If you knead the often-quoted maxim about necessity being the mother of invention into a mold that already contains a diluted version of Darwinian evolutionary theory as it might be applied to the sports world, then something resembling bike polo is the likely result. The modern modification of the ancient game came into existence long before most of the game's current fans were old enough to even ride a bike, but it's only been recently that the sport has turned shades of hipster thanks to the bike messenger community.
Tug on the thread of urban bike polo and you'll find the other end attached to polo proper, the so-called game of kings, which legend has it, originated in Persia perhaps as early as the 6th century B.C. as a means to train cavalry. The modern adaptation of the game was made popular in India prior to British colonial rule, and since being formalized by the British, has become a gentleman's game played almost exclusively by upper-class sportsmen. However, since it's essentially the horse that renders polo inaccessible and financially prohibitive to modern players, some clever chap simply swapped out the four-legged animal for a mechanical riding device on two wheels—the bicycle.
As for the "ah-ha" moment in polo history when pony riders became pedal pushers, there's no consensus. An Irishman is often cited as the game's creator; the French claim to have originated the game; in 1988, a reporter for The New York Times credited a group of hungover Coloradans with its creation; and some say it was British soldiers stationed in India who first conceived of the game. Regardless, the game's popularity has caught on just enough in the last century to warrant the creation of several very officially named organizations in the United States and abroad, which is why it's yet another mystery as to why the game has heretofore been absent from the radar of Boise's rec-inclined population. Absent until just more than a month ago, that is.
"Basically there's a couple different disciplines in bike polo," explains Charlie Flynn, official organizer and unofficial man-in-charge of Boise's newly formed weekly bike polo game. "There's an actual bike polo association and they sell polo kits, but we're probably leaning more toward the urban bike polo discipline." The urban offshoot, says Flynn, is rooted in Portland and is the brainchild of bike messengers wanting to blow off steam during a full weekend of serious (and seriously fun) alley cat races. Compared to its stuffier kissing cousins in the U.S. Bike Polo Association and the Bicycle Polo Association of America, urban bike polo is like the cooler pickup version.
"The biggest difference is the rules," says Flynn. "That and they're quite a bit more organized as far as actual big events."
When world championship competitions are involved, nit-picky rules that outlaw lefties and specify to the nanometer the playing size of the field are presumably necessary. The list of rules by which Flynn and company play is a slim selection of nine, which is fractional compared to the novel-length rule book the BPAA abides by but mammoth next to the short list of three rules set forth by the regional variation of urban bike polo in Minneapolis (a group of real rogues who play with a wiffle ball bat rather than a mallet).
Join the crowd of gawkers and groupies that forms around the makeshift field at Camel's Back Park on Sundays and it's obvious there aren't too many rules other than "circling out" and having a good time. As one player goes ass over tea kettle after a failed attempt to sink the ball ends in a collision with another player, there's a ripple of snickering from the sidelines. Then there's an order to "circle out," or withdraw from the play to complete a full 360-degree circle before returning to play.
"You'll see a lot of people trying to get away with 270s," says Shawn Fisher, who played one game last Sunday before volunteering to serve as a sort of master of ceremonies, keeping time, counting the score, calling players on fouls that required circling out and divvying up mallets at the start of a new game. "Basically, you circle out after you score a goal, drop your mallet or touch the ground."
Tools of the game are only a bike, a street hockey ball and a homemade mallet, which the players in Boise have fashioned out of disassembled ski poles drilled into a short length of PVC pipe (yet another Midwestern variation uses soccer balls and mallets angled more like hockey sticks).
On the field, six cyclists wield mallets while trying not only to maintain balance but to remain in competitive position to hit the ball. Unlike games in the BPAA or USBPA, whose games are four quarters in 30 minutes, an urban game is a 15-minute (or five-point) mash-up of spokes glinting in the sunlight and sometimes gnarly crashes. Hands cannot be used to block another player, but body-to-body contact is permitted, as is "hooking" (using your mallet to pull another player's mallet out of hand), throwing your mallet to block a goal and stealing (so say the rules: "Stealing is a part of the game. What are we? Gentlemen?").
"A lot of people are still just trying to figure out [the game]," Flynn says. "We're playing on the grass right now, but we're in the process of looking for some areas that are concrete or asphalt. And that's going to make people a little more tentative about how they challenge other people on their bike."
Staging their weekly game at Camel's Back Park, notoriously popular with mountain bikers, was part geographical convenience for the players, but also part ingenious strategy to increase the game's popularity. Both Fisher and Flynn say they get quite a few passersby who want to join in for a game or two. Last Sunday, a father and son on BMXs intently watched a game, and just as they rode off, a trio of young mountain bikers pulled up, trying figure out just what was happening, although none of them had enough faith in their biking skills to try their hand on the field.
So far, the weekend games are still pretty informal. The group is playing pickup games, tipping a few back and just having fun learning to play and drawing potential players into the fold. But even as colder weather approaches (which Flynn says won't stop them from playing), the momentum is gaining as they look for a more permanent asphalt playing surface to call home. Given another couple of months, increased interest could lead to the formation of teams—maybe even leagues—and thus continues the story of urban bike polo's evolution from somewhat obscure roots.
Want to play? Meet Sundays at Camel's Back Park (13th and Heron) between the parking lot and the tennis courts around noon.