‘Ottawa’ Ottawa Bike Polo: It’s so Hardcourt
There’s no fanfare, no sponsorship billboards, no glitzy venue and certainly no fashion involved. But one of Ottawa’s most engaging spectator sports takes place weekly in a park in Little Italy. It’s hardcourt bike polo.
It’s like ballet on a bike. The athletes are incredibly skilful and the play is fast and fluid as they chase the ball around the court. Riders swivel, pivot, stop, hop and pedal like mad. They lean over at alarming angles and occasionally they tumble onto the tarmac. Road rash is an occupational hazard, although nobody fell off their bike during my watch. Many players are former or current bike couriers and know how to handle their wheels.
Bike polo on grass was a demonstration sport at the 1908 Olympics. But despite this early recognition, modern hardcourt polo roots are found in Seattle in the early 2000s around the time that Angelo Sarrazin, discovered the game and brought it back to Ottawa.
Sarrazin, formerly a courier, went to the Bike Messenger World Cup in Seattle in 2003. Polo was a demonstration sport and he was hooked. He returned to Ottawa and immediately formed the Mallets of Mayhem with Alexis Mills and Allan Grier and it’s now one of the oldest clubs in North America.
“At first, play was a lot more rough and tumble because we weren’t very good,” he explains, “but as skills have risen, so the brawn has gone to the wayside.”
Courtside in Ottawa there is a subculture whiff in the air. The Mallets of Mayhem are a laid-back, friendly group of athletes.
“I just come here to get away from my day-to-day life and responsibilities,” says Justin Matheson, a father to two young children who started playing three years ago. He’s one of 20 regular players who turn up on Sunday afternoons for pickup polo games. Three to a team, games begin by flinging the mallets onto the court. You don’t get to choose your team — you simply play the way the mallets fall.
Clothing consists mostly of T-shirts, shorts, jeans and occasional helmets, elbow and shin guards. I watched one energetic shirtless player on a bright yellow bike with a cigarette in his mouth.
While a few of the players have custom bikes, the sport is wholly accessible. Basic requirements are a bike, a mallet, a friendly attitude and good biking skills.
Club member Réjean Demers made his first bike from salvaged parts and made a mallet from a broom handle and a PVC pipe. Some bikes boasted wheel covers, which are designed to stop the plastic ball from getting caught in the spokes and can also help to stop the ball in front of the goal. Many of the mallets are homemade from the shaft of a ski pole with a piece of plumbing pipe affixed to the end. Scratched and well worn, the DIY esthetic is alive and well.
“What I like best about hardcourt bike polo is the camaraderie, the DIY aspect, the cycling exercise, the dynamics involved in the fast-precise control of play,” says Demers.
The Mallets of Mayhem play Sundays from 3 p.m. at Ev Tremblay Park on Beech Street in Little Italy.