Memphis cyclists ushering in the next generation of polo
In the pale twilight of a cloudy evening, the thunderous crack of a mallet echoes at the corner of Cooper and York. Several pedestrians look up from their phones and hurry past, avoiding eye contact with the rowdy gang of bikers in the Bluff City Sports parking lot across from Aldo’s and Memphis Made Brewing Company. The cyclists circle like a pack of sharks, preying on a small orange ball that ricochets across the asphalt. Another player takes a swing and her mallet connects, sending the ball flying down the homegrown court enclosed by a two-foot plywood barrier; the ball misses the goal by mere inches. Every Wednesday and Sunday night, the parking lot at Bluff City Sports transforms into the home of Memphis Hardcourt Bike Polo.
What began in 2009 with a handful of people has grown to about 15 regulars who show up to practice and compete. Hardcourt Bike Polo has been a growing trend across the US since the early 2000s and besides the 150 or so American teams, players can be found in over 30 countries. Since 2009, rules have been standardized and dozens of regional tournaments take place every year, leading up to national and international competitions.
Six bikes tango across the court, while the rest of the team sips beer from camping chairs along the sidelines. Hardcourt Bike Polo mirrors traditional horse polo, but with a strong resemblance to street hockey. The game begins with a joust, both teams charging from either side to reach the ball in the center of the court. If a player falls from their bike or sets a foot on the ground, they must “dab” the side of the court before resuming play. Games last between 12-15 minutes, or until a team scores 5 points.
The players come off the court sweating in their gear: knee and elbow pads, gloves, and helmets— their armor against mallets that sometimes miss their mark and the concrete that could break a fall. The sport requires a well practiced level of coordination that comes only by time spent on the court. Even for more seasoned players, falling is habitual, and beginners may go home with a bruise or a scrape.
“Bike Polo really evens the playing field for everyone. It doesn’t matter if you’re a guy or a girl, or athletic or overweight. As long as you put in the practice time, you can become really good at it.”
As a diverse, growing community, they’re eagerly introducing more people to the sport. “Bike Polo really evens the playing field for everyone. It doesn’t matter if you’re a guy or a girl, or athletic or overweight. As long as you put in the practice time, you can become really good at it,” says Alex Gray, 27, a professional drone racer who began playing three months ago. “It’s also about the community. Of course it’s fun to compete, but the other half is getting to hang out with a lot of nice folks.”
Memphis Hardcourt Bike Polo encourages everyone to come out, whether you want to play or just watch. They have spare bikes and mallets for those new to the game. Zack Turner, 25, who’s been playing off and on for a couple years says, “It’s one of the few sports where beginners directly interact with more advanced players. Everyone still treats you like an equal. I can’t come out a lot, but they’re still encouraging. And even if you’re not very good yet, they want to see you out there getting better and having fun.”
People who are already bike enthusiasts often gravitate toward the sport. “Since I started playing a couple years ago, I’ve gained a lot more confidence on my bike, which has spilled over into other areas of my life,” says Funlola Coker, 27, a sculpture artist. Hardcourt Bike Polo is less about athletic endurance and more about expert handling of your bicycle. Landon Blankenship, a produce manager at Curb Market, says, “It’s one of the more relaxed and less expensive ways to compete on a bike.”
The night ends long after the sun has gone down. It’s 10 p.m. and people have begun heading home to their families and getting ready for work the next day. The makeshift barriers of the court disappear for the night, transforming it back into the regular parking lot it pretends to be for the rest of the week. All that’s left of the evening’s magic are the lightening bugs that dance across the court.
MEMPHIS HARDCOURT BIKE POLO meets every Wednesday and Sunday at 7:30 p.m at 769 S. Cooper Street. Come by to watch or to play—beginners are welcome and encouraged to participate. Spare equipment is available for use. For more information, contact Facebook.com/memphisbikepolo.
By Laurenne Hom. Photo by Ziggy Mack.