Schenectady County

Group enjoys parking-lot bike polo

Rita Verga is the only player who has broken a bone. So far.
Rita Verga of Troy, left, and Matt Walczak of Albany, play bike polo in the Troy City Hall parking lot off of Monument Square Sunday afternoon.
Rita Verga of Troy, left, and Matt Walczak of Albany, play bike polo in the Troy City Hall parking lot off of Monument Square Sunday afternoon.

Rita Verga is the only player who has broken a bone.

So far.

Verga, 32, regularly plays the rough-and-tumble sport of bike polo, which arrived in the Capital Region this summer when Troy resident Jesse French decided to bring the game, popular in his hometown of Seattle for about a decade, to the area. The name of the group: Collar City Bike Polo.

“It’s not unusual for somebody to take a spill,” Verga explained. “I fell off my bike, and another person fell on top of me, and I broke my wrist.”

“There’s rough play at times, but there’s a camaraderie that’s present among the players,” said French, 23, who lives in Troy and works as an event technician at the Experimental Media & Performing Arts Center. “We definitely break a sweat. There’s something satisfying about scoring a goal after trying for so long.”

The games, which start on Sundays at noon in the parking lot next to Troy City Hall, typically draw between 15 and 20 people, and on a recent Sunday players dressed warmly in layers and hats and gloves to ward off the bitter chill of late November. They set up orange cones to serve as goal posts and a barrel that served a similar purpose to a penalty box — if a player’s foot touches the ground, which is against the rules, he or she must pedal over to the barrel and tap it with their mallet before resuming play.

equipment, rules

Bike polo requires several basic pieces of equipment: bicycles, mallets, which members of the group make out of ski poles and cut-up pieces of tube, and a street hockey ball. The rules are also pretty basic: players cannot put their feet on the ground or hit the ball with the wider side of the mallet head.

Games are usually three on three. The teams line up at opposite ends of the court and after counting down — “Three, two, one, polo!” — they ride toward the center of the court.

They maneuver and pass the ball using their mallets; Verga excels at tapping the ball between her bike wheels and out of the way of opposing players. Occasionally a small scrum forms as players fight for possession of the ball.

When someone knocks the ball into the goal from half court, someone yells, “Oh, ho, ho!” and the players on the team that scored tap the ends of their mallets against each other.

“It’s 2 to 1,” French announces, and the game continues.

There are two forms of bike polo: hard court bike polo, which is played on asphalt or concrete, and grass polo, which is the older, more established version of the sport.

Grass polo has a plethora of rules and resembles equestrian polo; hard court bike polo is its urban cousin, a grittier game with few rules and a more alternative vibe.

Grass bike polo was invented by Irishman Richard Mecredy in 1891, and was actually a demonstration sport at the 1908 Olympics.

The sport peaked in popularity in the 1930s, but interest fell off considerably during World War II. The 1980s, however, saw a revival of interest in the sport, and in 2000, the first hard court bike polo games were organized.

“Ten years ago, there was something of a resurgence,” French said. “During the dot com boom in Seattle, people played bike polo in a warehouse.”

Today there are urban bike polo groups in most major U.S. cities. French said about 2,000 people throughout the country play bike polo.

“In the past couple years, bike polo has gotten huge,” he said.

sport brought to troy

French said he played bike polo in Seattle, where some of the world’s best bike polo players compete, a couple of years ago and decided to start the Troy group. “I had fun, but I wasn’t very good about it,” he said. “I came here, and I was super stoked about it.”

Right now, the relative inexperience of the members of Collar City Bike Polo is beneficial because it means somebody with no experience can jump into a game and not feel hopelessly out-matched, French said.

“No one who came to our [first] games had ever played before,” French said. “We started from scratch.”

Verga, a lawyer who lives in Troy, had never played bike polo before this summer when she learned about the group through an online posting, but she, like the other players, has been biking for years.

“It’s fun,” she said. “It’s good exercise. It’s a nice group of people.”

Alexey Zinger, 31, of Wynantskill, began playing bike polo a few weeks ago after he learned about the group while volunteering at the Troy Bike Rescue. “That was the first time I’d ever heard of it,” he said. “I thought it was kind of a wacky idea, but it seemed like fun.”

Zinger said he’s an avid biker. “I like bicycles,” he said. “I grew up on them. I went to high school in the Bronx.

Not a lot of people have cars there, and as a kid a bicycle was a great way to get around the city. Biking was something that caught my fancy.”

Bike polo, Zinger said, “is definitely a game that requires a fair amount of skill and a willingness to fall off and go home with a few bruises.”

Many of the members are affiliated with the Troy Bike Rescue, which repairs and recycles bicycles with the goal of getting them back on the road.

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