According to the flyers, here is what you should bring to New Haven Bike Polo: 1) a bike. 2) a helmet. 3) a mallet (if you have one). 4) a good attitude.
That’s all you need. But if you have them, also useful are: 1) tattoos. 2) vegan baking skills. 3) past membership in a punk or metal band.
You won’t find polo shirts.
When you show up at the AT&T parking lot, you’ll be offered a mallet — a ski pole fitted at its base with a length of PVC pipe and taped up with colored stripes by Dude (not “the Dude,” just Dude). The mallets are constructed by Scott Rivera, who founded the current iteration of New Haven Bike Polo this past August. Next, Scott will give you a roller hockey ball so that you can practice before the game starts.
The rules of bike polo are simple. Two sets of orange cones, spaced the width of a bike, make a goal at each end of the parking lot. Teams — two, three, four people, depending on how many players show up — start at their own goal and the ball is set in the middle, where Rivera has taped an X on the asphalt. Someone yells, “3-2-1-POLO!” and the teams charge forth towards each other trying to pass and dribble the ball towards the opposite goal. You can use either side of the mallet to play, but must use the small side to score. Contact is discouraged, but between like things (bike to bike; mallet to mallet) it’s accepted. You cannot put your feet down. Bikes sometimes collide and people sometimes fall, but not so often as a cautious outsider might expect. As Anthony Acock, one early New Haven Bike Polo player, said, “it never stops being an awkward game.”
Rivera is tall, has dark hair and wears hoodies, skinny jeans, and purple Converse sneakers. He rides a white fixed-gear bike with black handlebars and at polo he is always friendly. He came to New Haven from his hometown of Albuquerque last year so that his wife, Amy Coplen FES ’12, could attend the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. When not playing bike polo, Rivera works for Whole-G Bread and bakes at Book Trader Café twice a week.
Rivera didn’t play bike polo in New Mexico, but after following the blog of Albuquerque players, he decided to get it going in New Haven this summer. Its early players included friends of the couple — other FES students, Book Trader employees and their spouses. But helped along by Rivera’s black-and-white flyers featuring a silhouetted polo player surrounded by stars, word got out, and Rivera and his friends were joined by others.
Some of the newcomers turned out to be holdouts from an older — and rougher — episode of New Haven Bike Polo’s past. In September, Acock, a graphic designer and vegan baker who rides a black fixed-gear covered in stickers and spoke cards, and who has a fully tattooed right arm, appeared on the lot. He already had a mallet — made not of a ski pole but from a wooden dowel spray-painted black — and was well more maneuverable on the polo court than anyone else. After the games, he slipped references to how polo in New Haven used to be, before everyone involved got old, moved away, or “quit riding bikes” (“how do you quit riding bikes?” replied Rivera). He lauded Rivera for picking the same parking lot where polo used to be played, talked about the “Saturday Night Bike Fights” of yore, and started bringing friends from the old scene. Two of his friends came on BMX bikes one day, and joined the match at the very end, zooming in circles around everyone else like the seekers in a Quidditch match. Marty, a Devil’s Gear Bike Shop employee, started coming after the shop closed for the day. After games the group usually hangs around to talk, sometimes about vegan cupcakes or local music landmarks, but mostly about fixing up bikes.
In the fall when leaves fell, Dude used a leaf-blower to clean the court; when snow fell in winter there were jokes to be made about “snow-lo” and a lot of sliding on curbside ice to wrangle the ball back into play. Daylight savings time in October meant that polo’s hours were suddenly dark, but Dude charged a glow-in-the-dark roller hockey ball with his headlights. Combined with the lights overhead, the game rolled on. When the weather gets warmer, Rivera hopes to play more than once a week; Dude wants to make t-shirts to look extra official; there is always talk of matches against players from other cities.
On account of my enthusiastic attendance, Dude presented me this winter with my very own polo mallet. Instead of the communal ski poles, I now get to swing a wooden mallet with a design of purple, black and yellow stripes. And though I have a trophy shelf of Directed Studies tomes and a couple well-designed t-shirts from my summer on the Yale Farm, I have to think that when I leave New Haven, it might be my best token to remember this eccentric city.
New Haven Bike Polo plays every Sunday from three to five at the AT&T parking lot at the corner of Audubon and Orange streets. You can learn more and stay in the loop at facebook.com/newhavenbikepolo, where it reminds you, polo is “free, fun, and casual!”