Bongos and a flute provide a hippie soundtrack for an evening at Grandview Park on Commercial Drive. It’s a Thursday evening in late April but it feels like summer. The chatter of restaurant patrons can be heard through the open windows and on the patios along the café-laden strip that is the heart of the Grandview- Woodland neighbourhood.
Owners of million-dollar fixer uppers and renters of basement suites pass each other on the street carrying their produce from places like Santa Barbara and Norman’s. Coffee shops are packed with their loyal and distinct clientele while scruffy, pierced men with their dogs panhandle at strategic spots along the street.
Tucked at the back end of Grandview Park is the world’s first custom-built bike polo court, courtesy of the Vancou- ver Park Board. (Cost $90,000.) It’s home to the East Van
Bike Polo (EVBP) Club, whose core members number 30 to 40. It’s here you’ll meet Weazy, Ken-Dog, Rory Bear, Twiggy and 50-year-old Boardz (a.k.a. Robbie Taylor), who says bike polo saved his life.
“Are we ready to play, girls?” lobs a smiling Taylor at a couple of other male polo players already circling the court on their single-speed bikes.
In 2008, a neighbour coerced Taylor to try the sport. “Oh, I don’t want to hurt myself,” recalls Taylor saying to his neighbour. “But he had a cool-looking polo bike so I tried it.”
A former drug addict who lived on the streets for 15 years, Taylor immediately took to the sport and now plays alongside naturopathic doctors, urban planners, teachers and students. He’s at the court most weeknights and on Saturdays when crowds gather to watch the polo action. “There’s great camaraderie here and I come out as often as I can. One of the reasons I came to bike polo is because it’s very healthy... Before I didn’t want to live and now I live for bike polo. It has made me a better person in life.”
Curious observers can play and regulars are happy to lend their bikes and home-made mallets (old ski poles with plumbing tubing) to novices wanting to try the sport. It looks intimidating, but new players are given space and encouragement in this game of three on three. Just don’t try it on a road bike. Apparently “that’s f**king crazy.”
“There’s one rule in pick-up,” explains player Shannon Frey, who got into the sport four years ago after tiring of watching her boyfriend play. “Don’t be a dick.”
Other rules in the three-on-three game include like-on-like contact (body-on-body, bike-on-bike and mallet-on-mallet are allowed but no combination of those things), capping the bar-ends of handlebars, no foot downs (touching the ground) and no “T-boning” (essentially charging at a player blocking your way, hoping the blocking player will move to avoid bike damage or injury). Each game in East Van begins with “3- 2 -1-Kill.” Other cities start with “3-2-1-Go” or “3-2-1-Polo.”
When veterans play each other it can get a bit rough. Frey, whose left arm and shoulder are covered in bruises and scabs, is taking a few days off from the sport after being nailed into the fence by another player. The approach for the seasoned players is “Play others as they play you.” As in hockey, checking is legal. Frey typically wears a hockey cage, shin and knee pads and is now considering more protective wear for her upper body.
The East Van club started seven years ago, with members first playing on tennis courts, but the history of bike polo is said to have started in Ireland in 1891 by retired cyclist Richard J. Mcready. Today’s players are much like Mcready — they like to cycle and they enjoy the outdoors. They also like their beer, in this case “PBR” (Pabst Blue Ribbon.) In 2011, the EVBP team Crazy Canucks won the bike polo world championships in Geneva.
Interest in the sport has spiked in the last few years with teams sprouting up around the world and players using their holiday time to travel to tournaments in the U.S. or Europe. They include Frey, who can take apart and reassemble her Hija de la Coneja bike in 30 minutes. (Sadly, Frey’s bike was stolen recently but she’s hoping to ride a Fleet Velo Joust soon.)
Frey also co-organizes the annual two-day Ladies Army tournament, which was recently held in Burnaby and attracted 81 women from around the world. She is intent on increasing the number of female players.
“Bike polo is a skills game,” says the 29-year-old geologist, “not a strengths game. It’s very intimidating for anyone, especially for women, but it’s the kind of game where women can be as good as men.”
While the sport has exploded, its numbers remain fairly small if compared to other “independent” type sports like Ultimate frisbee , but the global bike polo community is a tight one.
Taylor desperately needed dental work and new front teeth, but his paycheque as a painter wasn’t enough to cover the bill. Frey knew a way to help. She opened a PayPal account and messaged the global bike polo community about Taylor’s problem. It took a year, but players from around the world contributed $2,000 to pay for Taylor’s dental work.
That supportive, positive atmosphere is a huge draw for Taylor and Frey, who admits that “bike polo has completely taken over my life, but in a good way.”