Mainly on grass games but we get a mention… Bicycle polo: a steel steed? Let’s give it a whack. Or read it after the break….
Bicycle polo: a steel steed? Let’s give it a whack
Bicycle polo is more than just horseplay, says Jonny Beardsall
Bicycle polo may sound like a dodgy new fad but it isn’t. It was included in the London Olympics in 1908, when Ireland took gold.
|A polo player squares up at Swinton Park, North Yorkshire|
Now Mark Cunliffe-Lister – who runs a hotel in Swinton Park, his ancestral home in North Yorkshire – has added a centenary tournament on two wheels to this month’s polo calendar at Swinton.
“And we think it’s high time it returned to the Olympic stage,” says the 37-year-old, who has 2012 in mind.
Although his estate has fewer polo grounds than Cowdray Park, West Sussex – the home of British equestrian polo – the two venues both have home teams that play on manicured pitches in front of castles, watched by beautiful-ish people on summer afternoons.
But unlike Viscount Cowdray, who does not play, Cunliffe-Lister does pull on his team’s yellow and green shirts, but only to mount his bicycle.
“I’m not much of a horseman but I’ve a fair eye for a ball and I can ride a bike, and so can the three chefs that make up the rest of my team,” says Cunliffe-Lister, the grandson of the late Lord Whitelaw, formerly the politician Willie Whitelaw.
The bike-riding chefs de partie, Freddy Roy, Peter Harrison and Matthew McDonald, are all mad keen.
Cunliffe-Lister’s team began playing this summer and the high point will be the cycle-equestrian double bill later this month. “Right now, we’re working on our spatial awareness,” he says. “I grab the boys between lunch and dinner service, so we’ve had the odd training session and we’re getting quite good.”
His teammates think they are very good. Freddy Roy, a Frenchman, says: “I thought it was just a crazy English game but apparently it’s played in France too. The trick is to stay in a low gear.”
In traditional polo, the general idea is to whack a ball with a mallet and score goals. At Swinton, the rules of polo’s governing body, the Hurlingham Polo Association, are very loosely observed. Bike teams use the same strokes as mounted players, although playing the ball with a foot on the ground is illegal.
Full-length mallets are replaced with shorter sticks and a regular hard ball is switched for a mini football, which does not go as far when whacked. Helmets are worn by most (you can still get clobbered over the head) but shorts and trainers are a more comfortable alternative to jodhpurs.
Two teams of four line up and an umpire throws in the ball at the start of a seven-minute chukka. After this, it’s a free-for-all of fiendishly nifty mallet work, marking and frenzied pedalling as players attempt to coax the ball between the opposition’s goalposts.
The sport is highly egalitarian, since most people have access to an old bike.
Bicycle polo’s heyday in this country was in the Thirties, when many teams played in national leagues. By 1938 there were 100 clubs in Britain and more than 1,000 people playing.
Though its popularity waned, it re-emerged in the Eighties under the guidance of the Bicycle Polo Association of Great Britain, which is very active at home and abroad today.
The club’s vice-president is Tim Bishop, 42, a management consultant who plays every Wednesday with the august-sounding Chelsea Pedallers at Hurlingham Park in London, a well-established club begun in 1982.
Not that they trouble the Oakenden Pedallers in Meopham, Kent. “We played them two weeks ago and we beat them,” says Nick Rogers, 42, a business development manager who, four years ago, started playing with friends on a rugby pitch after coming up with the idea in the pub.
“We’re playing chukkas three times a week and are sending an England team to the World Championships in Argentina in December.”
In June, the club hosted the first leg of the 2008 Bicycle Polo European Cup, with teams from France, Ireland and Scotland taking part. Rogers says there are about five other English teams playing on grass. A number of others play on tarmac – including Manchester’s MCR Dropouts, Oxford’s Supernovas and a team that plays twice a week in Brick Lane, east London.
“We’re eager to increase public awareness because it’s a very accessible sport that will appeal to those who have never heard of it,” says Rogers.
Cunliffe-Lister is mildly surprised that there are so many British teams. “This is all news to us,” he says. “Maybe we should stage a country-wide invitation event next year.”
Apart from anything else, it is bound to reinforce any bid for Olympic reinstatement.