Not the royal game: Cincinnatians play bike polo with homemade gear and a punk rock vibe

CINCINNATI - The sports scene in the Tri-State is more than Reds and Bengals, right? We are happy to introduce a new feature about offbeat athletics by WCPO contributor Ben Walplole.

Perhaps it’s fitting that Coy Bike Polo Court sits next to a row of Clifton Heights fraternity and sorority houses.

The Cincinnati Hardcourt bike polo club, after all, is a family of sorts. The club may not have any Greek letters adorning its name, but team members share a common bond that runs deep: a unique love for a unique sport.

“If I didn’t have this, I might… I don’t know,” said Hardcourt veteran Mike Tackett, smiling. “You play polo, you don’t have to think about anything; you just play. It’s a pure adrenaline rush.”

Not to be outdone by their frat house neighbors, Cincinnati Hardcourt players certainly know how to have a good time.

In the last week of May, the club hosted its annual Bike Prom in which cyclists dress to the nines, ride from Northside to downtown and back, and then party all night. In August, they host a party that manages to combine bike polo, fusbol and drinking games.

And Thursday evening’s pickup games at Coy had an extra edge recently: anticipation for the annual regional qualifier tournament in Indianapolis on June 1.

“Everybody’s stepping up their game a little bit,” said club member A.J. Brady. “Sunday is the reason we all do this. The dream is to make it to the World Championships.”

UPDATE: The Cincinnati Hardcourt bike polo club sent 11 representatives to the Heartland Region tournament, May 31 and June 1, in Indianapolis, and three qualified for the North American tournament.

Chris Evans was on the third-place team, Hustle and Muscle, joining two players from Lexington.
Thomas Brannan and Ian Bulling were on the fifth-place team, Twice Removed, with a player from Cleveland.

So what exactly is bike polo?

The simple answer: Polo on bikes instead of horses. But there’s more to it than that.

The standard game is 3-on-3, with cyclists swinging mallets at a street hockey ball in an oval rink with small rectangular goals on either end. Games usually run 12 minutes or until a team scores five goals.

The bikes often are custom frames. The mallets tend to be homemade: sawed-off ski poles with pieces of industrial pipe attached as the mallet head.

“I love the DIY ethic,” Brady said. “Everybody works on their own bikes. There’s kind of a punk rock spirit to the whole thing.”

The action is fast and the play can get physical. The rules allow mallet-to-mallet, body-to-body and bike-to-bike contact.

Tackett (pictured below), a Mount Washington resident, helped shape the Cincinnati Hardcourt club’s direction during the last six years along with Chris Evans and Alan Dykstra. He considers himself “lucky” because he’s only been hit in the mouth a few times, shaking loose a couple teeth. He once saw a fellow Hardcourter get his leg caught in the triangle of his bike frame, snapping his femur.

“He took it like a champ,” Tackett said. “He just kind of laid there, looked at the sky and grabbed his drink.”

The cyclists usually lean over their handlebars, exposed, lunging at opponents or teammates. Tournament rules require protective gear and helmets, but on a Thursday night at Coy the Cincinnati Hardcourt crew tends toward minimalism. Heck, most of them don’t even wear shirts.

For some, the danger is part of the appeal.

Dykstra, a Newport resident, has been playing for about five years. His friend sold him on the sport initially by saying, as he remembers, “Hey, you like doing dangerous stuff on bikes.”

“I bled a lot the first day. I cut my shin,” Dykstra said. “So yeah, I was really into it.”

The birth of a sport

Bike polo has come a long way since its start in Seattle more than a decade ago. Kevin Walsh remembers organizing club events on Myspace.

Based in Madison, Wisc., he saw the sport growing to the point where he wanted a better home base, so he started leagueofbikepolo.com.

“Two-thousand and eight was kind of the year it blew up,” said Walsh, who now lives in Toronto. “It went from 10 to 15 cities, to like 100 cities.”

Major bike polo hubs in the Midwest include Indianapolis, Lexington, Columbus and Bloomington. Cincinnati’s scene started about eight years ago and continues to develop.

Joe Zugelter, affectionately known as "Joe Zoo," started playing in Texas before moving home to Cincinnati. He now serves as Cincinnati Hardcourt’s club rep.

“I love it here,” Zugelter said. “We don’t have as big a bike culture (as Austin), but it’s definitely there, and it’s kind of more fun to be in on something as it’s growing.”

The 2012 opening of Coy Bike Polo Court, a Cincinnati Recreation Commission park at 398 Joselin Ave. in Clifton Heights, certainly helped.

The club meets every Thursday and Sunday, playing early afternoon until dark.

