Bike polo is the coolest, weirdest sport you’ve never heard of

A steep learning curve keeps membership down, which is just fine for those who play.

Boston Bike Polo

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Since 2006 the Boston Bike Polo club has been meeting in Allston

A dozen bikes litter the ground by the street hockey court in Lower Allston’s Smith Playground like beer cans after a concert: a black one with pink rims, a green one that fades to blue halfway across the top tube, pastels, neons, a stickered one with a tarot card tucked into its spokes and one with a real coyote tail bought from a trapper at the Fryeburg Fair in Maine dangling from its saddle. Their owners press up against the chain-link fence while David Bowie croons from a portable speaker.

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Addison Minott, a wiry twenty-something riding a Carolina blue custom with 26-inch rims and a corrugated cardboard circle covering its front wheel, guides the ball upcourt with the wide end of the head of his polo stick. He cocks back as he approaches the goal. He swings.

And he misses. He curses and turns back to his own end, where a red-bearded guy from the New York team is driving to the net with the ball. The break has caught both of Minott’s teammates out of position. Minott sprints in pursuit, a wheel’s length behind. The New Yorker takes aim at the wide-open net.

Tie game, 9-9.

It’s the Saturday before Memorial Day, and there are eight minutes left in the third game of the first round of the inaugural U.S. Open of Bike Polo, where five teams are vying for the title and the $1,000 prize it brings: Philadelphia Bike Polo, a squad of three men from the City of Brotherly love; Hypnic Picnic, made up mostly of Brooklynites; two teams from host club Boston Bike Polo – Minott’s squad, Chirpsers, and Team Taza, a group sponsored by the Somerville artisanal chocolatier of the same name – and The Goonies, a Franken-team composed of a Philadelphian, a New Yorker and two Bostonians.

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After the score, the Chirpsers take possession and regroup at their end. They move up the court in formation: one man at the point, two trailing.

Hypnic Picnic intercepts an errant pass and moves to the Boston end, where Minott’s teammate, Nick Germany-Wald, has positioned his bike across the goal mouth, leaning his stick on the ground for balance. A Hypnic Picnic player rips a shot, but the ball bounces off Germany-Wald’s rear wheel. Six minutes.

Addison Minott practices during a tune-up match a few days before the inaugural U.S. Open of Bike Polo. —Olivia Spinale/Boston.com

Minott flies from his bike amid a rush for the ball. Play pauses as he wheels off the court and another player subs in. He discards his bike with the rest and stomps back to the fence.

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“Come on, Nick! Let’s get a goal off that turnover,’’ he shouts.

Instead, New York breaks the tie on its next push. A minute later, it pads the lead. Four minutes.

Boston cuts the lead to one. Two minutes.

A New York player misses on a cross-court pass. The Chirpser with the coyote tail hanging from his saddle corrals the ball and drives upcourt. Thirty seconds.

Miss. Game, Picnic.

“Nice one, Brett! You ruined the game for your whole team!’’ shouts a heckler.

“His name’s Brent,’’ says another.

The sides swap some light trash-talk as they meet at midcourt. Most head to the cooler, slipping beers into knit coozies depicting a bike-riding dinosaur that one player has been handing out.

Today it’s just a friendly round-robin. Tomorrow it’s tournament-style: double-elimination, winner-take-all.

Despite its name, the sport – at least the version being played here – is more like hockey. “Hardcourt’’ bike polo, as it’s known, is played on a street hockey court with three players on either side and however many subs the rules dictate (two max at the U.S. Open.) While on offense, all three will generally attack; on defense, one will block the goal while the other two defend. T-shirts, well-worn cutoff jeans and facial hair (on men) comprise the unofficial uniform. Helmets are the only equipment mandated by the rulebook, but gloves are a necessity, and a few players wear shin and knee guards.

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Aside from the rules governing gameplay and contact – the rule of thumb being “stick on stick, bike on bike, body on body’’ – there’s one capital offense: putting your foot on the ground, also known as a “dab.’’ Doing this means looping to mid-court and tapping a designated spot before returning to the game. It’s a de facto power play – as such, riding skill is paramount.

