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Pastimes: Steeds With Wheels

Chicago Bike Polo hosts a Champeenship.



Just about every Sunday in the warmer months members of Chicago Bike Polo convene on a grassy patch in the southeast corner of Humboldt Park for a leisurely day of games. The average turnout is about a dozen guys on a range of wheels, from mountain bikes to fixed-gear roadsters. They play three-on-three, one match at a time, and snack and drink beer between matches. When nine members met up on a recent Thursday evening, however, the vibe was decidedly less casual. They discussed strategy and pored over prearranged plays--actual Xs and Os on a page. It was two days before the second biannual Mid-west Bike Polo Champeenship, and seeing as they were hosting, they wanted a shot at the cup.

The guys huddled around Lucky, the 33-year-old carpenter and furniture maker and bike enthusiast who handcrafts their mallets. "Their up-field passing killed us last year," he told his mates. "They had the better game plan." Lucky (who didn't want to give his real name) was referring to the reigning champions, a team from Madison comprising a doctoral candidate in sociology and two brothers who run a catering company. "Usually they humiliate us," said Mike Morell, the 30-year-old cofounder of the worker-owned and -operated 4 Star Courier Collective, "which is really sad, because we pretty much showed those guys how to play."

Although it was Lucky who initiated and organizes the Champeenship, none of Chicago's teams made it past the initial round at the first tournament this past November. Lucky says that's because Chicago Bike Polo is more of a social club than anything, while Madison's players are legendary for their competitiveness. They practice three times a week--even in winter--and tweak their bikes constantly; these days, says Jonny Hunter, one of the Madison brothers, they prefer a single-speed road bike with a freewheel.

"They have no regard for their bikes, and even less for life and limb," Morell said. The 28-year-old Jonny, who also works part-time as a bike messenger, admits to having dislocated his shoulder about six times playing polo, including at the first Champeenship. His brother, Ben, 26, has been known to bend wheels over his head for the sheer theatrical pleasure of it.

The Champeenship was held that Saturday not in Humboldt Park but at Addams Park on the near west side, where Lucky figured there'd be fewer crowds for Cinco de Mayo. (Chicago Bike Polo has been unable to officially reserve park space for play and was told by one Park District employee that bike polo wasn't allowed. The group, however, staged exhibition games upon request at Grant Park during the Bike the Drive after-ride festival on May 27.) As competitors were warming up, checking their equipment, and cracking beers, Ben Hunter came hurtling out of nowhere holding aloft the Champeenship cup--a chrome dog bowl mounted on a block of wood. Bellowing like a Highlander clansman, he hurled it to the ground like a gauntlet and then spun around and sped back toward his teammates.

The champs---Ben, Jonny, and 29-year-old Kevin Walsh, who learned to shoot playing hockey in his native Toronto--looked like malevolent preppies. They carried their mallets in an old golf bag and wore pink argyle knee socks and custom polo shirts with mad bike polo printed over a Polo-esque logo of a man straddling a bike and wielding a mallet. Asked if his team had a name, Ben replied: "You can pretty much call us the Champions."

Ben Schultz, a 30-year-old mechanic at the Wicker Park bike shop Rapid Transit and a big bike polo enthusiast (not only is he on a Chicago team but he just got back from New York City, where he played in an east coast tournament), stifled a response. "I'm competitive," he said later. "Not as much as some people I've seen, but it affects me. I lose sleep over it, I will say that."

Altogether there were 11 teams at the Champeenship, down from 15 at the first: three from Milwaukee, four from Chicago, three from Madison, and one from Lexington, Kentucky. Teams from Minneapolis, Detroit, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dayton, Kansas City, and Chicago's Indiana exurbs all dropped out for one reason or another. (Cleveland's van broke down; one of the guys from Indiana had a kid's soccer game to attend.)

Three playing fields were set up where matches were held simultaneously. Goals, about a mallet-and-a-half wide and marked by orange plastic pillars, were placed roughly 75 to 100 yards apart. There were no sidelines; play was continuous. A game started with the ball at midfield. Each team lined up beside its own goal. With the call "Three, two, one--polo!" players charged toward one another at full speed. The first team to score three goals won. A match was best of three.

