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Charlotte Bike Polo Players Look for Opportunity to Build Community

Shoot your shot

Players on bikes playing Charlotte Bike Polo
Mid-match with Charlotte Bike Polo. (Photo by Ryan Allen)

It was under a bridge in Charleston in 2021 that the members of Fixed Federation, a passionate group of fixed-gear cyclists in Charlotte, came across a sport that would kick-start the return a little-known subculture in the Queen City — one that had been dormant for years — and cultivate a new tight-knit community of cyclists who otherwise would not know each other. 

According to Kevin Raley, the Fixed Federation crew had taken the trip down to South Carolina to participate in a series of events that wrapped with a bike polo match under the Cooper River Bridge. 

“That was our first time ever seeing it,” said Raley of bike polo, which is played similarly to horseback polo but on bikes. He and his peers with Fixed Federation saw an opportunity to utilize the experience they had built organizing the monthly Critical Mass Ride and other cycling events around Charlotte to bring bike polo home. 

Since that fateful trip, the little-known subculture around bike polo has seen a rise in popularity in Charlotte, with dozens of people showing up to pick-up games that take place twice a week, leading to the start of league play in mid-March.  

Now Charlotte Bike Polo players are calling on local government to help them grow the sport that they say has cultivated a community in Charlotte.

So what’s bike polo and why are folks flocking to it? We spoke to some of the people involved to get a better understanding of this niche community that’s growing in Charlotte and elsewhere. 

What is bike polo?

Bike polo, sometimes referred to as cycle polo, was invented in County Wicklow, Ireland, in 1891 by Richard J. Mecredy, retired cyclist champion. The sport is similar to traditional polo, with players riding bicycles rather than horses. 

There are two versions of bike polo: grass court and hardcourt, with the latter being more popular in Charlotte. 

Traditional three-on-three hardcourt bike polo consists of three players on each team with games usually lasting around 15 minutes. Squad matches can feature teams of four to six players with games lasting anywhere between 30-40 minutes, allowing for substitutions in that time. 

Both formats of hardcourt bike polo have a maximum of three players per team on the court at any given time. 

Different players bring different gear out to the bike polo court. (Photo by Ryan Allen)

At the beginning of each game, a ball is placed in the middle of the court while players holding mallets wait behind their goals. Following a countdown or whistle, one player from each team charges the ball in what is called a joust. 

The player may hit the ball with a shot, made with either end of the mallet head, or a shuffle, hit with the side of the mallet. A ball hit into the opposing team’s goal with a shot is worth one point, but the point won’t be awarded if it’s deemed that the final touch was a shuffle or scored by a toss or wrist shot. 

After a goal is scored, the scoring team returns to their own half of the court while the other team may cross the half-line and resume play. The game continues for a predetermined length of time, depending on the format. 

A player who dabs, or touches a horizontal surface with their foot, must undertake some form of remedial penalty before making contact with the ball again. This usually involves tapping out, or riding to a designated point on the court and touching it with the mallet. Most players say, “foot down” or “dab” to let others know they are out of the play. 

Contact during a game may vary, including “mallet to mallet,” “body to body,” or shoulder to shoulder, referred to as a “check,” if deemed safe by the referee. Rules may vary from city to city, though an official rule set for North America was created by the North American Bike Polo Association, which are the rules referenced above. 

Today, hardcourt bike polo players use mallets with heads made of ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene and aluminum shafts similar to ski poles, though they were originally made DIY-style. Balls used are usually made of PVC and are similar to street hockey balls, just a bit heavier and harder. 

Any bike with a working brake is acceptable for use in bike polo, though there are many aspects of the bike to keep in mind when finding the right one for play. For a polo bike frame, the player will want to keep in mind the wheelbase; many players find that the lower the base, the better. 

Players on bikes playing Charlotte Bike Polo in Black and white
Mid-match with Charlotte Bike Polo. (Photo by Ryan Allen)

The top tube length needs to be an appropriate size compared to the player’s size. Ideally, a player will want a steeper head tube angle, similar to a mountain bike. The bike should also have a sensible gear ratio, a good front brake and a strong wheel set. 

Some players upgrade their rides with wheel covers made of plastic, polycarbonate, netting or thick fabrics to protect the bike spokes and create a solid blocking surface. Customizing the wheel cover, frame color and adding personal touches can make players stand out and perform better. 

Searching for a proper home

As it turned out, the formation of Charlotte Bike Polo in 2021 did not mark the arrival of the sport in the city, but a resurgence. In the late-2000s, local cyclist Cory Slusher had gotten the green light from Mecklenburg County Park & Rec to renovate an abandoned tennis court at L.C. Coleman Park in west Charlotte and host bike polo matches there. 

“I came back [from Charleston] and I was talking to Cory,” Raley recalled. “I was like, ‘This is sick,’ and he’s like, ‘Oh yeah, we used to play.’”

Another local rider, Carter Cavanaugh, was part of the bike polo scene when he lived in St. Petersburg but hadn’t found anything like it since moving to Charlotte in 2019. He was on a ride with Fixed Federation following their trip to Charleston when he heard someone mention it. 

“I heard the word polo mentioned,” recalled Cavanaugh. “I was like, ‘Yo, I know of that. I’ve been hoping we could do this.’” 

Watching on… (Photo by Ryan Allen)

The crew began to host regular pick-up matches, bringing their friends from the cycling community out to see how they like it. Many weren’t impressed, some were concerned about potential injuries, but a select few caught the bug quickly. 

