The Secret World of Bikes Hitting Bikes, Intense Competition and Camaraderie
Story by Eric Crews
As Seen in the High Country Press
Every Monday afternoon around 6:30 p.m., when the weather allows, a small but dedicated group of Boone’s best bike polo players take the field at Junaluska Park. The two teams line up on either end of the old, abandoned baseball field and, with a chorus of yells, charge toward the center of the field. The bikes, and the riders who propel them, collide with one another as the players battle for position and swing wildly with their mallets at the soft, grapefruit-size ball. They ram each other’s bikes, push one another down and yell vicious insults at one another as they rush full-speed across the grass, sparing nothing in hopes of victory.
As fierce and intimidating as it sounds, bike polo is how these young men prefer to spend their time after work. Their jobs during the day range from bike shop mechanics, to carpenters, to business owners, but when they share the field none of that matters.
“It’s all about going out and having fun,” John Fennell, an employee at Magic Cycles, said before the match on Monday. “We try not to take it too seriously, but,” he said, lingering for a moment, “we definitely play to win.”
In different incarnations, Fennell explained, bike polo has been an off-and-on, semi-organized sport in Boone since the 1990s, when Mike Boone of Magic Cycles and Shaw Brown of Boone Bike and Touring bought sets of mallets, organized two teams and began playing.
But over the past two years, the play has become more regular, the teams stay more or less the same from week to week and each team has their own jerseys.
“Everyone has gotten more organized and consistent for the last two years,” Fennell said. “And, although we don’t have official teams, there are certain people who always play against one another.”
“I enjoy the competition and the camaraderie of it,” Sam Hutchens of Boone Bike and Touring said. “It’s one of those things that you don’t have to be the fittest, fastest guy out there to be good at bike polo. It helps, without a doubt. But you can be out there and not be in shape at all and score some points.”
In bike polo, points are scored by hitting the ball between the goal—a pair of cones spaced about 10 feet apart from one another—while the charging horde of bikes crowds around in an attempt to block the goal. Most goals—though not all goals—are scored on the breakaway by a fast rider who can out-sprint his competition to the ball and make the clutch shot count while under pressure.
The goal on every Monday afternoon is to play three games to seven points; that way there can be a clear winner of the week, and bragging rights can be established. “Basically, our goal is to make sure we get three games in so that we can have a champion,” Hutchens said. “We play on Mondays but we see each other throughout the week so we’re always digging on each other. If one team wins one week then the other team basically gives ‘em hell the next week. It’s just a general good time. Everybody’s got a smile on their face, yet it’s super competitive and just a great time, all around.”
When asked if taking bike polo in Boone to the next level with more competitive play and matches against other teams was a future possibility, Hutchens and Fennell both shrugged it off and said that they believe it would take some of the enjoyment away from what they do for fun.
“There actually is serious world class play,” Hutchens said. “But the rules that they play by are just too strict. We really get a lot of happiness out of bumping people out of the way. We’re not trying to hurt anybody, but I’m not going to shy away from throwing an elbow or anything. Those guys in leagues are serious though. They play that you lose the ball if you do something like [throw an elbow] and you have to start over. We’ve talked about getting more serious, but, for us, we feel it would just take the fun out of it. We’re happier just doing our own thing and playing with people we know, people that we know if we knock them off their bike they’re not going to get up and try to fight us or anything like that. We’re all just friends having fun.”
While having fun and getting exercise is what bike polo is all about for this group, finding a place to play over the years has been difficult.
“Basically, we’ve been kicked off of every field in Boone, except for Junaluska Park,” Hutchens said. “When we started playing we played in the field on Greenway Road where the new medical facility is located. After that, we tried playing at Brookshire Park but we got kicked out of there. ASU has forbidden us from playing on any grass surface at State Farm. The only place we haven’t been kicked off of is Junaluska Park.”
Although the field at Junaluska Park is not ideal for bike polo because of its irregular shape, the unleveled surface and the consistent muddy area in the center, the bike polo players are happy to have a place to play.
“It’s super small, not even level—it pretty much slopes from one end to the other—there’s a huge mud hole that never dries up and it acts as the drain field for the rest of the park, so it stays wet after it rains,” Hutchens said. “But we’ve just kind of taken it on as our own field. And we really like that it is in town. So many of us are coming from town, whether from the bike shops or other places, it’s nice to be able to ride your bike to the field.”
On the triangular shaped field—an old baseball diamond that is too small for all types of baseball, except perhaps whiffle ball—the bike polo players are battling it out in game three. The dusk is settling quickly, but from the looks of it, they’ve only just warmed up. The trash talking mixes with words of encouragement from teammates and the clang of bikes hitting bikes. A quick flurry of scores puts the black team ahead 3-0, and a few members of the white team shake their heads and agree that it will take a miracle to come back from this deficit. As the white team puts the ball into play and heads out to try for “the miracle comeback,” it is easy to remember back to the games we played as young kids, and exciting to know that, for some, the thrill and enjoyment of the game lives on.