Addams Park is at 15th and South Loomis, just east of Ashland. An abandoned factory is to the south, a set of low-slung apartment buildings to the west. A few neighborhood men sat on park benches, watching the games with their arms folded. "I don't understand what these people are doing out here with these damn bicycles," said one. "There's no referees; I don't hear any whistles. And I see this kid over here--look at him! He just conked that guy upside the head with that club! It's like hockey on wheels up over here."

Two middle-aged guys with beers in hand came out of a nearby apartment complex to have a look.

"Where's the horses at?" one said.

"They keep practicing this stuff, they might get it into the Olympics. They ever thought of trying that?" said the other.

As it happens, yes: bike polo was an exhibition event at the 1908 London Games. Depending on your source, it was invented either by an Irish bike racer in the 1890s or by bored British colonialists in India or both. In recent years several American associations have attempted to standardize rules and organize official matches; the International Bicycle Polo Federation has held seven world championships since 1996. These games are played by teams of four, however, and bear about as much resemblance to the Champeenship as the Tour de France does to alley-cat street races. Improvised leagues exist in most major cities and college towns.

The basics of play are simple, with many tactics common to other sports: players set picks and look for assists, play man or zone defense, look for the fast break. If you step off your bike, you have to circle out of play and can't touch the ball until someone else has. You may not intentionally crash into the ballcarrier, a maneuver sometimes called T-boning. You may not kick the ball (though in informal Chicago games it's often allowed). High-sticking is legal, as is hooking an opposing player's mallet with your own and sending it tomahawking through the air. In New York it's legal to poke your mallet into the spokes of your opponent's wheels. Some players prefer to play on hard surfaces, claiming it makes for a more precise and technical game; Chicagoans play on grass.

After the first round of matches at Addams Park the defending champs from Madison were undefeated and got a bye into the semifinals, where they were to face the last Chicago team left in the tournament--Lucky; Mike McGarry, a bike courier and former college rugby player; and Aaron Brown, 31, who's with the Working Bikes Cooperative and is widely regarded as Chicago's best player. (Ben Schultz's team didn't even make it to the quarterfinals, and he'd lost one of his mallets 50 feet up a tree, where he hurled it after an agonizing loss. "Last winter," he swore, "will be the last winter of no polo in Chicago.")

Chicago's strategy for the match, according to McGarry, was "ball control." They had to "shorten the field" and "play 'em close. You can't outrace Madison," he said, "they're too fast." But from the beginning they failed in a big way to play it close. Madison's Ben Hunter got the ball to himself on a fast break and with a fierce backhand shot the first goal from 20 yards out. Moments later Madison scored again, putting them at 2-0.

Then McGarry got the ball on a fast break of his own. Ben Hunter caught him in an all-out sprint but their bikes collided, sending Hunter sprawling and allowing Aaron Brown to claim the ball and shove it home through two defenders. The crowd--about 40 people who collected at the sidelines--erupted into cheers. Then Madison's Kevin Walsh scored on a whooshing line-drive shot from midfield and the first game was over.

The next game went down much the same. Once again Madison jumped out to a 2-0 lead. Lucky and Walsh, who had the ball, collided and fell to the ground; the ball popped loose and again Brown zoomed in and put it through. Seconds later, however, came the anticlimactic end. A cluster of players had formed around Chicago's goal, which Lucky blocked lengthwise with his bike, but somehow Walsh muscled the ball through. Match over, 3-1, 3-1 Madison.

"We did better than we did last year," Lucky said afterward. "We made the semis. And we were the only ones to score on Madison, so I don't feel that bad."

"Madison had everything to lose," McGarry said. "If we'd have won, it would've been the Cinderella story of the tournament."

In the championship game, Madison defeated a team from Milwaukee--3-0, 3-0, though in some ways it was the most competitive, physical game of the tournament.

Hours later at a party at the apartment of a Chicago player, Jonny Hunter took a deep draft of home-brewed beer from the Champeenship trophy cup, wiped his mouth, and took a stab at humility. "I think next year," he said, "we'll have to break up the team."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos by Peter Dianoni.

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