Bike poloists play to win at Grandview Park

With nicknames such as “The Bear” and “Silent Killer”, these East Van athletes bring a competitive fire to Grandview Park

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      A self-identified “forefather” of bike polo in the Pacific Northwest had his Bluetooth in place as he relayed one of his favourite moves on the court.

      While driving his wife and vocal young daughter back from Sea-Tac Airport to their home in Seattle, Matt Messenger, a 40-year-old bike-polo guru, explained that riding up that city’s hills while holding coffee has given him the ability to multitask.

      “Along with another friend of mine—who’s almost the same [skill level]—I have this kind of ”˜Old Seattle’ classic shot where it looks like you’re actually shuffling the ball,” Messenger told the Georgia Straight while holding court (so to speak). “You wait until the last minute to turn your mallet to tap it in. It’s like a visual trick. So it’s called the Messy, which is part of my whole nickname Messmann. That’s the style, making it look like I’m just coming for the blind shot.”

      In hockey parlance, Messenger said, it’s like shooting the puck through a screen; with the Messy, the ball is shot through a throng of bicycles ridden by mallet-wielding keeners all out there to have fun and get some exercise.

      Such a troupe of players was out in force at a recent Tuesday-night pickup game, from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., at Grandview Park’s recently unveiled multi-use court on Commercial Drive in East Vancouver. Messenger was at the historic court opening earlier this year along with a friend who was gathering footage for a documentary on bike polo.

      It is the first court in the world to be built to bike-polo specifications, with black playing surface and rounded corners. Located on the southwest corner of the park, where the tennis courts used to be, the court measures 38 metres by 20 metres.

      “It’s wonderful,” Shannon Frey, a member of local group East Van Bike Polo, told the Straight on the sidelines during a break in play. “We were playing for a while over here [behind Britannia Secondary School], and when I came back [to Grandview], I was like, ”˜Wow, this is so much bigger.’ ”

      Frey is also one of the three representatives from Cascadia—the unofficial geographic area stretching from Oregon to B.C. and western Alberta—elected to the umbrella organization North American Hardcourt Bike Polo. She was joined on the sidelines by about a dozen players when she spoke on June 7. There was banter aplenty, some beer, lots of squealing brakes, plenty of padding on the knees, swinging of mallets, and coordinated progression toward the opposing team’s goal and back again. The three-a-side teams regularly switched up. A game is won by the first team to score five goals.

      Rory “The Bear” Crowley was soon demonstrating his wicked shot, with trademark gunshot echo, as he slammed shots on goal. He reputedly hits the ball so hard, the ball blasts through the spoke protectors cyclists use on their wheels for protection against such things.

      On the other team, cycling freak Martin Hauck was showing off his own lone-gunslinger skills as he wove through opposing players, ably rolling the ball. Think Diego Maradona or Lionel Messi on a bike-polo court, with braking here and there on a dime to change direction or throw an opponent. Players use one brake with their nondominant hand. The dominant hand is the mallet hand.

      The 27-year-old Frey, who is doing her master’s thesis in geology, recommended bike polo as a summer activity and said it’s a great activity for anyone to get involved in.

      “Summer is the big recruiting time for us,” she added. “We’re always on the lookout for new blood.”

      Another exciting young player on the local scene is Alex Churchman, who already has nicknames like Hummingbird, Silent Killer, and MVP for his on-court skills.

      “I’d never call myself that; that’s what other people say,” the self-effacing 25-year-old told the Straight by phone, before adding: “I’ve been playing for about three or four years, maybe. And that’s the time that it’s really picked up and gotten popular.”

      The people who get into polo and stick to it tend to have a “competitive side to their personality”, Frey warned. She also claimed that a lot of players take the game seriously, especially when they have the same skill level and experience and have played together for a while.

      “If you want to come out and try, we always encourage that,” she said. “You’re always welcome to borrow a mallet and a bike, and it’s a fun thing to do on a sunny afternoon. But, you know, be prepared. There’s definitely an underlying jock attitude. Everyone wants to win.”

      The rules of bike polo are becoming more technical and complex, but EVBP member Lisa Moffatt told the Straight there are three basic rules that apply.

      According to the rules, there are three acceptable forms of contact on a bike-polo court: bike-on-bike, body-on-body, and mallet-on-mallet. Lisa Moffatt photo.

      A player has to score using the flat end of the mallet, which is usually made out of an old ski pole that has plastic tubing screwed on the end of it. Secondly, players have to stay on their bikes during play. If they put a foot down at any time, they have to peel off from the play and “tap out” their mallet either side of the centre line, Moffatt added.

      After a team has scored a goal, that team’s players have to return to their half before play resumes. “There are also three contact rules,” Moffatt explained. “It’s bike-on-bike, body-on-body, and mallet-on-mallet. So no combinations.”

      For a bit of historical background, the London Hardcourt Bike Polo Association website has a wacky shot of a young Prince Philip playing the sport. The LHBPA time line, though, pinpoints Ireland—where the game was invented by Richard J. Mecredy—as the first place whose inhabitants played the sport, back in 1891.

      Bike polo was featured as a demonstration sport in the 1908 Olympics in London, England.

      Moffatt said this August will be the five-year mark for organized hardcourt polo in the city, a sport that evolved from fairly low-level get-togethers and ad hoc games. EVBP has 52 members registered on its site, Moffatt said, of whom about half are “regulars”.

      The current hardcourt scene is not connected to the grass polo that was being played in the city in 1990 at Jericho Beach Park, Moffatt said. At that time, there was no formalized league.

      Messenger was one of the first to play the sport in Seattle, back in 1998 or 1999, he said, having worked at jobs where he sat around a lot with little to do but play some polo and fix up bikes.

      “We started playing more and more, and then it almost faded off for a little while, for a year or so, and then I kept at it, got a couple of other friends that were city bikers,” Messenger said. “I got them involved in playing bike polo, and then it started picking back up. There was a huge following after that. In town, there’s an after-party scene. Some people would just come and spectate and barbecue and drink beer. It was a little bit of after work, after the whole week of riding, just kind of get it out of your system, fool around, and have a game of polo with some friends. Instead of feeling like alley-cat racers, it was a different kind of vibe.”

      And he’s still playing some 13 years later, with a team he calls L’Explosif, and (like Churchman) recently qualified for the North American championships, he added. Messenger said he’s seeing more and more people across the continent now who resemble him: bike-polo dads in their late 30s and 40s.

      “Which is kinda cool, because now it’s turning into a little bit more of a family event, so to speak,” he said. “The partying’s usually after-hours, or after-game at the after event, and the family and the kids get to play. It’s kind of cool. I didn’t really expect it to blow up to where it is now from when I first started playing it. I’m pretty semishocked, actually.”

      Local polo dad and filmmaker Robert Alstead, who oversees the EVBP website, told the Straight he has seen an amazing transformation locally since he started playing five years ago.

      “All the same energy that went into freak biking, Critical Mass [rides], and other community activities went into building up a bike-polo scene,” Alstead said by phone. “We had mallet-making nights, little parties, and bike-fixing. Initially, we went through a lot of wheels, but now I’ve got a 48-[spoke]hole, heavily reinforced wheel.”

      Messmann, for his part, said he doesn’t foresee an end to his playing days yet. And if he does call it quits, what’s next?

      “I’ll have to invent wheelchair polo.”

      Someone already has invented that, but we won’t shoot the messenger in pointing that out.