Portraits by Suzie McCracken
‘Just don’t say it’s like horse polo for hipsters, yeah?’
It’s been seven years since the first flurry of interest in bike polo in the UK, and yet when I speak with players at the recent London Open tournament, I can see a speck of fear in their eyes.
Everyone is much too kind to say they don’t trust me, of course. But there’s a suspicion about working with the media. Mentions of bike polo are usually only made when a lazy journalist is using it as a shorthand for all things hipster.
But there’s a major problem with that characterisation: the word hipster implies some disingenuity. And for as long as I’ve known people who play bicycle polo in London, it’s been clear that the lifeblood of the sport is their absolute sincerity.
As a game, it’s simple. Six players in two teams use a mallet to hit a ball around a court, attempting to get it into the goal. While on bikes, of course. Mostly, this happens on basketball courts in central London’s estates and parks.
But what is awesome about polo is that it occupies a unique sporting space – there’s national and international tournaments each year, a rule set, and teams that play at the highest levels of global polo. And yet, weekly polo – also attended by those in the best teams – has more of a five-a-side football flavour. People drink beers at the side of the court, make bad jokes, and fix each others bikes. They come from a range of occupations and places, with mechanics bumping into graphic designers and healthcare professionals going head-to-head with estate agents. There are teenagers and those in their forties. And this haphazard group of people, on all varying levels of the responsibility-shirking scale, have built a community that’s open to everyone, completely independent, and fiercely DIY.
‘I think the DIY aesthetic of bike polo is attractive to the kind of person who is involved in other alternative communities,’ says Fuchsia Voremberg. She’s 26, from London, and has being playing polo for two years. ‘I don’t want to be part of a community where everything is made for you – I want that sense of achievement that you can only get from doing it yourself.’
The London Open is a good example – after gaining corporate sponsorship for the last few years, 2014 was the first time that the LHBPA (London Hardcourt Bike Polo Association) didn’t manage to garner outside cash. So people pulled together, with Fuchsia making lunches to sell during the day (enough couscous to fill 33 litres worth of Tupperware). A whole host of helpers gave their time by refereeing the matches, hosting international teams, creating the trophy, organising the building of the courts, and generally being cool.
Nik Hamilton, 32, has been playing polo for over three years. She was one of the principal organisers of the Open this year, and believes the non-corporate nature of how things are done is integral to the game. ‘We basically invented the sport for god’s sake, so of course we do everything ourselves. I mean, no one’s really making money out of bike polo, they do it because they love it. It’s like a worldwide network of people who are trying to make something that’s kind of a silly, a bit more fun.’
Nik is a bike mechanic at London’s Look Mum No Hands cycle cafe, but is keen to stress that you don’t have to live and breathe bikes to enjoy polo. ‘It’s an entry into realising that you can have fun on a bike, and it doesn’t need to just be about fitness and strength. It’s not like you have to go on an 8 hour ride in the countryside – you can rock up, ride a bit and have a good time. In that sense it’s a bit more like going to the skate park or going BMXing than it is like traditional cycling stuff.’
And it’s because of that vibe that such a wide range of people are attracted to it. Maddie Yullie is 26, from Watford. She’s been playing polo for two and a half years, and it’s pretty much her first experience of team sports. ‘I have terrible memories of having to play one Lacrosse game at school. I just f**king hated it.’
As Maddie tells me about when she first started playing polo – when players tend to improve quickly and dramatically – her grin makes it clear that she’s finally found something physical that she adores. And it’s the distinctly un-sporty nature of polo that convinced her. ‘I think because it isn’t an established sport, the emphasis isn’t on the sport. It’s on hanging out and meeting people. And because it’s so new, everyone is learning together. You still feel like you’re part of something that’s just being formed. It’s not like a traditional sport where you go along, you learn the rules and it’s already got a whole complex behind it.’
Fuchsia has a similar suspicion of other sports, especially those traditionally seen as being for women. ‘Exercise is really important as a part of happiness, and if you don’t exercise you’re sad and you can’t sleep. But exercise for women is so often packaged as punishment, and it’s just bullshit and boring. I wanted to do something where no one ever mentions that you’re exercising.’
And yet, the lack of sport-loving young women in London is also presenting a problem for polo. ‘There’s definitely not very many women at the top of the sport,’ says Nik. ‘And I attribute that to women not really being motivated to play sports at a young age; especially not competitively, the way men are. So for a woman to come in and try and play polo, which can be quite a fast and aggressive game – you really have to not be scared to fall off your bike and get in there. That motivation isn’t necessarily always there, but I’m seeing it change.’
What’s glorious is that the fact that women are a minority in polo is due to wider societal reasons – it has nothing to do with the men in the sport. All of the women I chatted with spoke touchingly about the support they’d received, and the fact that everyone wants to see more girls playing.
‘It doesn’t have a laddy culture – it’s not like the boys who play rugby and the girls who look pretty and support them. It’s never been like that,’ says Maddie. Fuchsia goes one further: ‘I’ve learnt a lot about feminism from the men who play bike polo. It’s nice to see a community that polices itself so effectively. It’s a really lovely environment to be in, and very non-judgmental.’
Everyone does acknowledge, however, that for a beginner things can look very different. When a plucky polo newbie cycles up to a court, they’ll be most likely be met by a group of men kitted out in black cycling gear, face cages (hockey helmets or cycle helmets with cricket cages attached), knee pads, and maybe an expletive-laden trucker cap. And although polo is much more diverse than my lazy stereotype suggests, it’s undoubtable that things can appear cliquey.
‘I understand where that idea comes from,’ says Nik. ‘When I first went to bike polo it seemed like that to me. But that’s just the nature of people. I rocked up to the skate park recently and thought that all the guys were really good friends. But then you realise they only know each other from this one thing that they do together and that’s the limit of their friendship. And as soon as you do it too, you’re part of it. With polo, the clique is just what it looks like because it’s such a close community. But that community is totally open and excited about new people joining it.’
Maddie had a connection to polo via her then soon-to-be boyfriend Ben, which meant she wasn’t so nervous about meeting the players. But she was uncertain of her ability, and therefore took advantage of beginners and ‘ladies only’ nights to ensure she was more comfortable. ‘It took a while just to be able to push a ball alongside my bike,’ she admits. ‘It feels great when you have control over the ball and do a good pass. I enjoy achieving small things like that. Because I still do find it really hard!’
Now she’s a team member of ‘Girls Gone Weird’ with Fuchsia. Pleasingly, their team t-shirts have three tits on the front.
‘It is just really fun!’ says Maddy. ‘And it’s the way that you’ve got six people on court who all manage, 95 per cent of the time, to weave around without knocking into each other. It’s pretty amazing.’
Fuchsia agrees. ‘And there’s just something really great about being in a big gang of polo players from all over the world who have come together for a tournament and are having a big party.’
That’s as good a reason to start as any. ‘Yeah, and, you know… just don’t stress out. It’s only bike golf.’
If you’re interested in trying bike polo, you can find information via the LHBPA website, emailing email@example.com, or exploring the bike polo section of the LFGSS forum. Beginners sessions happen on Tuesdays at Harper Road, SE1. Check the forums for ladies nights and tournaments.