One such player was Jamie “Jamo” Reid, who went out with Raley on the first match they played and found that something immediately clicked for him. 

“I played football, so I have kind of a competitive nature,” Reid told Queen City Nerve between matches during a recent Wednesday pick-up night. “I wanted something like this. I already like riding a bike, and just the rawness and being able to use your body and skill as a team stuck with me, man. That’s what I like the most.” 

Charlotte Bike Polo utilizes abandoned or neglected courts around Charlotte, taking the initiative to clean them up in order to play, but they also must compete for space with more accepted sports like basketball and pickleball. 

They’ve been banned from one court where they had regularly played in east Charlotte after a single pickleballer complained because she couldn’t practice on the court on a Sunday. 

The crew has since begun hosting its Wednesday and Sunday matches at Eastway Middle School, where they say they haven’t been bothered. However, with the recent launch of league play, Charlotte Bike Polo is now looking for more stability. 

Players on bikes playing Charlotte Bike Polo
Mid-match with Charlotte Bike Polo. (Photo by Ryan Allen)

In January, Chadwick Spence, one of the original members of Charlotte Bike Polo, addressed the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners during a public budget hearing.

“The bike polo community has rehabilitated places to play but ends up having to haggle with pickleballers and basketball players for court time,” Spence told commissioners. 

He asked that the county work with Charlotte Bike Polo to guarantee regular court access for designated play times on Wednesday and Sunday nights, similar to the arrangements its sister clubs in Asheville and Raleigh have worked out with their respective local governments, offering to play at lesser-used facilities like Sugaw Creek Park in north Charlotte.  

Players on bikes playing Charlotte Bike Polo
A break in the action. (Photo by Ryan Allen)

Spence also requested that Charlotte Bike Polo be involved with any future development of new multi-use sport courts in the county. 

“I have traveled all over the country because of this sport,” added Eric Christopher, another Charlotte Bike Polo player, at the January budget hearing. “It brings a large group of people together to play a sport for people of all ages, for people of all backgrounds and economic status, and it truly is a great way for the city to get involved with the people who live here.” 

Staff with Mecklenburg County Park & Rec confirmed to Queen City Nerve that they have met with Charlotte Bike Polo representatives and are currently looking to identify locations where the group can play. 

Local players are optimistic after talks with the county that they can secure access to two retrofitted, lighted tennis courts as part of upcoming renovations planned for Sugaw Creek. 

Building community

Despite not having a designated home, Charlotte Bike Polo has been able to host successful tournaments over the last year. 

In December 2023, the crew had its time in the spotlight when it hosted the South by Southeast tournament (SXSE), a classic three-on-three tournament with teams coming to compete from all around the country. 

“It’s not easy to throw together a tournament, but every last second of work was so worth it to see it all come together,” Christopher told Queen City Nerve. “We had 14 teams from all over the United States and Canada come out to play.” 

Local and international companies sponsored SXSE, including local breweries, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Liquid Death and bike polo-specific sponsors. 

At the end of the three-day tournament, awards were given out to teams and individual players, including classic podium awards and niche ones like Best Up-and-Comer, MVPs, Craziest Crash and DFL (Dead Fucking Last). 

Local rider Paul Jarrells, who had only been playing for a couple of months when the tournament kicked off, was on the team that earned the notorious DFL award, though it didn’t damper his enthusiasm at all. 

Mid-match with Charlotte Bike Polo. (Photo by Ryan Allen)

“It was great. We got DFL, which is Dead F’ing Last, and I had a blast the whole time,” he said. “People from all over came and played, and it was so fun. It was great to meet other players, see other styles and glean from their experience things that I could work on as a player.”  

A team called Trash Bandicoot took the championship over the Crop Top Jocks in the SXSE final, and following the successful event, the Charlotte Bike Polo Instagram page stated that it will be announcing more events like it in the spring. 

In May 2023, the local crew was able to come together to help a bike polo club in Norfolk, Virginia that lost its court just before its planned shuffle tournament, Fish and Sticks, was set to take place, showing that the lack of accessible courts is a nationwide issue.  

Charlotte Bike Polo invited the involved teams down to Charlotte to participate in Sardines and Twigs, an impromptu tournament hosted in homage to Fish and Sticks. Ten teams from North Carolina and neighboring states came out to play and show support for Norfolk. 

Charlotte Bike Polo also hosted JoJo Pollo Loco from July 21-23, 2023, a tournament featuring more than 10 teams from the southeast region to celebrate the birthday of Joe Morrison, a Charlotte bike polo player who is, as Christopher put it, “an absolute local legend who everyone in Charlotte Bike Polo would kill and die for.” 

Morrison, who began playing in summer 2023, won the “best up-and-comer” award at SXSE and was awarded a new Enforcer bike frame, which he proudly plays on to this day. 

While awaiting an official answer from the county, Charlotte Bike Polo continues to host pickup games every Wednesday and Sunday at Eastway Middle. League play, which includes six teams of three — each of which consisting of an A-, B-, and C-rated player to ensure parity — takes place on Sunday afternoons. 

Jarrells, one of the older players on the court when Queen City Nerve visited on a recent Sunday, said he is hopeful for Charlotte Bike Polo’s future because of the passion he sees among the younger players who launched it. 

“It’s a great, healthy, fun sport, and I think the younger players could jump on it and really take it to a next level,” he said. “I think that’s the biggest message, is that there’s a lot of room to grow.”

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