There are some sports that your mother always told you to steer clear of--like race-car driving, hang gliding, football ("you'll break your kneecaps") and jogging ("you'll rupture your kneecaps.")
She never mentioned bicycle polo. Was she ignorant of the sport? Or was it classified as so dangerous, like bungie-cord jumping, that she feared even uttering the words lest you immediately try it?
But how much danger could there be in two guys racing toward each other on mountain bikes, hardwood mallets raised to swat a hard plastic ball?
You are about to find out.
The sport is regularly played by eight men from Moorpark on a large field in back of Chaparral Middle School. You are sitting with team leader Gary Lowe, waiting for the others to show. The blinding sun bleaches the field a celery color. There are no birds in the sky.
Lowe tells you he began playing bike polo about two years ago. "I figured that I didn't have to clean up after a bike," he says. "Horses and I don't get along very well."
You, however, get along fine with horses. In fact, you've always dreamed of playing polo at the Santa Barbara Polo and Racquet Club. It suddenly occurs to you this is the closest you will ever get to any racquet club.
Flipping through an Official Bicycle Polo rule book, you learn that this version of the sport began three years ago as a croquet game gone berserk on an alpine meadow in Colorado.
The rules are complex in order to prevent accidents. Approaching the ball at an angle, which can cause pileups, isn't allowed. Feet must remain on pedals at all times. The list goes on. You are grateful for these numerous regulations. It seems almost British.
Lowe sees you scouring the rule book. "Rules?" he says, scrunching his eyebrows. "I almost read them once." He laughs. You laugh. "Actually, it depends on how many players we have. The more bikers, the more we hold to the rules."
You pray for a large showing. Fifteen minutes later, only a very large man whom Lowe calls Kenny Kong has arrived. He has thighs the size of watermelons grown with Miracle-Gro. "He's wild," says Lowe. "He breaks bicycle seats all the time."
The game begins. It's just you and Mr. Kong--also known as Kenny Rodriguez--out on the field. You have borrowed Lowe's mountain bike, which has handlebars that twist awkwardly to the left, forcing you to steer as if you are looking over your right shoulder. There are two goals set at each end of the 160-foot field. You haven't asked, but you think it's your job to whack the ball past Mr. Kong and through the goal.
The ball is smack dab in the center of the field. Rodriguez is at one goal, you are at the other. You race toward each other at breakneck speed. Your hardwood mallet is raised above you like a jousting stick. Reaching center field, you and Rodriguez swing at the same moment, mallet heads colliding, cracking the autumn air. The ball remains in its central position.
You swing your bike around, tires gouging the buttery earth, spewing up tufts of green. Your breath comes fast like a panther's. Just one object fills your field of vision: the small red ball. You barrel down on that round object, swing and miss.
"Just like tennis," you think.
While you bandage your pride, Rodriguez dribbles the ball down the field with glee, nudging it to the left and right, doing a little dance for Lowe who is laughing hysterically on the sidelines. He angles his bike just in front of the goal and taps it between his bike's wheels across the yellow line.
During the next 15 minutes, Rodriguez does this several times, racking up eight goals. You decide to let Lowe handle Rodriguez for a while. Seated on the sidelines, you again flip through the rule book, looking for a weight restriction for players. There is none, but you discover a lot about the game.
Bicycle polo first surfaced in 1891 in Ireland, and leagues formed soon thereafter across Great Britain. The game premiered as a demonstration sport at the 1908 Olympics in London, and the British still play it today.
Looking up, you can see nothing even remotely British going on here. Lowe is trailing Rodriquez across the field bellowing, "On ya Ken! On ya, on ya, on ya!" Just when it seems that Rodriguez will score, Lowe shouts, "Hey, Kenny, Kenny, Kenny. Hey! Kenny!" This technique seems to act as a psychological boost for Lowe.
According to the rule book, such outbursts are declasse. Bicycle polo encourages players to clack their mallets together after scoring and lavish praise on one another for a job well done ("Good play!" "Fine form!" "Stunning!")
After a few more goals, it's again your turn to square off with Rodriguez. After observing Lowe's technique, you backhand a shot, zipping the ball to within 10 feet of the goal. Pivoting the bike, your mallet strikes the ball square, hurling it through the goal.
You decide to stop the game here, preferring to leave basking in the glow of partial victory. The bikes look like crumpled, mechanical steeds strewn across the field.
You check your kneecaps for cracks and head home, dreaming of a way to raise $60,000 for a stable of six ponies.
There are plenty of things you have never tried. Fun things, dangerous things, character-building things. The Reluctant Novice tries them for you and reports the results. If you want to tell the Novice where to go, please call us at 658-5547.
This week's Reluctant Novice is freelance writer R. Daniel Foster.