Hardcourt has exploded in popularity in the last decade, but “explode’’ is a relative term here: where previously next to no one played, now many major cities worldwide have clubs a few dozen strong.

Players fight for the ball during a scrimmage a few days before the tournament. —Olivia Spinale/Boston.com

Boston Bike Polo was started in 2006 by a group of bike messengers who used sticks cobbled together from sawed-off putter shafts and wooden blocks. In its first year, the group played on a court on Kneeland Street near Tufts Medical Center. They’ve been in Allston since 2007.

Minott, the local club’s sports director and a U.S. Open organizer, got into bike polo six years ago as a student at the University of Vermont. He refined his game during a winter spent as a ski bum in Seattle, where the play was far more competitive than in Burlington. He joined the Boston club when he moved here in 2012.

Minott estimates there are about 30 polo bikes in Boston – a number that overstates the sport’s popularity here, given he owns four of them. The actual regular membership is somewhere south of that, but it’s hard to gauge because, rather than a structured league, the club runs three or four informal pick-up sessions a week.

The biggest reason for the club’s low numbers, members say, is the learning curve. Biking in traffic on a narrow court is hard enough. Add in a stick, a ball and strategy, and you’ve got a daunting game for even the most skilled cyclists. Because the bulk of the players have been at it for years, newbies easily get lost. And the transience of Boston’s population doesn’t help retention.

“(Boston) being sort of, like, a young person’s working city, and a college town, people come and go quickly,’’ says Chirpsers player Ryan Donovan, to Minott.

“We got two out of last year, you and Jace (LeBlanc),’’ Minott says.

“This year, I mean, Charlie played before and he seems like he’s sticking with it, Malcolm’s gonna keep coming around,’’ Donovan pauses. “He’s moving to…Seattle, isn’t he?’’

“Malcolm is moving,’’ Minott says.

The group runs newbie-friendly beginner’s nights on Wednesdays from 6 to 10 p.m., but growth has been slow. Still, Boston Bike Polo is nationally competitive. One squad finished in the top 15 at last year’s nationals to qualify for the world tournament in Montpelier, France, but two of three members couldn’t afford the trip.

Minott was one of those two. But while he didn’t go to France, the game has so far taken him to Lexington, Ky., Vancouver, Seattle, Minneapolis, Frederick, Md., Weston, Fla., and San Juan, Puerto Rico.

“That one’s great because it’s in the middle of February, so when it’s just, like, puking snow in Boston you can go escape and play some polo in paradise,’’ Minott says. “And the court is a block away from the beach.’’

Because their parts take a beating, bike polo players are gearheads by necessity. In six months of regular play, a rider might replace every component but his frame.

Two players perform some bike maintenance during a break in the action. —Olivia Spinale/Boston.com

And not any old commuter will do for bike polo. Given the narrow confines of the court, extra gears are superfluous. Fixed-gear bikes are viable, but most players opt for single speeds. Because acceleration trumps top speed, they strive for gear ratios as close to 1:1 as possible.

Polo bikes must have one front brake by rule, and because an upright position is most conducive to effective (and safe) play, flat handlebars are a must. An ideal polo frame has a short wheelbase and runs 26-inch wheels rather than road bike-standard 700s, as this allows a tighter turn radius. Many riders opt for rotor and spoke guards, disc brakes, and other such customizations, but they’re strictly optional.

Such specialization is often costly and likewise prohibitive, but members are willing to lend their bikes out to beginners while they figure out their preferences.

The league expands as much through attracting curious passersby as it does word of mouth.

“You get a lot of exposure, people walking by and being interested in it,’’ said Boston Bike Polo member Tobi Howell. “Every once in awhile, someone will jump on and ride, and they might get addicted.’’

Howell is one of the group’s longest-tenured members, having joined shortly after he moved to Boston almost eight years ago. He’s English by birth, with stops in Belgium and Australia before coming stateside. He’s the captain of Team Taza, which has made short work of the opposition at the round-robin so far. His team would go on to take the top prize Sunday, the Chirpsers runners-up.

