Runners on the South Burlington Bike Path are doing double takes. On the Farrell Park soccer field, nearly a dozen bikers are pedaling like crazy in pursuit of a small, white, wiffle ball. Wearing red and yellow pinneys and carrying makeshift mallets, they pass, dribble and swipe at the ball, aiming to knock it between the goals -- a pair of orange cones at either end of the field. But despite riding one-handed, the riders do not fall or crash while maneuvering the ball. Instead, they move like a flock of birds, swooping gracefully up and down the field. When the ball changes direction, the players change direction, too, without hitting each other.
Welcome to bike polo, which is far less snooty than its equine sibling. Since the early '90s, a group of players, mostly in their thirties and forties, has been swinging mallets around Chittenden County in regular displays of athleticism, communication and camaraderie. With speed, finesse, signature tricks, funny nicknames --even their own trading cards --these men and women are like a two-wheeled variation of the Harlem Globetrotters. The only thing they're missing is a home court.
Bike polo dates back to the late 1800s, when some folks began playing games outside Dublin, and British troops stationed in India practiced for equestrian polo on bicycles. Teams from Germany and Ireland played bike polo as an exhibition sport during the London 1908 Olympic Games, but interest in it faded with the advent of the automobile.
While the game never died out in India -- where there are more than 10,000 members of the Cycle Polo Federation -- it has gained popularity in the United States only in the past two decades. Today there are a few thousand players, according to John Kennedy, president of the Sacramen-to-based United States Bike Polo Association.
The equine U.S. Polo Association has 77 pages of rules. Bike polo's regulations are brief and to the point: Keep your feet on or in the pedals at all times, and no intentional contact with another player. Rules also can vary by league: Burlington's fill just a couple of laminated sheets that are kept on a nearby bench for reference and reveal the spirit of the group. Rule No. 11, on passing, reads: "Our style of game plays a lot like hockey in terms of ball movement, transitions from defense to offense, and speed. Think how Gretsky would play this sport, not Lance." No. 13, on attitude: "Inflate tires to 30-40 PSI and deflate egos to 0 PSI."
Players are also advised to keep their heads up, their hands on the brake, and their compassion for rookie riders in full force. "After a goal, try to give the other team and terrible players at least the opportunity to reach mid-field," reads No. 6. "Some may have family members and children watching."
This rule works in my favor when I play the game on a recent Sunday evening. On the sidelines, I get a few lessons from regular player James Mix -- nicknamed Barn Door, because he allegedly misses the easy shots and gets the hard ones. Balancing is not a problem; the mallet doubles as a crutch. But dribbling is tough. As for Mix's signature behind-the-back pass -- which has also earned him the name Gorilla -- forget about it.
After my crash-course in bike polo, I pedal out to the field of play. My goal is to not run into anyone. So I stick to the flanks of the group, manically trying to keep pace as they move fiercely up and down the field. Sud-denly, I see a biker headed straight for me -- I'm in her line of play. Certain I'm about to be T-boned, I freeze, brake, and promptly topple over on my side. I feel like a kid just out of training wheels.
"You OK?" a few players yell. Red-faced, I get back in the saddle and swear to myself I will hit that ball if it takes all night.
Ted Milks -- named "the Mosqui-to" for his pest-like pursuit of opponents -- bugs the other players to give me a chance. "Hit the ball to Sarah!" he shouts. Sure enough, the wiffle ball comes rolling toward me, with no other player in sight. I whack it once toward the cones, pedal, then give it two more hits until it sits neatly in front of the goal. Beginning to lose my balance, I veer away while another player slides in to tap the ball between the cones. An assist! Every-one cheers.
Triumphant, I take a break and learn a bit more about the equipment from Bill Flack, who began organizing bike polo games around Burling-ton 13 years ago. While an official mallet does exist, most players assemble their own from geographically dependent parts. In some places they use croquet mallets or sawed-off golf clubs for the shafts. Here, it's ski poles -- expensive, carbon-fiber ski poles, obtained from a local manufacturer through a bartering system that also involves locally brewed beer. The blades of floor-hockey sticks are attached to the poles to create the hitting surfaces.
Rather than riding jacked-up bikes with a smorgasbord of gears and snazzy shocks, most bike polo players prefer to go minimal. "You don't need much of a bike to play," confirms Kennedy. "You don't have time to shift very much, and so having a lot of gears isn't really a big advantage. Having a light bike is."
Having a regular place to play is also key, and one that's eluded Burlington's bike polo players in the last few years. It seems that some outsiders -- soccer coaches and parents, mostly -- have complained that the game tears up their fields, and that's made it tough to secure a long-term field permit. "We're like the homeless child out there," says Kate McEach-ern, a 13-year veteran. "We've basically played at every field in Chittenden County, and there are always parents who don't believe we have a permit."
Hoping to prove that bike polo is a field-friendly sport, Flack and Karin Ward -- the group's "vice-president for social advancement" -- composed a philosophy. "Our group is very conscientious and we cancel our games when fields are wet," they write. "If it's wet, we slip, so we don't play."
Physics matter as much as conscientiousness. Bike polo players hold the mallet in their right hand, using their left to control the front brake. Unless they want to send themselves ass-over-teakettle, riders must feather their brakes, which prevents skidding. Also, bikes are typically inflated to a low air-pressure of 30 to 40 pounds per square inch. "The pneumatic tires effectively suspend the rider on a cushion of air, and the softness of the rubber in the tires doesn't penetrate into the turf the way hard cleats do," according to Flack and Ward. "Also, the rider's weight is spread out over a larger surface area than a pedestrian athlete."
"The fact is, bike polo is far more field-friendly than any cleated sport, such as soccer or lacrosse," says the USBPA's Kennedy. "After a lacrosse game, the field's all chewed up, especially around the goal mounts. But after we're done playing, all you see is bent grass."
Having presented their case to the South Burlington recreation department and invited officials to watch a game, northern Vermont's bike polo players have a corner of Farrell Park -- for now. "It's always challenging to balance the needs and uses of the limited space we have, especially as we have such a busy time in the summer," says rec director Tom Hubbard. "I think it was hard for the bike polo group to be bounced around, and I'm hoping that Farrell Park can be a space they'll call their own."
After an hour of playing at this field, I can't see any damage, except to my dirty knees and maybe my ego -- common for rookies. "There's a huge misconception about what it is we do," says Mix. "But the only marks we leave are on our bodies."