For those of us who don't summer in The Hamptons, there's a cheaper variant of the game: bicycle polo. In the last few years bike polo has become an urban phenomenon, played not on grass but on a hard court. Now, Little Rock has its own association of bike polo players, wheeling around the MacArthur Park street hockey courts at sundown.
On a recent night, opposing three-man teams are chasing a street hockey ball — the size of a croquet ball, but soft — on single-speed road bikes, a few players making a wide arc around the court, whistling to teammates, their brakes squealing. Their mallets strike the ball with a muscular thwop. Occasionally a player turns too quickly and with a clatter ends up on the ground. As it gets darker, a single streetlight casts their shadows long across the court, and the little red ball becomes almost invisible.
Dave O'Brien, one of the founding members of the local chapter, discovered the game while working as a bike messenger in Denver. He started a Facebook group to find people interested in the game, and in October of 2009, 10 would-be bike polo players met at the River Market Pavilion.
The rules are the easy part. The objective is to score three points (sometimes five, during tournaments). There are no out-of-bounds and no referee. What makes bike polo a challenge is balancing — although the mallets (ski poles with plastic pipes at the end) can be used to prop the player up, his feet can't touch the ground. If they do, he must tap back in by touching tin cans that hang at mid-court.
"We had no idea what we were doing the first night," says Nathan Vandiver, 28, an early member who studies mass communications at UALR. Between games, his shirt is dark with sweat. "We played through the winter, and it took us a really long time to get the basic skills. It took most of us two months to just to be able to proficiently ride while pushing the ball around."
Before long they knew what they were doing and moved to MacArthur Park. Through the website leagueofbikepolo.com, an international forum for bike polo clubs, the Little Rock courts attracted the attention of players from out of state. Last April, only a few months after bike polo found its way here, Little Rock hosted an impromptu tournament, the River City Rumble. Seeing how others played — their techniques, their etiquette, their obsessive-ness — was something of a crash course in the sport, Vandiver says.
"Different clubs have different personalities," he says. "If you're in a tournament, you see lots of different styles of playing and you make a lot of friends in other cities." The River City Rumble was an inspiration, and the club hopes to repeat it next year.
"Our play improved, and we were hooked," Vandiver says, laughing.
Since then, every Monday and Wednesday and on the occasional Saturday nights, the club has been at the courts. They meet at 8 p.m., when the sun is low on the horizon and the night is beginning to cool off. There are about a dozen regular members, plus friends and passersby, most of them in their mid 20s to 30s. Because it has such a DIY element, it isn't hard to get started if you're new. The club allows anyone who shows up a chance to play and is always inviting; Vandiver promises that they take it easy on first-timers. All it takes is gusto, practice and a good pair of kneepads.
The rest of the accoutrements are simple: a golf bag full of mallets, tire pumps, orange cones for the goals, bottles of water and Gatorade. Players wear varying degrees of protection. Sometimes they bring floodlights for games after dark.
"It's really interesting to be a part of a sport that is played by lots of people all over the world but that doesn't have an official governing body," Vandiver says. Turning to the game he's watching, he cries out "Nice job!" as the winning goal is scored. He tosses his mallet onto the court, claiming his place in the next game. "And it's ended up being a pretty big part of my social life."
Games are short so that everyone has a chance to participate. When they aren't on a bike, players lean against the short chain-link fence and watch their friends. The riders are jerky and sometimes space gets tight when they're all in the same corner, but there's a weird choreography to their movement. Even though it can be physically difficult, especially in the heat, there's a sense of relaxation and summertime ease.
Vandiver picks up his bike and gets ready for play. The ball is placed at the center of the court and teams line up at their respective goals. The starting call is made — "3, 2, 1, polo!" — and they cycle out to the middle with mallets at the ready.