Vintage Velo: Early 1970s Polo Bike

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Editor’s note: This story first appeared in Bicycle Times issue #14, published in December 2011. Words by Jeff Archer. Photos by Wes Stearns.


Mention the word “polo” and most people will think of well-heeled men riding horses while the women sip drinks under a parasol, politely cheering. Since this is Bicycle Times and not Equine Times, let’s substitute bicycles for horses.

Bicycle polo dates back to 1891 and became popular enough to be a demonstration sport at the 1908 London Olympics, with Ireland beating Germany for the gold medal. Many of the rules were adopted from equine polo but are a little more flexible. Bike polo was traditionally played by teams of four on a large grass field (regulation size is 100 by 150 meters) with a 12-15 inch circumference ball. A hard-court version of the game has overtaken the traditional version in popularity and can be played on any large hard surface, such as a street hockey rink or a tennis court. These games are usually faster paced, with three-member teams using a street hockey ball.

Over the years, bike polo has gained strength in different areas as leagues were formed. In the 1930s, bike polo gained popularity in England and France and featured many competitions between the countries until WWII brought them to a halt. The Cycle Polo Association of India was formed in 1966 and the Bicycle Polo Association of America was created in 1994. International championships were held in 1996 and 1999-2006 with India winning four gold medals, Canada three and the Unites States one. The International Cycling Union finally recognized bike polo in 2001.

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These internationally competitive teams usually arose from local bike polo hot spots. Generally, someone would organize a couple of teams that would grow into a league. In the 1970s, one of these hot spots was Chicago. Mark Mattei, of the Cycle Smithy bike shop, was promoting the sport. On his web site, he says, “Early customers may recall finding the shop closed on busy Saturdays with a note giving an excuse of a death in the family—chances were I was probably out playing bicycle polo.” Mark even went as far as to build bike-polo-specific bikes, like the one seen here. Most players would use a modified standard bike, which would work OK, but more serious competitors were always looking for an advantage. Smaller wheels would be stronger and faster to accelerate, so the bikes used 20 x 1 ⅜ wheels. The mallet was held in the right hand and the left hand controlled the bike. Shortened handlebars made one-handed steering easier and left room to swing the mallet. Quick direction changes were important, so the frame geometry was altered to make the bike more agile. This bike proudly displays its battle scars.

A couple of things to keep in mind from the Bicycle Polo Association of America on why bike polo is better than traditional polo: You can transport bicycles on the roof or in the trunk of your car. Bicycles eat a lot less than horses, and consequently, they are a lot easier to clean up after. It’s a lot less hazardous to your health to have a bicycle fall on you. Some rich guy can’t beat you to the ball just by buying a faster bike; he still has to pedal it. And finally, when you break a spoke, you don’t have to shoot your bike.

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This bike can be seen at the Museum of Mountain Bike Art & Technology in historic downtown Statesville, North Carolina. If you can’t visit in person, check out the collection at www.mombat.org.

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