It’s easy to spot these polo players by what they’ve got on them.
There’s a mallet in their hand and a helmet on their head. And, there are often tattoos and the kinds of strawberries that end up on skin and not in a smoothie.
That’s because in Madison and in other places of the U.S. and beyond, a sport called bike polo is gaining a following on hardcourts in urban areas. It’s a far cry from the horses and private club set, with the entire sport created and led by players who have connected through travel and the Internet.
“It’s really an amazing study in community-building,” said Jonny Hunter, who is among the current group that started playing bike polo in Madison in 2004.
In Madison, that community just got its own official home.
Part of the unique Reynolds Park tennis courts that sit atop a city well on the Near East Side have been turned into a court for bike polo. Pre-fab plastic pieces like those used to make a hockey rink were installed earlier this month in the picturesque spot with a Capitol view, replacing the plywood and pallets players had installed.
The new court ends a decade-long skirmish between players and park officials over finding a place to play without running into liability issues.
“We were working every avenue and channel so we could play,” said Hunter, chef, owner and founder of the Underground Food Collective. “If I go back and search my emails, I talked to different park commissioners, different alder people, the neighborhood association, just saying, ‘Let’s see if we can make this happen.’”
Now that it’s official, bike polo players in Madison want to see the sport grow. They hope more people will want to learn to play, and that by having an official home they can host teams from other cities.
“That’s how we’ll get better, play against other people,” said Jonny Mageske, part of the Madison Bike Polo group that plays pickup games on Tuesday and Thursday evenings and Sunday afternoons at Reynolds Park. They can even play in the winter because the 50-degree temperature of the water in the pumping station keeps the court from freezing.
Versions of bike polo have been around since the early days of the bicycle. According to the North American Hardcourt Bike Polo Association, the current form began in 1999 when bike messengers in Seattle created it to pass time between jobs.
The rules are pretty simple. There are three people to a team, the aim is to hit a ball in the net, and first team to score five points wins. Beyond that, it isn’t simple at all.
“It’s a hard sport to learn,” Hunter said. “You have to learn how to control the bike and control the ball. You have to learn to see the court and hit the ball. It takes some coordination.”
One-speed customized bikes are used, with one hand brake. The sport has gained enough footing that companies now sell specialized equipment for it – balls, mallets, pads, bike parts.
One Madison player, Bernadette Watts, is considered a professional as she is sponsored by Fixcraft, a bike polo supplier. They provide gear, and she competes in national and world tournaments for prize money.
Madison players say they’ve been free of major injuries beyond scrapes and bruises; they wear helmets and pads and their pickup games don’t get too intense.
“You can run into each other and fall,” Mageske said. “We’re all friends, so we don’t want to see anybody hurt at the end.”
From the beginning, the Madison group played at Reynolds Park because many of them lived in the neighborhood. First they played on the grass, with mallets made of PVC piping and old ski poles.
As the game evolved to hardcourts nationally, Madison players moved to the park’s tennis courts. They were added when city well No. 24 was built on park land in the 1970s, but the bike polo players hadn’t seen much tennis there.
Sometimes parks staff would ask them to leave, or the facility would be locked. Polo players argued they were being good neighbors, keeping the site clean and safe.
“We knew it was going on, it’s just kind of one of those neighborhood things,” said Patty Prime, president of the Tenney-Lapham Neighborhood Association. “We didn’t really think anything of it besides ‘That’s kind of cool.’”
When Ledell Zeders ran for the District 2 alder seat in 2013, she contacted Hunter to see what he cared about as a small business owner.
“I said, ‘You’re going to think this is hilarious, but if we could get legalized bike polo here, I would be so happy,’” Hunter said.
For the players, the bureaucracy of working with two city agencies — the Parks Division and the water utility — was a challenge that even Parks Supervisor Eric Knepp called “mind-numbing.”
Zellers helped bring all the pieces together and Knepp, who became supervisor last year, came up with a solution — make it an official city bike polo court instead of one that belonged to the players.
“When they told me that, it was like you had to hit me on the head so I’d believe I just heard them say they were going to build a bike polo court,” Hunter said. “After 11 years, I couldn’t believe it. We did not see that coming at all.”
The city paid about $15,000 for the court, which Knepp said he believes will last 10 to 15 years. “It’s validating that it’s a fast-growing sport, we do really want to try to be proactive as a Parks Division,” said Knepp, who added that the court could also be used for roller hockey.
Knepp credits the bike polo group for finding a use for park space in an out-of-the-way location.
“The No. 1 way to keep a park system safe and conducive to positive healthy choices is to add legitimate activity,” Knepp said.
The Reynolds Park court doesn’t have much spectator space — and it will host a tournament of Midwestern teams on July 11-12 — but players don’t have to worry that they don’t belong there.
“This space is kind of iconic in the bike polo world, a lot of people learned to play here,” Hunter said. “I’m not lobbying for anything else. We’re just relishing that we have a court.”