Riding the bike was easy. Hitting the ball with a mallet wasn’t so tough.
Doing both at the same time was a different story.
On a sunny afternoon earlier this month, I dropped by Tacoma’s Verlo Playfield to check out a game that players say should be more popular around the South Sound.
There are bike polo clubs in Olympia and Tacoma, both of which are small, laid back and, their players say, ideal places to learn the game.
Why should more people be playing bike polo? For starters, participants say, it’s fun and neither experience nor supreme fitness are required. In fact, you don’t even need a bike. (The local clubs have loaners). But perhaps even more important than the encouraging atmosphere is that the sport makes people better, safer cyclists.
Most people look at it (bike polo) and think it looks too hard. But it’s not quite as hard as it looks once you try it.
Leon Ettelson, Tacoma Bike Polo
While the game clearly requires coordination, Ian Tromble, a Tacoma resident who has played for five years, said getting started is easy. He let me borrow his bike and mallet for a mini-lesson during a Tacoma Bike Polo game.
I started by pedaling around the tennis courts that double as the club’s home court. Then I tried to whack one of the baseball-size plastic balls toward the two orange cones that served as the goal.
Swing and a miss.
I circled around and tried again.
I was laughing at my ineptitude, but Tromble calmly offered a tip. Try hitting the ball with the wide side of the mallet. He was right.
The third time was the charm. Sort of. I made contact, but the ball went about 5 feet right of where I wanted it to go. After a few more minutes, I was starting to feel comfortable even if I wasn’t in danger of convincing anyone that I knew what I was doing.
“Most people look at it (bike polo) and think it looks too hard,” said Leon Ettelson, a Tacoma resident who won a world title in 2009. “But it’s not quite as hard as it looks once you try it.”
“And it’s a lot of fun,” said Jill Nintze, a Mount Tahoma teacher and former professional bike polo player. “We want people to know they can play even if they are just learning to ride a bike. We will help you.”
Games are 3-on-3 on tennis courts with goals at either end. Hit the ball through the goal and you score. The team with the most goals wins.
Players aren’t allowed to check (intentionally collide with each other) or touch the ground with their feet. If a player puts a foot on the ground they must remove themselves from the play and then go touch the sideline at mid-court with their mallets before they can return to the action.
We play with safety in mind. We respect where we are at. We don’t condone super aggressive play. We like a good, clean game.
Zack Malham, Olympia bike polo player
It’s a far cry from what you might see if you dropped by games in Seattle or Portland, where games are full contact and much more intense.
“We play with safety in mind,” said Zack Malham, who has played in Olympia since 2006. “We respect where we are at. We don’t condone super aggressive play. We like a good, clean game.”
Nintze has an impressive scar on her arm. She fell in a tournament in Portland and “broke my arm in half.” Recovering from the compound fracture meant she had to take time off work.
“That’s when I decided I wasn’t going to play hard core anymore,” Nintze said.
With an emphasis on fun, South Sound clubs are rarely a threat to win major tournaments. At last year’s Emerald City Open, Tacoma and Olympia squared off for last place. Tacoma won.
“But we had a great time,” said Eric Schrandt, who helps organize Wednesday night games at The Evergreen State College tennis courts.
Theresa Schoen was part of a Tacoma women’s team that entered an international tournament in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 2013.
“We just wanted to represent Tacoma and try it out,” she said. “And they (bike polo players) are the most welcoming group of people. It was fun to play against some of the best players in the world.”
MAKING BETTER CYCLISTS
Several years before Nintze fell in love with the Northwest at the 2011 bike polo world championships in Seattle, she lived in Pittsburgh and commuted by bike.
“The roads are very narrow, but it was my only form of transportation,” Nintze said.
Some of her friends played bike polo, but she thought it looked too challenging. Riding with one hand. Making quick decisions. Maneuvering around a tight space with five other cyclists. It all seemed so overwhelming.
Eventually her friends convinced her that not only could she play, but it would make her more comfortable when she was commuting by bike. They were right. And it changed her life.
Bike polo translates into more confidence as a bicycle commuter.
Jill Nintze, Tacoma Bike Polo
Not only did it make her a more confident cyclist, she loved the sport. She start playing all over the country, and at a tournament in Texas in 2009 she met Ettelson. Nintze and Ettelson are getting married in June.
Ettelson helps runs a youth bike program called the Major Taylor Project. The program, sponsored by the Cascade Bicycle Club, helps students learn about cycling. They provide instruction, gear and the bikes. Last year several of the program’s students from Lincoln High biked the 200-mile Seattle to Portland Classic.
Ettelson sometimes uses bike polo to help the kids gain confidence.
“It helps you be ready for predicaments you face as a cyclist,” Ettelson said. Predicaments like cars nosing out too far into the bike lane or car doors that suddenly open in front of you. Or simple tasks like being able to ride with one hand so you can signal.
“These can be hard skills to learn,” he said. “But out here, you just naturally do it while you’re playing a game.”
FINDING A HOME
At their early May meet-up at Verlo Playfield, Tacoma Bike Polo had one of its best turnouts. There was a short wait to play.
That’s not always the case. Sometimes they’re fortunate enough to have enough players for a full game. The same is the case in Olympia, where Malham called Olympia Hardcourt “the smoldering embers of a club.”
But they keep playing.
Tacoma Bike Polo sees Verlo Park at 4321 McKinley Ave. E. as an ideal location to play their sport.
Nintze is certain the game can become more popular in the South Sound if it has a designated home in Tacoma.
“If you have a designated space, people will come,” Nintze said. “Seattle has proven that. They get enormous turnouts and can’t always accommodate everybody.”
Schoen said Tacoma Bike Polo used to get good turnouts when it met regularly at Franklin Park. Then the tennis courts were removed. The club tried playing in empty parking lots, but were kicked out.
Verlo Playfield feels like a good home, Nintze and Schoen said. The club has talked to Metro Parks Tacoma about working together to make the courts even more accommodating to bike polo. The biggest need, Nintze said, is the ability to store or permanently set up the short boards that form the perimeter of the court and prevent balls from rolling off into the park.
“This is a great location,” Nintze said. “You could have tournaments here, easily. Seattle and Portland get burned out hosting all of the tournaments.”
Hosting a tournament might be a dream come true, but for now just having enough interest in the South Sound to play games regularly is enough to keep these players happy.
“It’s just a great way to spend a nice day,” Ettelson said. “You get to play a fun game outdoor and hang out with friends. That’s appealing to a lot of people.”
Try bike polo
Tacoma: Check Tacoma Bike Polo’s Facebook page for information on upcoming games. The group has loaner bikes and mallets available. Bring a helmet. The group attempts to play at least two Sundays each month at Verlo Playfield, 4321 McKinley Ave. E.
Olympia: Olympia Hardcourt hosts games Wednesday nights at 7:30 p.m. at The Evergreen State College tennis courts. Loaner bikes are available. Bring a helmet. The group doesn’t have a website but occasionally updates its Facebook page.