Polo with handlebars? Community bonds over upper crust sport that replaces horse with bike

Jacob Boyd grew up playing grass polo because his grandfather and father played. He switched to hardcourt bike polo around 10 years old. (Photo by Alina Nelson/Cronkite News)

To establish teams, players throw their mallet into the center of the court. Justin Swartz mixes them up behind his back to choose the teams at random. (Photo by Alina Nelson/Cronkite News)

Jacob Boyd scoops up the ball, using the open side of his mallet. Mallets are capped off on one end to hit the ball, while the opposite side is open and used for scooping the ball. (Photo by Alina Nelson/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – Save a horse, ride a bicycle.

When most people think of playing polo, they imagine competitors on horseback riding across a field, not on bicycles wearing helmets and hitting a ball into a net. Conventional polo matches generally happen in wealthy enclaves of the Hamptons or Argentina, not in city parks filled with skateboarders and dog walkers.

But this is not your parents’ version of polo. This is Arizona Hardcourt Bike Polo, a group that meets at Cielito Park every Sunday to play pick-up games and hone their skills.

Formed in 2008, the squad is the first of its kind in Arizona. It’s mostly a close-knit group full of family members and childhood friends, but the club encourages anyone to join.

“I’ve known these guys for so long like I said I’ve played since I was eight … so just being around them is fun and the sport itself is,” said team member Jacob Boyd.

One of the world’s oldest team sports, polo’s lineage traces back to the sixth century BC, when cavalry units in the Persian king’s guard devised it as a training exercise. Polo is a family tradition for the Boyds. His father and grandfather played grass polo, and Boyd, now 23, took up hardcourt bike polo when he was around 10.

(Audio by Michael Pleasant/Cronkite News)

Most of the team has been together since 2007 or 2008, team member Justin Swartz said. The competitive aspect of bike polo keeps Swartz coming back every week.

“For me, it is just the competition of it, because these children have been playing since they were 10, so they are monsters and like it’s always been like, ‘OK, gotta go back next week, play the boys, see if we can beat them,’” Swartz said.

Even though this tight-knit group has played together for years, they are accepting of new players joining the team. The newest member, John Nielsen, joined after moving to Phoenix from Oregon. He has been playing bike polo for 11 years. The inclusive environment drew him to the sport.

“Everybody is always welcome. If you don’t have everything you need someone’s willing to share it. I think that was one of the things that brought me in the most,” Nielsen said. “I’m kind of shy off the bat usually, but it is just like an instant community all around the world really that is ready to be your friend, so that’s really cool.”

The team has a Facebook page that invites people to learn how to play and offers to lend a bike, mallet and helmet if needed.

“You don’t need a specific bike to play. I mean if you have a bike just come out and try it. It’ll be fine,” Boyd said.

It’s all about their love of this unique sport and their desire to spread their passion for the game.

“I mean, I don’t think you really need any skills. It’s just the desire to have a good time, it’s really all you need. You gotta learn how to ride a bike eventually but none of us are that great at it,” Nielsen said.

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There is some skill needed to play, but anyone can learn if they want. Knowing how to ride a bike is a must, but balance is also important.

“It’s just about being comfortable because you’re riding with usually just one hand. It’s a lot about balance and being able to maneuver amongst other people,” Swartz said.

Swartz points out that even seasoned players are susceptible to making mistakes when playing bike polo. “People will fall, like it happens,” he said. ”It just takes a lot of practice.”

Practice may not always make perfect, but this team still has fun every Sunday playing pick-up games in the park.

“It’s competition, it’s fun trying to learn new things,” Boyd said. “It’s just like skateboarding, trying to learn a new trick.”

Most anyone can learn to play bike polo; race, gender, and ethnicity do not matter. Spreading friendship and love of bike polo is what this team is all about, members say.

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Regina Burgess expects to graduate in December 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism.

Michael Pleasant my-kull pleh-sant
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Michael Pleasant expects to graduate in May 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Pleasant, who was a videography intern with ASU Marketing Hub, will work for Cronkite News this spring.

Alina Nelson uh-LEE-nuh nEHl-suhn
Sports Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Alina Nelson is a sports journalist and photographer who expects to graduate in August 2021. Nelson, who has seven years of photography experience, is working for Cronkite Sports this spring.