If someone says the word ‘polo’, a certain preconceived idea about who might play this sport comes to mind.
But swap horses for bikes, and the game is completely turned on its head.
While watching on in South London’s Newington Gardens as a game runs its course, a player (who is manning a BBQ for everyone to enjoy post-match) tells us the game is a combination of ‘brute and grace’.
Brute because it requires a certain level of competitive spirit, grace so you can navigate riding a bike with one hand while swiftly swinging a mallet across the ground to score goals – all while keeping your balance.
Players speed around the court, steering and controlling the ball, occasionally getting entangled with each other when two shoot for the same corner to claim a ball that’s momentarily escaped anyone’s mallet.
No matter which team wins, they congratulate each other when someone gets it into the net.
It’s impressive and captivating to watch, given how effortless it appears from the outside.
Bike polo is a little-known sport, as most people reply with ‘what’s that?’ when mentioned – but it’s clear for those who play it’s about more than just the game.
Adam Hebiri, 32, a commercial sales manager by day and bike polo player by night, proudly says this court is his ‘home from home’ and the other players have become his ‘family’.
Matches last for around 12 minutes in friendly games, which consist of two teams of three (everyone else watches and socialises on the sidelines until it’s their go). Players have to ‘tap in’ by striking their mallet against the centre of the court railing if they let their feet touch the ground during play – otherwise their subsequent movements don’t count.
People sometimes fall off their bikes, so wearing gloves, a face cage and other protective gear is encouraged.
It’s an unusual sport to come across, and for Adam the discovery – which is now a huge part of his life – was completely random.
‘I started in 2011 at university in Canterbury, Kent, and I was working in a bar with my boss who became my teammate and best friend, and we just watched a YouTube video then got some friends together to try it,’ he tells Metro.co.uk.
‘After a month of playing I realised there was a tournament in Cambridge and when I went, everything I thought polo was, was completely different the moment I got there.’
Adam previously bought into the idea that polo was a more exclusive and elitist sport for the wealthy.
After more than a decade of playing the sport, he’s observed that ‘so much has changed in 10 years with the way people find polo’, so now his focus is to expand awareness through beginner’s sessions.
In that time, they’ve moved sites across London, playing at Brick Lane previously, and have worked with councils to make a new court at their Dalston site specifically suited to bike polo – it’s fitted with banks, concrete corners and measures up to the sport’s official court size of 40 x 20 meters.
They also travel to play other British city teams, having been to Bristol and Cardiff among other locations.
Beyond the logistic achievements, welcoming in newbies and fostering a sense of inclusivity has always been important in this community.
In a rare case for London, joining the crew to play bike polo comes with zero membership fee and no requirement to even own a bike – beginners are loaned them during meets, and Adam somehow crams 15 or so spare bikes in his small flat.
Removing this barrier to joining is one of the things that makes this sport so special.
‘We’re really diverse – there’s quite a few generations of people, and there’s diversity with where and who everyone is,’ Adam adds, explaining that his groups has even worked with schools in the past to get kids riding bikes.
Jesse Lawson, a 28-year-old radio producer, is currently London bike polo’s chair; being inclusive of all genders is one of her top priorities as the sport grows.
‘It’s an international sport and you find it in most cities, so it’s just how the cookie crumbles in this city that the majority of players are men, but in Vienna it’s mostly women and non-binary people,’ Jesse says.
‘That’s why I like the sport, that it’s mixed gender which is super rare and the bike takes out some of the differences between body size and strength which equalises people a bit.
‘Because it’s such a small sport you have to nurture people and encourage them to play otherwise that sport won’t exist, so there’s a big emphasis on bringing in new people.
‘I ran a women and non-binary course last year and we’re in the process of setting up WAQ night (women and queers) for September or October.’
Her six-year-long love of bike polo began in Montreal, Canada, when a friend suggested she take up the sport as she was nervous about meeting people – Jesse was told she’d have ‘a community of friends instantly’, which proved to be right in every location she’s since moved to.
Friendships come off the court – some people even now live together after meeting through the sport.
Bike polo newbie, Louie Staniland, found this to be true too after he took up the sport a year ago.
The 25-year-old got into it thanks to his uncle, who also plays.
‘My bike broke and my uncle said to come down to bike polo and they’ll fix it for you, so I came down and talked to some of the guys and they were like “We’ll fix your bike but you need to stay and play a game”, and I’ve been coming four days a week for the last year since,’ he says.
He’s also passionate about bringing new people into their circle, so organised a beginners tournament that took place in May this year.
‘I put it together as a way to get the beginners to become a bit more competitive because I really enjoy playing hard.
‘As much as it is fun, it’s nice to be wanting to win and to have something to play for as well, and it’s good to have everyone playing at a similar level,’ Louie says.
Tournaments run internationally too, but given that Louie joined the during the pandemic he hasn’t been able to enjoy this side of the game yet.
He eagerly speaks of his love for bike polo, yet ‘there’s this more exciting side to it I haven’t even touched yet’.
Adam and Jesse both have fond memories of their tournaments abroad, specifically the Berlin Mix which is the biggest and is for 50 mixed gender teams only.
One year, they used an abandoned air field to make the court.
‘We had a massive rainstorm come in, it literally washed everything away, but we were all dancing in the rain, gazebos flying around just making the most of it,’ Adam recalls.
‘When it all cleared up we had this beautiful double rainbow – it was a beautiful way to end summer with my friends.’
Even this memory, of creating a court on an abandoned field, is revealing of the DIY culture that characterises bike polo.
The group build their own bikes from scratch, using a track brake with a mountain bike fork in some cases.
They mix random parts that work for the individual and their style, designing their own bicycle and seeing what they can get inexpensively.
As for the mallets, they can be made using gas pipes and ski poles.
Jesse says you might arrive not knowing a thing about bikes, but then everyone soon teaches you how to form one, calling the experience ’empowering’.
Even the way tournaments are organised has a makeshift quality about it, being arranged through forums, WhatsApp groups and social media, rather than one official body.
Of course, the pandemic impacted upon the way the sport ran for a significant time during lockdown.
Adam said he’d play ‘solo polo’, then later in small groups when the rule of six was introduced.
For him, bike polo creates a ‘flow state you can lean on – you don’t think about anything else’, and that has boosted his general wellbeing, even going so far as to call the sport a ‘life saver’.
‘It can be so many things to different people – it’s one day a week away from the missus, or you can play extremely competitively if you want,’ he tells Metro.co.uk.
‘We joke it’s not even a real sport as you come down and have a tinny and hang out with your friends.
‘It brought me this amazing community that now stretches into Europe,’ he adds, explaining that during international tournament season you can ‘go to pretty much a different city every week’ and sofa surf.
It’s ‘full of weird and wonderful people’ according to Adam, and many seem to benefit mentally from being a part of the community.
Aside from the inevitable friendships and sense of purpose found in the game, Jesse says there’s an opportunity to grow as a person through bike polo.
‘The thing about bike polo is it teaches you to be a good person because first, it’s a team sport and the way that we play is we shuffle the mallets every game so you’re playing with different people every time,’ she says.
‘So, it teaches you to play with other people, learn how they play and then react to that – that is all really good for not thinking about yourself as an individual.
‘There’s also a steep learning curve for the first few sessions – it takes a little while to get used to.
‘What that means is the type of people who play are okay with laughing at themselves.’