For those of you who've seen a stray field hockey ball flying down John Street late at night and wondered from whence it came, search no more. It belongs to the 12-or-so coed biking enthusiasts who meet up in the Visitors Center Bus Shed parking lot every week to play bicycle polo.
Armed with mallets handmade by the group's very humble and unofficial leader, John Chritton, this group of friends rides together, plays together, drinks together, races together, and cooks together.
If you've never heard of bicycle polo, it's more or less the same as horse-bound polo, but on bikes (wild, I know). Two goals are set up at either end of the court, a hockey ball is placed at the center to start, and every player has a mallet in hand to smack the ball into the opponents' goal.
Chritton says they all play by the honor system, using the spectators as checks and balances. With nothing up for grabs, he calls it "good-natured," but like any sport involving mallets, spokes, a ball, and fast-moving machinery, we know it's got to get just a wee bit physical.
Minus a few misdirected mallet whacks here and there and scraping his elbow along a concrete wall, Chritton has never received a serious injury, but he says he's definitely put a hurting on his bike. For this reason, he has a separate ride he uses just for polo; it's built with beefier stuff to take the impact and protect the spokes against mallet heads.
However, he has seen a friend collide with a wall, head-on (she's fine) and heard stories from friends about the aggressive L.A. polo scene, where someone broke his shoulder. Luckily for those interested, Charleston's bicycle polo scene isn't quite as aggressive as L.A.'s. "Everyone plays together and has a good time and generally tries to be respectful of each other's physical well-being." Plus, the group (which doesn't really have a name) is brand new, so they're still learning and eager to convert more bike enthusiasts.
As for those who still worry about bumps and scrapes, Chritton say, "Drinking helps a lot, as far as getting over the fear of collisions." Clearly, this bike gang is keen on having a good time, on the court and off.
Chritton witnessed his first polo tournament last February in Pensacola, Fla., and returned to Charleston determined to make enough mallets to get a game started. Months later, it would appear that he's become something of a mallet master. He bought the ski poles used for the shaft of the mallet on eBay, because, Chritton says, "Obviously there aren't a lot of used ski poles in Charleston." He uses pipes — the toughest available — for the mallet heads; he buys them from a construction supply company in Atlanta for $8 a foot. He then sells these to the players for $15 a pop, barely covering his expenses. And he just keeps churning out more, intent on having enough for newcomers. However, some sort of fund or bicycle polo sponsorship would clearly benefit the budding group, if only to put a helmet on everyone's head and a mallet in everyone's hand. Chritton doesn't wear a helmet because his "spare capital is tied up" in polo gear/mallet making endeavors.
Chritton claims all the polo enthusiasts he's met are somewhere between adrenaline junkies and laid-back life-lovers, but they all have one thing in common: they're "bike people." They ride together socially, and they're the first ones on the scene of Charleston's impromptu messenger bike races — unsanctioned races patterned after New York-style checkpoint races which, until now, we didn't know existed. Thanks for the reminder that we're not part of this secret society.
The good news is that they are hungry for new members. More players means more chances for this small group to get on the court each week. "It's definitely a lot more fun when you have more people and you're not playing with the same eight people over and over and over again," Chritton says.
Hopefully, the word will spread after the upcoming Kulture Klash in November, which will be bike-themed and feature Chritton's biking clan playing pick-up polo games all night.
Chritton recently teamed up with Dan Kelley of the Holy City Bike Co-op to have three communal bikes at the event for curious first-time riders to participate. Maybe some ladies will boldly hop on a bike and whoop some butt. As it is, their boy-girl ratio is currently 10-2.
If you're interested in playing bike polo, you can e-mail John Chritton at email@example.com.