A Look at Latin America’s Growing Bike Polo Scene

Cultura Dura is a Remezcla and Mike’s HARDER content and event series highlighting emerging Latin urban culture. We’ll be exploring scenes that haven’t really gotten any coverage anywhere else – from block parties and street art to underground sports and raw, young artists making movements pa’ la calle.

The elegant image of a galloping horse, its rider with mallet in hand, has sold a lot of brand-name collared shirts on its way to preppy immortality. Versions of polo have centuries of history as an elite sport played on horseback, but for the urban cyclists of Latin America, there are few comparisons with the far grittier form that takes inspiration from the sport of kings. In October, the fourth annual Campeonato Latinoamericano de Bike Polo was held in Bogotá, Colombia as 38 teams from 8 countries took to the hard court.

For the uninitiated, bike polo indeed resembles the equine version. In lieu of riding horses, players saddle up a trusty steel-frame steed, and likewise wield mallets to advance a street hockey or similar type ball along a court and ultimately score a goal by sending it into a 3 x 6 foot net. The typical configuration is 3-on-3 across a hard surface that must be between 120-155 feet long and 60-80 feet wide with boards along the sides – no lush grass here, though such a version exists. Games are played to 5 points or until time expires.

With a cry of “1, 2, 3, polo!” the two teams rush the opening ball in a “joust” while maintaining a daring equilibrium, with one hand on the bike and one on the mallet. Players cannot switch the mallet between hands during points, which adds a challenging element of dexterity as they reach over to strike the ball or maneuver a bike just so to get the right angle on their shooting hand. Like hockey, passing is key, though there is no real stickhandling. The mallet tip, generally a piece of PVC pipe, cups the ball and a skilled player can basically carry the ball along the surface of the court at the same speed as the bike. There is no dedicated goalie, but typically one player will hang back to defend the net – no easy task as bikes work better in steady motion than at a standstill.

The Colombian capital is famous in cycling circles for having the largest bike path network in Latin America.

Many players ride single speed or fixed gear bikes because of their quick response, acceleration, and balance on a small court. This is not the arena for an expensive ultralight carbon frame road bike à la the Tour de France, but rather for custom modifications with both style and substance, such as wheel covers that can block a ball when the bike is parallel with the net but also feature sweet decals repping the team in question. Crashes, needless to say, are common, and while there is no risk of death by horse trampling, pedals, derailleurs, chains, spokes, fences, and the court itself are all ready and willing to leave players with banged up shins and calves streaked with grease.

Hard court bike polo began in Seattle in the late 1990s as a way for bored bike messengers to pass the time between deliveries. In the U.S., the sport is codified under the North American Bike Polo Association, although it still retains plenty of amateur charm. It spread to Latin America via online videos, picked up by the small but growing community of fixed gear riders, bike messengers, and creative class urban cyclists in cities like Santiago, Buenos Aires, and São Paulo, the hosts, respectively, of the first three campeonatos. In 2013, the Campeonato Sudamericano became the Campeonato Latinoamericano with the arrival of a Mexican squad.

2010 was both the first year of the tournament and the year that bike polo landed on Colombian solo. Javier Gustavo Suárez, a 31-year-old product designer, and Maurício “Rojito” Castro, a 32-year-old architectural draftsman, co-organized the Bogotá edition, which wrapped up on October 13. Still buzzing from the “incredible experience,” they said, “While you want to win whenever you play, there’s something about the Latinoamericano. It’s an excuse to see all your friends and there’s nothing better than facing off with them on the court, in every match you give it your all.”

The Colombian capital is famous in cycling circles for having the largest bike path network in Latin America and a plethora of parks and public spaces. The polo crew has two preferred spots, a covered, lit court where figure skating and roller derby also go down, and a roller hockey rink in the Parque Nacional that’s exceptionally fast. Beatriz Marinho Folly, a 27-year-old web designer from Rio de Janeiro, came for her third tournament appearance but first time in Bogotá. While she was “enchanted” by the city, “There is one thing that really caught my attention.” She elaborated, “You can’t drink alcohol in the streets there! Polo equals mallet plus bike plus beer. It was very strange to show up at a tournament where you can’t drink.” Pausing and realizing the absurdity of athletes complaining about a dry event, she explained sheepishly, “It’s a bohemian sport.”

