7 p.m. Monday nights — rain or shine — at Hunter Park’s Court 5 and with no worries about cops lurking in the darkness.
Not only has the Ashland Parks and Recreation Department allowed the game they once ran off their courts, they have embraced it. In fact, the city has helped modify the court with fencing and a gate to keep the weighted plastic ball they’re hitting from careening onto nearby courts.
“They saw that we were serious and good folks,” says bike polo veteran Geoff Houghton, who plays on a unicycle. “They said, ‘let’s find you a space.’ This is our space.”
The Rogue Valley Bike Polo Group, as they are known on their Facebook page, even has a very nice loaner bike so anyone with an inkling to try this game out — with a helmet, of course — can give it a whirl.
The game is as simple as it sounds.
Teams of three square off on the court against each other with the tennis net taken down. Street-hockey goals are set up at each end. The players pedal up and down while taking whacks at the ball, which is nearly identical to a street-hockey ball. Occasionally, one player will park his bike in front of the net like a hockey goalie, while opponents try to smack the ball through.
The bikes are simple, with a single low gear for easy darting. Shin and knee guards as well as helmets are staples. Crashes are inevitable.
“This can be a really rough sport, so you definitely have to learn how to play well with others,” player Jonathan McKinnon says.
Over time, the game has become so addicting that the real world has to play well with his bike-polo schedule.
“I cook in restaurants and I try to revolve my schedule around it, McKinnon says. ”When I get a new job, I tell them that I need my Monday nights.“
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 out 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 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 Briscoe School in Ashland during daylight times, but went to the Ashland city parking garage near the Oregon Shakespeare Festival on Monday nights.
“Shakespeare was (dark) on Mondays, so that’s how the Monday tradition started,” Houghton says. “It was covered. there were lights. Occasionally there was a car or two parked on the bike polo court. The nerve of them.”
Eventually, a complaint led Ashland police to run them out in what Houghton called a “hug and release.”
“’Oh, we’re sorry,’” he says. “’We won’t do it again.’”
They remained the cordial biker-polo gang until leaders forged the relationship with city parks staff, “who have been nothing but great to us,” Houghton says.
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or email@example.com.