This article was originally published in the May 2018 Trenton Downtowner.
Lori Johansson is wearing bright aqua pants and a helmet with a foot and a half long rat tail hanging from the back. Somehow, the aqua pants make her knee pads look even more ominous.
Johansson — who works for the I Am Trenton Foundation when she’s not playing music in the local bands Molly Rhythm and Moron Girls — then jumps on a bike and opens the gate to a concrete soccer court, pedaling from one end to the other getting her legs and shoulders loose. She swings her polo mallet a few times at small pastel colored balls toward two bright yellow goals on either side of the court to warm up.
Johansson is one in a growing community of bike enthusiasts who get together on Sunday afternoons at a small park in Trenton’s North Side to play a friendly three-on-three tournament-style sport that’s been around for more than a century, but that most people probably have never heard of: bike polo.
Yet the sport has been around since the late 1800s. It was first played in Ireland, and there was even an Olympic demonstration between Ireland and Germany in London in 1908. Now there is a National Hardcourt Bike Polo Association here in the United States and an annual North American Bike Polo tournament. There are bike polo communities in New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, the Midwest, and sporadically over the rest of North America.
Warming up along with Johansson is Chris Bobbitt. He has a license plate hanging off the back of his polo bike that reads, “California. Trenton.” He is a California native, polite and soft spoken, with a swift style on the polo court. He is dressed in all black so when he zooms past everyone and toward the goal during game one, he looks very sleek. He is also the mayor of Lawrence Township.
Moments later others line up, two on one side of the court and two on the other. And the first game begins with the calls of: “Marco!” “Polo!”
“It’s a co-ed, intramural sport,” says Wills Kinsley, the area’s pre-eminent bicycle guru. “It requires a real odd set of skills that aren’t very applicable to any other setting. It’s a sport for people who didn’t know they had a competitive bone in their bodies. You’ll find in a lot of places that bike polo is equally about the community and all types of people getting together,” he says.
Wills pulled up in a large black pick-up truck with a covered flatbed, carrying several bicycles for folks who want to play but don’t have appropriate bikes. A few of the spectators here on this chilly day want to join in. This so quirky, so fun, and so Trenton.
Parking in the narrow driveway of the Monsignor Lipinski Park on the corner of Indiana and Heil avenues, Wills is blasting the theme from “Shaft” by Isaac Hayes while he removes bicycles and other equipment from the back and walks it over to the court. When not welding bicycles, he welds for Z Signs.
“It’s a very busy park,” says player Drew Glenn, 32. “We play every Sunday. There’s a big basketball crowd that plays there and a bunch of local kids in the neighborhood, and we give them bikes to ride around while we’re there. We’ve watched a lot of these kids grow up.”
Bicycle spokes are perfect blockers for opponents’ shots. After a collision the teams regroup on either side of the center line. Every crash sounds much worse than it is, and the friendly energy exuded by everyone involved makes this game more about camaraderie, fellowship, and blowing off steam than it is about any intense rivalries or competition.
“We’ve probably got between 15 and 20 total people involved,” Glenn says. “Bike polo is basically hockey on bicycles. It’s dangerous, but it’s only dangerous if someone is not looking where they’re going or trying to crash into you. We all make each other better,” he says.
The Trenton Bike Polo group — playing for nearly four years — tries to be as true to official bike polo rules as they can be. It can be a very amorphous thing, but (1) if you are on your bike and you touch even one foot down, that’s called a “dab,” and you’ll need to ride to center court and tag back in again with your mallet. (2) If you have your mallet in the hand that you strike the ball with and your bicycle in the other hand, your brake has to be on your bicycle. (3) There are two sides to the mallet — it’s a cylinder shape — the broad side and the flat side. If you hit the ball at the goal, it only counts if it comes off the end of the mallet. If it comes off one of the sides it’s called a “shuffle,” and it doesn’t count as a goal. So .. .don’t put your foot down (“dab”), don’t “shuffle” a goal, put your brake on, and lastly, according to Glenn, “don’t be an asshole.”
