It starts with a lone bicycle rider, pedaling aimlessly around a tennis court and occasionally popping a wheelie or two.
Then, one by one, the riders appear out of the descending dusk. Someone plugs in an iPod and starts blasting German metal, while others start dragging traffic cones across the court.
Bikes are tossed to the ground, helmets and water bottles pile up, and the conversation starts to drown out the music. Then, as the riders reach a critical mass of about 20, someone gives a shout, and people start throwing their hand-made mallets out onto the court. It’s bike polo time.
Bike polo is just what its name implies, the game of polo, but on bikes rather than horseback, and with a lot less gravitas. While there are large teams in Portland and Seattle, the Corvallis scene is so little known as to make it underground. But it’s certainly not exclusive. Many of the players are Oregon State University students, but there are also plenty of community members with no affiliation to the university.
“If we run into somebody and they’re on a bike, we say ‘Come to bike polo and have a good time,” said Kat Gillies-Rector, an OSU sophomore who started playing bike polo in May. “Fixed gear riders especially…we’re constantly trying to broaden the community.”
During the summer, members play on a tennis court near Linus Pauling Middle School, and between 30 and 40 bike riders usually show up to the weekly event. Afterward, almost everyone heads to Bombs Away Café to refuel. In the winters, they can be found under the overpass at the skateboard park.
The rules are basic. Six players play at time, three against three. They use mallets, mostly homemade, and hit a small orange ball around the court while riding their bikes. Traffic cones serve as goal posts, and players must hit the ball squarely through the posts.
Players must strike the ball with their right hand on the right side of their bike. They cannot touch the ground with their feet, or else they have to stop playing and ride to the side of the court and “tap out” or touch a post with their mallet before getting back into play. The game ends after five total goals are scored.
“Someone told me the first night, you get comfortable and then you get good,” Gillies-Rector said. “And it takes awhile to get comfortable.”
Games are quick, usually between five and ten minutes, and players change with every game to make sure that everyone gets a chance to play. In order to indicate your readiness to play, a player will throw their mallet into the center of the court before a game begins. The first six get to play.
“It’s fast paced, it’s different than anything else,” said OSU Ph.D candidate Kimi Grzyb, who first started playing bike polo in 2003 and recently returned to the sport. “I grew up riding horses and that helps. Once you get into it, it’s pretty exhilarating.”
Although anyone with a bike and a helmet can play, the game favors those with fixed-gear bikes, which are more maneuverable in the fast paced game. There are plenty of spills on the court, hence the helmets, and some people wear jeans to protect their legs.
“You just can’t be afraid. It helps to just go for it,” Grzyb said. “And all these guys are fun and nice to play with.”
The group has loaner bikes and mallets for anyone who wants to try out. Jessica Phillips, a friend of Grzyb and a Ph.D candidate as well, was nervously practicing on the sidelines for her first game.
“I’m not much of a bike rider,” she admitted, taking a break from trying to hit a practice ball with her loaner mallet. “I’m from the Los Angeles area and not a lot of biking goes on there. Steering with one hand is the hard part.”
Once on the court, Phillips parked herself near the goal post as a goalie, rather than attempt to maneuver around with one hand. But she managed to block a shot, and spent time practicing to brace herself with the mallet.
As for winning or losing, for the Corvallis bike polo players, the outcome isn’t as important as the camaraderie.
As Gillies-Rector said, “Usually, people aren’t keeping score.”
To learn more about Corvallis Bike Polo, see http://www.myspace.com/corvallisbikepolo, or stop by the tennis courts behind Linus Pauling at 13th Street and Cleveland Avenue on Tuesday nights after 7 p.m.
~ Theresa Hogue