Health & Fitness

Inside bike polo: Harder than it looks

Michelle Willcox of Raleigh brings the ball down the court past Ryan McMurray of Durham as the Raleigh Bike Polo club plays a match at Tarboro Road Park in Raleigh Jan. 18.
Michelle Willcox of Raleigh brings the ball down the court past Ryan McMurray of Durham as the Raleigh Bike Polo club plays a match at Tarboro Road Park in Raleigh Jan. 18. AL DRAGO

I want to say I at least got a shot off the first time I played bike polo, but it was all I could do not to collide with something – another player, say, or one of the walls. I even came close to running right into the goal when, early on, I tried to intercept a shot. I jetted across the court, keeping my eye on the ball and feeling pretty good about myself. But then I glanced up and had to brake suddenly and swerve away. It was worth it to keep my teeth, but it was also a lesson in humility.

This game is far harder than it looks.

“It’s a lot about balance,” says Michelle Willcox between matches.

As if on cue, a rider behind her falls. He’s not moving fast and it’s not a bad fall – just enough to make the rider and his teammates laugh. Willcox laughs too and continues: “Balance and just having a sense about where you are in (respect) to the other players and the ball.”

Willcox organized the Raleigh club after moving from Wilmington in 2012. The club has members across the Triangle and they play regularly on two courts – one at Tarboro Road Park in Raleigh and one in Southern Village park just south of Chapel Hill, where we are today.

For the curious, Raleigh Bike Polo has a loaner bike and mallet on hand, and they pride themselves on taking it easy on first-timers. The game means a lot to Willcox and her friends, so they don’t mind going easy if it means giving prospective teammates a taste.

“We try to not have there be too much of a (learning) curve,” she says.

How it’s played

Here are the basics: Two teams of three cyclists, all with mallets, start the game on opposite sides of the court. They make a mad dash for the polo ball in the center, and from there the rules are fairly familiar to anyone who’s played soccer or hockey.

The battle-ready bikes deserve mention, too: These single-speeds are “Mad Max” contraptions built specifically for the sport. Some have mesh or cardboard shields in the front wheel (to protect the spokes) and most have seen their share of repairs. One even has asymmetrical handlebars – the owner sawed off much of the right side because his knee kept hitting it.

“For a while, I didn’t know too much about bikes,” Willcox says. She’s dressed like a heavy metal guitarist – black outfit, patch on the jacket – and her bike is a tough, sturdy ride with a heavy-duty crank and shortened BMX handlebars. “I learned a lot from polo.”

A welcoming bunch

The members put a lot of time into the game. They typically meet twice a week, practicing for three or four hours at a time; six players on the court for scrimmage matches while the others hang out on the sidelines, talking about music, bikes, night spots or whatever comes up.

“This group is easy to kind of jump in with,” new member Frances Albanese says from the sidelines.

Not all clubs can be so welcoming, says Willcox – some steal the ball from newbies or are standoffish or downright rude.

A DIY culture

Bike polo’s growing profile means players can now buy polo-specific frames and parts in local cycling shops. Back in 2012, when Willcox started the Raleigh club, you even had to make your own mallets.

“When I started, you would use a ski pole,” Willcox says.

“I still use mine homemade,” Jackson Mutsu pipes in, offering his mallet for inspection.

“Jackson’s too good for that,” Willcox says playfully. “He’s old school.”

Mutsu’s focus on DIY handiwork fits right into the bike polo culture; even fancy modern Peruvian polo frames come as parts, not assembled bikes. Yet for all the know-how required to modify a bike, Mutsu says he’s less of a bike snob now that he plays. Before his introduction to the sport in 2007 or so, he babied his bicycles. But bike polo can be a rough sport. The very first time he played, he destroyed his ride.

“It was hundreds of dollars worth of damage – and I was hooked,” he says with a grin.

Strong draw

For Ryan McMurray, the draw is just as strong. On the court, he’s a powerful player; he moves fast, scores often and has excellent, figure skater-like balance – though sometimes he shows off too much and takes a tumble, his face red with hubris. As the afternoon progresses and the temperature drops, he takes a quick breather, tuning his bike before going back in.

He used to drive an hour and a half from Fayetteville, he says, just to play. The drive was nothing, though, because it was to play bike polo. Now that he’s out of the Army, he’s living in Durham, and he says it was this unlikely street sport that brought him here.

“Ever since I started playing bike polo, it definitely affects where I want to travel, where I’m going to work,” McMurray says. “Unless the opportunity there is awesome, if there’s no polo there, it’s probably not going to work.”