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MADISON, Wis. -- Imagine beer, bikes and polo meeting on asphalt and you'll start to get an idea of what hard-court bike polo is all about.
This little-known sport is an incredibly distant relative of horse polo -- but without any of the gentility. Cut-offs and T-shirts replace the more formal riding pants and tails; merciless hecklers serve as fans; worn asphalt tennis courts replace finely manicured polo pitches; and oozing scabs are a sign of a game well-contested. Oh, and tattoos, while not required, are certainly encouraged.
Welcome to the North American Hardcourt Bike Polo Championships, in which 66 three-man teams competed over the weekend for a chance to play at the World Championships in Berlin, Germany, in August.
"To be good at this you have to be both good on your bike, and also have an understanding of athletics in general," said Jonny Hunter, the NAHBPC organizer. "You see a lot of hockey players, lacrosse and soccer players. It's a mix of what we jokingly call 'bike jocks.' "
"The Odds" won the tournament, putting the final game out of reach on a last-minute breakaway goal by Philadelphia's Mark Capriotti. He and his teammates, Chris Roberts and Nick Vaughn, survived three grueling, humid July days of competition (and booze-soaked nights) to win $3,600, which is intended for use on plane fare to the World Championships.
The championship was contested at something less than a pristine athletic venue. Ragged tennis courts on the outskirts of Madison were ringed by small plywood walls, while fans, high on Gatorade and Miller High Life, were enthusiastic.
Teams with names like "Stickmata" and "Bourbonic Plague" represented 44 cities. And the sport has clubs throughout Europe, East Asia, Australia and South America, as well as the U.S., Canada and Mexico.
The bikes, mostly single-speed models from a wide range of makers, are battle scarred. Homemade mallets are a shortened ski pole with a six-inch chunk of HDPE pipe on one end. Endorsement dollars haven't found the sport yet. Clearly, hard-court bike polo is about the love of the game.
"It's a good community of good people," said Kevin Walsh, a Toronto resident who oversees leagueofbikepolo.com. "Hardcourt's been around about 10 years. But there's been people playing bike polo on asphalt as long as there has been asphalt and bikes."
Matt "Messmann" Messenger is the godfather of the sport (or "grandfather," as one fan sarcastically yelled during one of Messenger's games). The 39-year-old elder statesman started playing the game with bike courier friends in Seattle in the late 1990s.
"We started inviting people out on Friday night with beer and polo," Messenger said. "Then we started throwing tournaments. In 2005, you started hearing more about bike polo. And it was 'Wow, people are really starting to play this game and taking it legit.'"
The sport isn't for the timid. With one hand on a brake and one hand on a mallet, players chase a small plastic ball. There's no touching the ground with your feet -- and if you do, you get a "tap-in" at a designated spot to be able to return to the action.
Riders weave through opponents with amazing agility, but graceful biking can, and often does, quickly turn into a painful pileup.
The tight-knit community plays hard on and off the court. Beer and bloodshot eyes were abundant at the NAHBPC.
"We have these friends that we see maybe 10 times per year," Capriotti said. "Trust me, I wonder about the philosophy of our friendships. You come here and you know everybody. It's very strange, but it's cool."
Dan Murphy is a freelance writer for Sports Media Exchange, a national freelance writing network.