Cycle Killers

17 Mar

Cycle killers

With its own porn, polo, and personalities, bike culture in Boston isn’t just about getting to work any more

By TOM MEEK  |  April 30, 2010

From atop their mounts, the participants — some with helmets and gloves, many more in just T-shirts — jostle one another for a chance to whack the ball with their care-crafted mallets from one goal line to the other.

“I want to see some blood!” screams a spectator in fishnet stockings and glittering hot pants as others nod in degenerate agreement.

VIEW:Photos from Boston bike polo matches

Clearly, this isn’t the sport of gentlemen unfolding at, say, the Myopia Hunt Club in Hamilton, but rather urban bike polo at a street-hockey pit in Allston. Many are dressed in black and look like refugees from a club Goth night. Participants sometimes wear Mexican-wrestler masks, while others have no shirts on at all. 

Also known as hardcourt bike polo, the sport is quickly gaining in popularity here and is just one of the latest bellwethers that outré bicycle culture is on the rise in mainstream, once-puritanical Greater Boston. For further evidence, the nationally touring Bike Porn film festival sold out the Brattle Theatre just last week. And, if you’ve ever noticed mysteriously freaky bike monstrosities cruising by, it’s likely the work of SCUL, the late-night parade of avant-garde art mods — an “anti-elite band of pilots” and “battalion of funk” — who weld two or three bike frames atop each other, with the seats some six or eight feet off the ground and who refer to their rides as “ships exploring the Greater Boston Starsystem.”

Beyond being green-friendly and easier to use in a tough-to-find-parking city like Boston, bikes have also become an integral tool (and symbol) for social activity and political movement. Take Bikes Not Bombs or Critical Mass. And for an esoteric reach, how about Mountain-Bike Ultimate (you got it: ultimate Frisbee played on mountain bikes).

The number of bike riders in the area is certainly on the rise, too: the city of Cambridge estimates that the figure at least doubled between 2002 and 2008, and according to the American Commuter Survey, ridership in Boston is up some 63 percent since 2007.

“The car is no longer king in Boston,” Mayor Tom Menino declared last week to a crowd of cyclists at the Boston Bicycle Safety Summit at Boston University, which was convened to address the tragic death of yet another young cyclist — one that has catalyzed the Boston bike community to improve cycling hazards.

But back to bike polo. The current urban variety was started in 1999 in Seattle. (On grass, the sport dates back to 1891 Ireland, and was, believe it or not, an exhibition sport at the 1908 Olympics in London.) The rules are pretty much the same as the equine version: players can make contact with each other, but there’s no T-boning (ramming), and feet can’t touch the ground. The mallet head is made of high-density polyethylene pipe, and is almost always affixed to a blunted ski pole. Most players also cover their wheels with corrugated plastic to prevent fingers, feet, and mallets from getting caught in their spokes. Oh, and the beverage of choice among players in action is, unlike other sports,not Gatorade but cheap beer.

Locally, Boston-area urban poloists meet up at the Allston hockey pit at least three times a week. One recent Wednesday night, there were 40 people milling around the rink with a hibachi going full blaze.

As might be expected, there are frequent dust-ups. “Why else to play or watch?” asks a player simply identified as Tobi, who lives in Cambridge and looks and sounds like a young Malcolm McDowell from A Clockwork Orange, with a slightly more polite demeanor.

Tobi, who has broken ribs, fingers, and a foot, has immersed himself in the activity and will be part of the coalition representing Boston (one of 27 North American teams) in the game’s world championships in Berlin this summer.

Some may see bike polo as the “fringe” horsing around, but given its worldwide popularity and the fact it can be played on just about any hardtop, with cheap, readily available gear, the cycle mallet swingers will soon outnumber their horsemen counterparts.

“When I first started playing [two years ago],” notes enthusiast Nick Regan of Allston, of the sport’s scruffy roots, “it was more of a bike-messenger scene, which was a way for messengers to sit around after work, drink, laugh, and play some polo. Now, most of the players have full-time jobs, and you can go online and get a complete bike, mallet shaft, and pipe.”

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