WAUSAU – Seasoned cyclists, hockey players, soccer stars and those with no sports experience whatsoever gather on Thursday nights at Wausau’s Riverside Park. This motley crew unites to play bike polo, a sport that calls for excellent hand-eye coordination, stick handling, incredible balance and the ability to do all of this while on a bike.
“Bike polo is just basically like hockey on a bike,” said Wausau Bike Polo Club member Kathy Williams, 32, of Wausau.
During her years at Wausau West High School, Williams played left wing with the Central Wisconsin Storm, a hockey team comprised of players from six local high schools. She said this experience has made for a smooth transition to bike polo.
“Stick handling comes easy to me,” Williams said. “Staying on the bike was the hardest part.”
Williams joined the club in 2018 and quickly became committed to the sport. Bike polo led her to her husband, Trevor Williams, 32, who has been playing the game for 12 years. They met on the court. Today her two young kids accompany her to practices where they play with the other players’ kids and dogs.
The club thrives on its inclusive and welcoming community.
“I’ve played a lot of organized sports and a lot of sports with boys,” Williams said. “This is the first time there is a sense that they want women here. They pass to us and want us to play.”
How bike polo got its start in Wausau
Bike polo started in Wausau 14 years ago when friends from Minneapolis convinced the club’s founder, Seth Carlson, 43, of Wausau, to give it a try. He and his brothers started playing, a club was formed and it has continued to grow. The club meets to practice every Thursday and Sunday. They have three bikes and extra mallets on hand for those willing to give it a try.
Each practice pulls in about eight to 12 players. Longtime member Matt Bolenbaugh, 37, of Wausau, has been playing for 13 years. He has played in cities throughout the U.S. and says Wausau’s bike polo community is one of the strongest.
“For its size, it has the most (bike) polo players per capita in the U.S.” he said. “Even Detroit has a hard time getting six players to practice.”
Currently, there are about 16 members of the Wausau club. There are no fees to join. Players need a bike, mallet, helmet, gloves and pads. Most members wear bike helmets and lacrosse gloves to play.
The sport pulls in athletes with varied backgrounds. Former BMXers and mountain bikers are ideal candidates to take up the game, but anyone can master the skills. Bolenbaugh said baseball players make a great fit because they know how to find that sweet spot when hitting a baseball. It helps them find that same spot on the mallet.
“I describe it as a unicorn festival,” Bolenbaugh said. “We all have our own individual skills. As long as you’re an open-minded person who is willing to try something new and be willing to fail a little bit.”
Renea Andreski, 26, tried the sport out after some promptings from friends at work. The last time she had been on a bike was as a child. After four months of bike polo, she’s all in.
“I bought a bike and everything,” Andreski said. “I’m hooked.”
Any bike can be used to play, but bikes with a tight wheel base are best for making quick, nimble moves on the court. Today, companies manufacture bikes specific to bike polo, a sign the sport is growing in popularity. The same can be said for the mallets. When Bolenbaugh started playing 13 years ago the mallets were homemade.
“We cobbled together ski poles with a high-grade piece of plastic screwed to the end,” Bolenbaugh said. “It used to be a joke. People would say bike polo is not a real sport, but the game has changed so much.”
Today, manufactured bike polo mallets are sold in bicycle shops.
The history and rules of bike polo
Bike polo dates back to 1891, when retired champion cyclist Richard J. Mecredy invented the game in Ireland. Mecredy’s version is played on a grass court. The hardcourt version played in Wausau hails from Seattle. This version started in the late 90s by bike messengers who had downtime in between deliveries. Today it is played in over 300 cities across the globe.
The game can be played on tennis courts, basketball courts or outdoor hockey rinks. The courts are about 130 feet long and 60 feet wide with netted goals at either end. Boards enclose the court to keep the ball from rolling out of play. About seven years ago, the city of Wausau built a designated outdoor bike polo court in the parking lot of Riverside Park for the Wausau Bike Polo Club to use year-round. The court’s heavy wooden boards came from an old outdoor hockey rink. In the winter, the club moves indoors by leasing large empty buildings with plenty of space.
In a game, two teams of three players fight to score the most goals during the 12-minute game time limit. The game starts with each team’s players behind their net. The ball, made of PVC and resembling a street hockey ball, lays in the center of the court. Someone shouts “3-2-1 polo” and the players charge the ball in what is called a “joust.”
Players can score when they get the ball across the goal line by hitting it with the narrow side of the mallet head. If the ball is hit by the long side, it’s called a “shuffle” and doesn’t count. Each team has a goalie. The goalies position their bikes lengthwise in front of the goal to act as a deflector.
Touching the ground with your foot while in play is called a “dab.” If a player does it, they must immediately head to the middle of the court and “tap in,” which means riding to a designated point on the court and touching it with their mallet. Experienced players are clipped into their bike pedals and can maneuver their bikes with endo turns, nose pivoting and wheelies.
The dream of the Wausau Bike Polo Club is to have two courts. They currently own two sets of boards that are being stored in a barn awaiting a time when a location can be secured. The second court would be ideal for working on skills while the other court was used for games. It would also offer space to host more tournaments.
In the past, local tournaments have attracted players as far away as Texas and California. The club participates in the North American Hardcourt Bike Polo Association. There are 10 regions within the association.
Bike polo teams compete at regional tournaments to move on to the North American Hardcourt Bike Polo Championship. From there, qualifiers go to the World Hardcourt Bike Polo Championship. At least two members from the Wausau club have qualified for the world championship game, but no one has been able to attend due to logistics.
The club is trying to acquire nonprofit status, which will allow them to apply for grants and establish credibility.
“We all want to see it grow because it’s so much fun to play,” Bolenbaugh said. “We’re just doing it for the joy of it.”
The Wausau Bike Polo Club meets about 5 p.m. Thursdays and 2 p.m. Sundays at Riverside Park. They welcome anyone who wants to try it out and will provide equipment. For more information about the club, visit their Facebook page.
Contact USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin reporter Jennifer Poyer at [email protected].
This article originally appeared on Wausau Daily Herald: Wausau Bike Polo Club looks to grow sport in Central Wisconsin