Newbies welcome

Brady recently left Louisville and moved into a Northside house with Zugelter and three other bike polo enthusiasts. One of the main reasons? Bike polo. He had grown tired of the Louisville scene and

knew Cincinnati had a club on the rise.

“I heard they were playing three days a week,” Brady said. “That’s not entirely uncommon. Some people move exclusively for polo. We’ve got four bedrooms, an attic and a basement full of bikes.”

One of the key draws for the Cincinnati Hardcourt club and the sport in general is a friendly attitude toward newcomers. The club has Newbie Nights each month for rookies to watch or try out loaner bikes.

“People who are into it have been pretty welcoming,” Walsh said. “The DIY nature of our sport means that people are great with rookies, showing them the ropes and passing them the ball.”

Most newcomers have at least some familiarity with cycling and bikes, but even that is not a must. Some people learn the sport from scratch, though it takes time and patience.

“Almost nobody just picks up a stick and just hits a ball,” Zugelter said. “I guess every once in awhile you’ll get that BMX’er who played hockey. But it takes years to get really good. Within a couple months you can score goals and get physical, if that’s what you’re looking for.”

Thursday night’s pickup play at Coy featured a first-timer. He watched the first game before jumping in to play in the second match. And he held his own.

The other, far more experienced, players passed him the ball regularly and supported him even as he had a few predictable swings and misses.

“I tell people, ‘Don’t get discouraged. You’re going to do awful at first,’” Dykstra said. “But if you’re having fun even then, you’re going to love it.”

Coed? Of course

Bike polo is not a boys-only scene. One of Cincinnati Hardcourts’ most skilled and experienced players is a woman, Kelly Strosser.

Elese Daniel (pictured below), too, is traveling with the club this weekend for tournament play. Her journey to the sport is interesting even among a cast of interesting Hardcourt characters.

She grew up a basketball star in South Bend, Ind., earning a four-year scholarship at the University of Cincinnati.

She was a 5-foot-10 forward for the Bearcats, graduating in 2013 with a degree in journalism and creative writing.

She brought her bike to campus as a sophomore – pink with a giant banana seat – so the interest had always been there. The connection to the Cincinnati Hardcourt crew began at last year’s Bike Prom.

“I like dressing up and being fancy,” Daniel said. “So I went on the (Bike Prom) ride, and they kept asking me to play. I scored a goal my first time. I felt like a badass, and I kept playing.”

Daniel fell off her bike celebrating that first goal, but her passion for the sport remains unbruised. In just eight months, she’s already traveled to Columbus, Louisville and Indy for games. Her favorite is the court in Louisville, so small it can only support 2-on-2 games. More importantly, she laughed: “It’s connected to the back of a bar.”

No doubt Daniel’s background in basketball helps with bike polo strategy and teamwork. Many people come to the sport with a history in team sports. Zugelter played lacrosse and football at St. Xavier High School.

“There was still that competitive sort of thing that I didn’t even know I missed until I found it,” he said.

And as for being a woman in the bike-polo ranks, Daniel said she doesn’t even think about it.

“Everybody’s nice to you because you just started,” she said. “After a week they’re like, ‘OK, you’re one of us now. I’m gonna hit you into these boards.’ “But I give it back to them, I think.”

Win or lose, a community

Chris Evans launched shot after shot from midcourt Thursday night, rifling the ball into the net from long range at high speed. He’s very good at what he does.

Evans, Dykstra and Ian Bulling made Cincinnati bike polo history, qualifying for the North American championship last summer.

Evans and Dykstra are competing again this weekend, albeit on different teams, in hopes of returning to nationals and maybe even moving on to worlds.

Win or lose, though, the bike-polo community is first and foremost just that: a community. Players routinely travel out of town for pickup games or tournaments, crashing on couches and sleeping on floors of other bike-polo enthusiasts.

“It’s kind of a big family,” Walsh said.

Said Zugelter: “Bike polo has more of a community than any sport I’ve ever been part of. It’s really small and tight-knit. I can travel to most major cities and have almost instant friends even if I don’t know anyone.”

Even on the eve of the big regional tournament, the vibe at Coy was fun and welcoming. Club members worked on each other’s bikes, sharing stories and drinks. Dykstra cued up his iPod, playing a mixture of punk, hardcore and hip hop mashups through a pink speaker balanced on the edge of the rink.

Daniel summed it up well: “We’re just some cool people riding bikes and stuff.”

If you’re interested…

Got an offbeat sports story to share?

Connect with WCPO Contributor Ben Walpole: ben.caps.walpole@gmail.com

(Photos by B. Walpole)

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