Hybrid of two sports has faithful following
By Whitelaw Reid
October 21, 2001
Every Sunday morning they gather to play their sport, which involves dribbling, shooting, passing and fastbreaks. But their sport is unlike any other you've ever seen or heard about.
Bike polo, as longtime player Jeff McDonald said, is "Pure sport."
McDonald, a 61-year-old optometrist, is one of a growing number of North County residents who have taken up bike polo, which was first played by Brittish soldiers who were trying to practice their polo skills in India nearly 100 years ago.
Bike polo adheres to the basic rules of polo, but has one main difference: players ride bikes instead of horses.
"The sport is so pure right now, kind of like how Over The Line used to be where people just went out and played," McDonald said. "This is so much fun that we don't even keep score during the games."
Bike polo first got going in the North County about nine years ago in Encinitas after a member of a mountain-biking group went on a trip to Colorado. While in Colorado he saw bike polo being played and brought back some mallets and balls. He suggested to his biking group that they give the sport a try.
Ironically, the biker who introduced bike polo to the rest of the group didn't take a liking to it, but the rest did. They've been playing almost every Sunday since.
"I really like the camaraderie of it," said Ernie Sanchez, a 43-year-old Encinitas resident who was one of the original players. "I've always played sports and I've always loved cycling. To have the combination of cycling -- and a sport similar to hockey, basketball or soccer -- it's great."
The group has about 30 members, men and women in their 20s to 60s. They play their games every Sunday at the San Diego Polo Club from 10 a.m. to noon.
The group has no formal name or organizational hierarchy. They're just a bunch of people who like to come out, get good exercise and have a good time.
"The people that play are really nice," said Clara Sanchez, the wife of Ernie Sanchez. "Everyone has a great attitude. It's not as cutthroat as some sports. It's competitive, but it's fun."
Anyone with a bike is encouraged to come out and play. Maria Grantham and her husband, Jeff, started playing the sport after reading an advertisement in a local newspaper about a year ago.
"It said 'Bring a helmet, a bike and a smile,' " Grantham recalled.
"We came here and hit it off with all the people and have been coming every Sunday ever since. It's a very different sport."
Official bike polo rules and regulations exist. However, the players have adopted their own, somewhat loose, interpretation of them.
They don't keep score. There are no referees. The games have no time limits. Players go as long as they can until they need a break.
The games are played with any number of players. Usually the group plays a couple of 4-on-4 games simultaneously. The size of the field is determined by the number of players.
The mallets used by players are regulation polo mallets that have been shortened since bikes are closer to the ground. Players are encouraged to wear helmets and protective eye glasses.
Each game begins with a "joust," where a member of each team lines up in his own goal and races an opposing player to the center of the field for the ball. After a player gains control of the ball he is only allowed to hit it twice before shooting or passing to a teammate. That makes teamwork absolutely necessary.
When a player is in control of the ball, a defender is not allowed to cut directly into his path from the side and make a play on the ball. The only way defensive players can steal the ball is if they catch him from behind or are coming right at him from the other direction. That prevents chaos, although the players say there have been some injuries over the years.
Players say they typically pedal 10 to 11 miles during a two-hour session.
"This is the best sport I've ever done for aerobic ability," McDonald said, "because you'll be sprinting for awhile and then you'll stop when you're out of the play and then you're sprinting again to try and get back in position."
McDonald says he also loves the necessary quick decisions and the spontaneity of the sport.
"It's a big puzzle in your mind that you need to solve instantaneously, minute by minute," he said. "Where are my teammates? Where is the ball going to be?"
David Palalayevsky, 29, first started playing when he lived in Canada three years ago. Then he moved to Irvine.
"After a month or so I went into withdrawal," he said, "but then I saw on a Web site that they were playing down here, so I started coming."
Palalayevsky says he doesn't mind making the weekly commute one bit.
"It's worth it," he said. "Bike polo just has something that I can't quite put my finger on. I really enjoy it."
Tom Goodspeed, the director of the San Diego Polo Club, is an avid polo player -- but he also plays a lot of bike polo.
"The bike riding is an excellent exercise because you're sprinting rather than just coasting," Goodspeed said. "When you combine that with the thrill of pulling off a successful play with somebody -- it's just like playing basketball or something. You get the benefit of sport."
Whitelaw Reid can be reached at (619) 293-1829 or firstname.lastname@example.org