When asked who the gnarliest player in Trenton is, or whether they have a “Dennis Rodman” type who is more aggressive and challenging than the other players, the Trenton Bike Polo crew members say one name: Princeton-based artist and builder Pete Abrams. But that’s changing. Abrams got a new bike fairly recently and, according to Glenn, he is “more interested in his own and his bike’s safety now.”
While talking about safety, Trenton Bike Polo does have an official permit to play in Lipinski Park by the Trenton Parks Department, which covers them from the city’s standpoint from any legal liability.
“They forced us to get a permit,” says Caleb Walker, 34, another die-hard Trenton Bike Polo player who arrived a little late with Wills. “This guy came one Sunday and started yelling at us. He supposedly worked for the parks. After that we figured it’d be beneficial to get the permit,” he says.
With a fantastic bushy beard and an open, friendly demeanor, Walker is also a member of Molly Rhythm and Moron Girls, a band where he plays bass while Johansson tap dances. It’s a comedy thing. He also earns a living by playing a lot of solo music. He has learned from Kinsley how to build and repair bicycles — and so has Glenn, who has been welding bikes with Kinsley for a few years — a must for a bike polo enthusiast.
“This bike is strictly for polo,” Walker says, looking down at his bicycle, which has a back wheel cover that reads: Shitty Of Trenton. “The tires pop easily. I just have the one brake on one side. Some people have the clip-in pedals, but I don’t so that’s probably pretty gnarly,” he says.
‘We take parts off of bikes,” Glenn says. “You can start with a mountain bike and make the wheels smooth and remove extra gears. A bike polo bike has one speed. There’s no shifting gears. You don’t want things protruding off the bike that can hurt people,” he says.
Trenton Bike Polo may not be a super large team at this point, but they are looking to grow the club, promote their inclusive nature, and as Kinsley, who learned about bike polo from the internet while attending Hampshire College in Massachusetts, says, “keep it quirky.”
“We’re lucky to have a nice little court out here. This is hard core bike polo,” Kinsley says. “We’re lucky to be near Philly, which had a really active scene that’s tapered off but hopefully will come back, and New York, which has an incredible scene. We’ve had people from as far away as Boston play in our tournaments. Our concept is that we keep it quirky. I made a ‘Wheel of Misfortune’ that you can spin and wherever it lands changes the rules. Like, playing with a kid-sized bike, or wearing a suit,” he says.
There are national bike polo tournaments, the first happening typically in the fall. Washington D.C. is the intended site of the first national tournament of the year. The world championship tournament was held in Kentucky last year. And all over the country, the laid back nature and camaraderie seem to be the trademarks of the sport.
“I like that it’s a sport, but I’ve traveled and played in other places, and nobody ever takes it too seriously,” Walker says. “It’s all — even if there’s a little butting of heads — it’s all love. I like that it’s all inclusive. I like that there are males; there are females, all together. It’s big people, small people, it doesn’t matter how tough you are. It’s a level playing field. It’s a great way to bring people together. I’ve met a lot of cool people,” he says.
Nikki Nalbone, another regular who, along with Drew Glenn, has managed the Championship Sports Bar on Chambers Street for the past seven years, agrees. “I came into sports later in life. I definitely need to stretch more. It’s rare when all the girls get on one side and when that happens, it’s magic. We have this great communication. Bike polo is all about communication,” she says.
Meanwhile back on the court, Chris Bobbitt pops a tire. He pulls his bike toward the gate and steps outside, flipping the bike over on its handlebars for a quick repair. Kinsley immediately walks over to help.
He then sums up the scene, “There’s definitely an inclusive element that we’re most proud of.”
Trenton Bike Polo, Sundays, 1 p.m. Monsignor Lipinski Park, Indiana and Heil Avenues. Participation is free. Visit “Trenton Bike Polo” on Facebook or on Instagram at @TrentonBikePolo.