Volume 23, Number 13 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | August 4 - 10, 2010
Downtown Express photo by Joseph Rearick
Bike polo players in the Pit on a recent Thursday afternoon.
At the Pit, not the typical polo match
BY Joseph Rearick
On Thursday evenings, an unassuming stretch of sunken asphalt within Sarah D. Roosevelt Park becomes an eccentric, albeit friendly, battleground. Nicknamed “the Pit,” this space plays weekly host to the young, alternately graceful and hazardous sport that is hardcourt bike polo.
On a recent evening, about a dozen players gathered around the court’s edges, bikes and hand-fashioned mallets - ski poles attached to plastic industrial piping - in tow, watching the action unfold on the court. Amid the surrounding buzz of rush-hour Chinatown, they shouted at their buddies as they maneuvered around the court with polish, they applauded goals and they bemoaned missed opportunities.
The rules of the game are simple: two teams of three bikers each zip around the court, trying to shoot a street-hockey ball through the goals with their makeshift mallets. Should a player touch the ground at any point, they must rush to a designated wall and “tap in” to resume play. Handlebars must be plugged at the ends, lest a crash lead to tragic impalement. That’s just about it.
“Yeah, we’ll definitely get into some gnarly crashes,” said Chandel Bodner, recent winner of NYC’s Ladies Army Championship and one of the proprietors of nycbikepolo.com,
a website dedicated to the game. “I’ve yet to see anyone break a bone.”
The game on the court, however, leant little evidence of the potential for danger. The players wove skillfully around the space, despite high speeds and the crowding that results from competition over the ball. Their grace is one of the few aspects the game shares with its equestrian predecessor (chaps are not popular among this crowd, many of whom boast extensive tattoos.). But perhaps their smooth play was indicative of their distinctive skill; the Pit has become home to some of the country’s and the world’s best players.
One rider, sporting a red beard and a feather in his baseball cap, mentions the success of Chris Roberts, one of the Pit’s regulars at the recent North American Hardcourt Bike Polo Championship. The speaker, it turns out, is Chris Roberts. A student at the New School, he picked up the game two years ago after hearing about it in a dorm-room hallway. In early July, he and two teammates won the North American Championships, besting 65 other teams from 44 cities and earning a birth to the World Championships in Germany, to be held on August 13.
Roberts picked up the game relatively quickly, he insisted, because “the learning curve depends on how handsome you are.” And he recalled seeing some truly impressive players at the tournament. One shot the ball so hard he wreaked havoc on another player’s wheel cover, designed precisely to stop hard shots from damaging a bike’s precious spokes.
“He shot, broke through the wheel-cover and broke through the spokes,” he said, shaking his head.
Nevertheless, he and his two teammates from Philadelphia and Virginia took home the $3,600 prize money, which is intended to pay for airfare to the championship in Berlin.
Roberts said, “New York has had a solid game for five years,” though he was unsure about the origins of the weekly contest at the Pit. Bodner said she believed bike polo enthusiasts have utilized the location for “at least 8 years, maybe closer to 10.” In that time, the game has seen a burst in popularity, partially because Bodner and others have made an effort to grow the game’s notoriety and attract new players.
“This can be kind of intimidating,” said Bodner of the Pit’s high level of play. “Especially for women, because these guys don’t really let up.”
So, she has helped organize rookie nights at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where new players can “take it easy and learn more ball-handling, passing.” Thus, more players become involved in the community each week, insuring New York’s prominence on the national bike polo scene for some time.
Indeed, the Pit’s notoriety has spread across the country. It attracted one player from the far west that Thursday. Carl Gurney of Oregon stopped by while on vacation in the City; he had heard stories of the Pit and wanted to check out the action for himself. After just a few minutes he was solidly impressed and chatted to Bodner about the Pit’s relatively large size and the surge in popularity of free-wheel bikes among players. She offered him a chance to play; he could borrow a bike and a mallet from one of the resting players. He smiled and shook his head, turning to look at the bikers racing by.
“I’m not quite as good as these guys,” he said.