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How bike polo is making Portland better

Posted by on June 25th, 2014 at 12:40 pm

Bike polo at Peninsula Park-10

Skill on wheels in Peninsula Park, 2010.
(Photos by J.Maus/BikePortland)

America's Next Bicycle Capital

Part of our new series of guest posts: America’s Next Bicycle Capital. This week’s guest writer is Pete Abram of Portland Bike Polo.

I have been a bike commuter since I was able to pedal. But I didn’t really understand how you can connect yourself to a bike, how it can be an extension of your will, and how tasks that seem difficult or dangerous on a bicycle to some can be exhilarating and easy to an experienced rider, until I found bike polo, in 2009, in Columbia, Mo.

This realization really hit me in 2010, on a summer ride on the Katy Trail to a winery when a fellow rider fell and said “my front wheel hit some loose gravel on the turn” and my immediate and confused response was “why didn’t you just pop a wheelie and re-center your wheel in the air?”

Ever since this incident, I always need to remind myself that not everybody plays bike polo when I hear a description of a solo cycling accident. This fellow rider was not a bike polo player and was covered in road rash. They laughed at what they thought was a joke. But it was no joke.

Oregon Bike Polo Championships-22

The Oregon Bike Polo Championships, 2009.

The handling skills and safety expectations that you get from playing bike polo are also no joke. Bike polo players become intensely aware of their surroundings, both in front and behind. They learn to use their hearing to detect incoming threats. They gain a new and deeper understanding of right-of-way for cyclists. They become intimately familiar with the requisite braking distances on various kinds of surfaces at various speeds.

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Bike polo players can perform these feats because hardcourt bike polo parades itself around like a sport, but is also the best training available for becoming a safe and capable commuter. If you can do all of these things with one hand on the handlebars while swinging a mallet and trying to put a ball in the goal, it should be a piece of cake with two hands on the bars, no ball to chase, and no goal to guard!

Oregon Bike Polo Championships-71

A year after we both graduated from grad school in Missouri, my then-girlfriend-now-fiancée (and bike polo player!) and I decided to find a fresh start and moved to Portland. We moved here for many reasons: the mild climate, the cycling culture, and the general progressiveness of the city.

What we did not expect was the friendship and community that we would find in Portland Bike Polo. We were welcomed with open arms and instantly had a rich social network upon arrival. The fork on my polo bike? It’s hand-made by a member of the club. My team’s polo bikes were painted by another member. My top tube pad and polo bag were crafted with love by Black Star Bags which is owned by and employs (you guessed it) more members of Portland Bike Polo.

Our club has photographers, graphic designers, bike mechanics, engineers, welders, fabricators, sewers, bike trail diggers, bartenders, teachers. One of us even works for ODOT!

What makes Portland Bike Polo exceptional is that we are a remarkably diverse group of people in age, profession, and worldview, brought together every weekend by a love for the game that we play. We are excited to see it grow as a sport and grow along with it.


(Photo courtesy Pete Abram)

In July, we are sending 3 teams to the North American championships in Minneapolis. In August, several of us will travel to Montpelier, France for the only sixth-ever World Championships to occur in the sport’s history.

The game is still very young and is changing very quickly. As a club, we’ve been adapting not to survive, but to prosper. We’ve had our own brand of custom machined mallet heads for over two years. More recently, a new member of our club who (no joke) builds race cars for a living has designed and constructed steel guards for the disk brakes we run.

And that’s why I love Portland Bike Polo: because as a club we are always learning, innovating, and looking for new members and new projects. Maybe you’re next.

Pete Abram is a member of Portland Bike Polo. You can follow the club on Facebook, too.

If you’d like to add your voice to this series, get in touch via email: michael@bikeportland.org.

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  • Spiffy June 25, 2014 at 3:52 pm

    What we did not expect was the friendship and community that we would find in Portland Bike Polo. We were welcomed with open arms and instantly had a rich social network upon arrival.

    I agree… the couple times I’ve dropped in to watch a game everybody was super friendly and wanting to lend me their bike so that I could be included in the game…

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  • Mossby Pomegranate June 25, 2014 at 4:52 pm

    Swinging mallets and no helmets here either?

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    • Meggo June 25, 2014 at 8:07 pm

      Most people wear helmets during pick-up, and helmets are required at tournaments.

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    • was carless June 26, 2014 at 1:48 pm

      Plastic mallets. They normally wear helmets tho.

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  • AndyC of Linnton June 25, 2014 at 5:37 pm

    Columbia, my hometown! Cool you discovered something there. Perhaps there’s hope for that place yet.
    Haven’t watched bike polo in like, a decade, maybe I’ll wind my way over there some time.

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  • Jessica Horning June 25, 2014 at 5:39 pm

    Rear brake only mountain bikes, ski poles, and ABS mallets! These are some great old school photos! Jonathon, you need to come hang out with us sometime so we can show off how far bike polo gear has evolved over the last 4 years. (Though the Ringer will still be sporting the same flannel.)

    Awesome article, Pete! So glad to have you and Teresa as club mates!! Nothing in this planet has done more to teach me solid bike handling skills and how amazing and open-armed a community can be like bike polo. <3
    (Might have to come out of semi-retirement for some birthday polo this weekend…shouldn't be hard to obey tradition and not score goals.)

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  • jn June 26, 2014 at 10:49 am

    I’ll have to go watch one of these days! Looks like fun (to watch).

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  • Todd Hudson June 27, 2014 at 10:27 am

    Hmmm….there’s no mention of Portland’s unicycle polo league.

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