I’m on a mission to recruit more players and reignite the local scene.

Folly’s team, the Crime Cracks, a play on words with “cream crackers,” put up a valiant fight but failed to place among the top 10 finishers. A Mexican team, RompeBolas, took home continental bragging rights and despite their recent arrival on the Latin American bike polo scene, they very much impressed. “The Mexicans showed up in force, the winners were excellent, really talented,” Folly commented. Despite the sober competition, the afterparty met Folly’s approval – “it always does” – and plenty of cold beers soothed hot tempers better left on the court.

Reflecting on the differences in national style, Suárez believes that the Argentines, with their purebred polo heritage, have a more physical style. Tiny Ecuador, by contrast, plays more tactically and will host next year’s tournament. “Over the years we’ve seen how each country evolves in its style of play,” he said. For Marinho, the best part of the Latinoamericano is precisely this chance to see new tactics. This year she noted how some players lift up their front wheel while taking a shot and also watched a sick move during a one-on-one breakaway that rewarded a subtle sweep into the net rather than winding up for a polo slapshot. “You bring these tips back to your club,” she said.

Indeed, part of the challenge is just having enough people to play with. Folly has been taking to the tennis courts afterhours along Rio’s picturesque Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon since the first group of Cariocas decided to give the sport a try and DIY fashioned their own mallets from aluminum tubes and gas pipes. The scene has ebbed and flowed, and right now it’s in a lull of only eight active players, which forced Folly to cobble together a team from whoever had the time and money to travel across the continent. Still, she’s neither thrilled nor upset over the Crime Cracks’ performance. “Even though we didn’t train much, we worked together well,” she said.

While hard numbers don’t exist given the sport’s casual nature, there likely aren’t more than 1,000 bike polo players across Latin America. Its proximity to other intimate hard court sports like futesol has helped at least a few players cross over given the similarities in smart positioning and quick ball movement, provided they are as deft on two wheels as they are on two feet. Folly, however, is a little frustrated that the profile remains overwhelmingly male, and while a female tournament was started with the goal of generating interest, as an experienced player she finds it a drag to play with total first-timers. Still, Colombia inspired her. “I’m on a mission to recruit more players and reignite the local scene,” she affirmed. Brazil is one of the few countries with multiple cities – Rio, São Paulo, Porto Alegre – that can each sustain a cadre of players, which helps the sense of a sporting league rather than the same group of friends coming out every Tuesday night.

Polo equals mallet plus bike plus beer…It’s a bohemian sport.

Even if small scale, the sport has attracted attention and the 2013 São Paulo edition was featured by ESPN Brazil. The tension between amateurism and professionalizing Latin American bike polo remains a polemical subject within the community, where tattooed arms are more welcome than a jersey plastered with sponsor logos. “We want to get more organized but we don’t want to lose that freewheeling spirit,” Folly explained. In North America, companies now fabricate polo-specific mallets, which runs counter to the DIY spirit of making your own. Vancouver even has the world’s first bike polo court.

Photo by Mauro Franceschetti
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But amateurism, for all its negative connotations, also has its perks when it comes to creating a sense of community. After last year’s tournament, a contingent of visiting players from outside Brazil decided to take advantage of the trip and tack on a side excursion to Rio. While there, an Ecuadorian polero had his bike stolen. Distraught, he returned home bikeless. A few weeks later, someone reached out to the local polo heads. The guy said he had bought a used bike, noticed the polo sticker on the frame, and suspected it might have been stolen. Elated, the polo players pooled money to pay the unsuspecting buyer, who agreed to sell it for the price he had paid the vandal. The Cariocas triumphantly delivered the trophy bike at the outset of the Bogotá tournament to an elated Ecuadorian who gladly repaid them in full. For at least one player, simply getting back in the saddle was a victory in and of itself.