Howell walks over to a ring of chairs set off from the court and rifles through a bag, pulling out three packs of Taza chocolate discs. He was given ten cases of the stuff – worth upwards of $500 at retail – through the sponsorship. He’s been handing it out all weekend.

“It’s kind of, you know, sort of unrefined, high-end chocolate for those that are into stuff that’s organic, fair-trade, non-GMO, gluten free, dairy free, soy free and vegan.

“It’s good, right?’’ he adds after a pause.

At about 3 p.m., Boston Bike Polo member and designated chef Cole Woiszwillo announces that food is ready. The hosts have provided a butcher shop’s worth of meat, cooked for hours beside the court in a brand-new smoker: six racks of pork ribs, two whole chickens, six bulbous sausages cut into bun length and thirteen pounds of pork shoulder, along with grilled potatoes, homemade cabbage slaw, corn, veggie kebabs and tubs of barbecue and hot sauce, all of it split between maybe three-dozen mouths.

They’ll wash it down with five cases of ice-cold Pabst Blue Ribbon, which sponsored this tournament and one last fall after Minott “stalked’’ the brewer’s Boston Instagram page.

“We like our odd and interesting sports at PBR,’’ says promoter, who notes the brewer also sponsors a local skee-ball league.

A ten-year-old miniature dachsund named Squid wags her tail as she trolls the polo ground for head-pats and belly rubs. She’s been a minor celebrity in the bike polo world since she was shown playing fetch during a rain delay on the web broadcast of a Florida tournament.

“She kind of won the hearts over of a lot of people who were watching live,’’ says owner Shelley Smith, of Brooklyn.

Smith is the sole woman in the U.S. Open field, though she says this belies the prevalence of women in the sport: while it’s a predominantly male game, women make up a healthy portion of the national ranks.

“There’s definitely a bigger female presence than is shown here, and we’re working to try to build those numbers,’’ she says.

Bike polo is gender-inclusive, with some tournaments co-ed by rule and others woman-only. But the game is no easier on either sex, aptly demonstrated by the pair of recent scabs on Smith’s forearm, inches from a tattoo of a worm coiled around a polo stick.

The sport isn’t about to be featured primetime on ESPN, but this tournament has drawn a modest media presence: in addition to Boston.com, there are two freelance photographers and a two-man crew from Trans World Sport, a British TV show that spotlights up-and-coming athletes and new trends across the world. This is the third leg of a trip that’s so far seen them meet a 16-year-old boxing phenom in New York City and a lacrosse team from upstate New York made up mostly of Native Americans. Tomorrow, they’ll catch an exhibition Quidditch match elsewhere in Boston.

A player rests against the wall of the court while two players adjust a bike. —Olivia Spinale/Boston.com

A few contests remain in the ten-game slate as the sun creeps beneath a row of trees beside the court. The two young sons of one Boston player laze in a hammock, tuckered out after toddling on their plastic bikes all afternoon. A pair of Philadelphia players face off in a nock hockey gang on a bench near the court. Squid continues her circuit.

Ask a polo player why they play and you’ll hear a half-dozen answers. Some are former high school and college athletes looking to scratch that competitive itch, or adrenaline junkies seeking their fix amidst vehicular mayhem – though the carnage has been reeled in by ever-increasing regulation. Others play for the travel and the glory of triumph over a region-, nation-, or world-wide field.

Mostly, it’s a mix of a few things – but above all else, it’s about sharing drinks and making memories with a few people as fanatically into bikes as yourself.

“You can go anywhere in the world, pretty much, and just go hunt it down on social media, and you’ve got an instant group of friends wherever you go,’’ Howell says.

“We’ll get housed, hang out, and it’s a little tribe, I say, its a tribe of people that do the same thing, and not everyone might get on – and there’s always bitchiness and cliques – but at least it’s better than knowing nobody.’’

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