They used to be one of the most interesting sights in nighttime Dolores Park: a whooping, cheering group on bicycles, darting in between each other on one of the tennis courts, whacking a tiny ball with homemade polo mallets.
To get to the bike polo game now, visitors have to sneak through an unexpectedly bloodthirsty soccer match on the far side of the tennis courts at Jose Coronado Park, at 21st and Shotwell streets. Bike polo itself strikes the casual observer as rough, and the two games perilously migrate into each others turf – as well as fences, walls, and the tennis net. “Two to three years ago none of us wore a helmet,” one of the players says. “I used to bike to polo in my helmet, and then take it off to play. That was stupid, in retrospect.”
Oral history suggests that bicycle polo in the San Francisco dates back to at least the 1990’s, when a group of bicycle messengers used to gather in Golden Gate park and play polo with mallets that they’d carved themselves, into the shapes of tiny dogs heads. Over time, the group morphed into its current incarnation: San Francisco Bicycle Polo. They have t-shirts. They have printed beer can cozies. They don’t have meetings, really. But they’re getting to it.
Other players link themselves to a more illustrious lineage. “Horse polo and elephant polo go way back,” says Joel, who by day works in marketing for Wells Fargo. “There’s some dispute between the Indians and the Irish as to who invented that. But pretty much as soon as the bicycle was invented, people started playing polo on it.” He points to a man at the far end of the court, careening around. “Devin, over there – his grandfather played bike polo. It was even an Olympic sport.”
“Nah,” says Jeremiah, bearded and sardonic. “It was a demonstration sport. And their bikes were just crappy old Schwinns. Not even high tensile.” He winces in disgust. “Lousy, bendable, dentable steel.”
Everything is moving so fast that it’s difficult to tell what’s going on. “It makes you a better biker,” says Jamie, who works as an apprentice at a local bike shop, and performs with the bicycle-based dance troupe the Derailleurs. “Now if I’m biking down the street, I notice everything. If a door opens, if a pothole appears in front of me, I’m ready.” The single speed mountain bike has become the bike of choice for most, due to its maneuverability and ease at stopping and starting.
About half of the players are wearing shin guards – those without have legs covered in tiny pinprick scabs and bruises. One has his hand in a cast. Another – the aforementioned Devin, whose grandfather played bike polo, and who does computer tech support by day – almost lost the tip of his finger during his first game when Jeremiah accidentally rode his bicycle over it. “They wired it back together,” he says, nonchalantly. “That’s when we knew Devin was hardcore,” another rider interjects. “When he came back for that second game.”
Dolores Park has been out of the question ever since the groupran afoul of the local park and recreation department. “They came down to see us with two cops and two cruisers with their lights on,” says Dustin. “They cited us for not having a permit. Which is strange – you only need a permit if there are 25 of you, and there were only 18 of us. But we didn’t know that at the time. The cops seemed kind of embarrassed. No one could decide who to ticket, and so basically four of us stepped forward and volunteered. And the tickets were dismissed within a few days.”
One of the most often-told Bevan Dufty anecdotes has to do with the superhuman responsiveness of his office to neighborhood complaints. Bike polo is no exception – Dufty stepped in and helped the group negotiate the spot at Jose Coronado. It’s okay, they say. Not as great as Dolores Park. “I will fight to the death to protect my right to play bike polo in Dolores Park,” says a polo player named Jason. “You can quote me on that.” None of the other players seem especially interested in fighting over the matter, to the death or otherwise. A current location being debated is a move over to Youngblood Coleman park in the Bayview. “It’s a beautiful court,” Dustin says. “And, no one seems to ever play tennis on it.”
The sport seems to be reaching a certain critical mass. Within the last few weeks, commercially made hard top bike polo mallets have begun to appear. This year, there will be an international bike polo championship – in Berlin. Several of the group will be traveling out to attend.
Which still doesn’t answer the question – when you win at bike polo, what do you win? “You win great and glorious victories!” Winter replies. “You feel immense pride and glory.”