by Matt Perse
Photos by Mauro Franceschetti
The night was raw. The court was damp. And there was a nervous energy in the crowd. Tonight, I was going to play bike polo…or so I thought. It was the third time I had met Juan Pablo, so I was more or less used to the scene, and a handful of other players greeted me by name. But weeks of rain and otherwise unsuitable polo weather had rendered the courts of Plaza Medrano (corner of Costa Rica and Acuña Figueroa) unplayable. And the cyclists were anxious.
It wasn’t raining this night, but the humid air made for slippery bike conditions; riders were constantly sliding and skidding in a wild display of primal aggression and delicate mechanical control. They were almost instinctual, knowing exactly when to brake and precisely where to apply a shift in balance that would be the difference between pulling off a wonder goal and dumping, sliding broadside into the concrete “bleachers” that encircled the court. The lines they made on the court, normally reminiscent of those gracefully cut during ice hockey, were even more exaggerated and flailing, in some instances approaching the intensity of a shark feeding-frenzy.
The crowd, mostly other riders, at times seemed to be absorbing and returning the energy to and from the action on the court, which, after the group had swelled to nearly 30 riders (only 6 play at a time, 3 on each team), had to be divided into two courts. Though when they weren’t fixated on the orgy of gears, pedals, sleek frames, and balls, they were partaking in some light festivities: beer, wine, whisky, and weed. Your standard fare on a chilly August evening.
Hence the nervous energy. And my hesitation to play.
The sport itself consists of one ten-minute period, or the first to five goals. Each team fields three players at a time, and there are no subs. Bike polo is not a “contact sport” so things like spearing and checking are not allowed. (I haven’t seen anyone break those rules, so I’m not sure what the penalty is. But beyond the penalty in the game itself, I can imagine that the offending player would find it difficult to continue associating with the other players.) If a player’s feet come off the pedals, and touch the ground, that player then has to leave the play and sprint (on the bike) to the mid-court line, touch-up, and then rejoin play. The sport itself has international appeal, and aside from Pierre – one of the founders, but more on him in a bit – who is actually no longer here (in Argentina; he’s still alive), an American and a Hungarian are among the regulars. I found out later that the game apparently started with some bored bike messengers in Seattle, Washington.
As anyone who has ever ridden a bike for long can tell you, bike culture attracts some very interesting and creative individuals. Ariel, for example, is a professional photographer. And like most, he explains that he started playing bike polo “as a boludece,” just to have fun. Others have professions that include filmmaking and editing and entrepreneurs. The social, athletic, and cultural characteristics of each player create a group dynamic that is really unique and that make it different than most sport cultures. For starters, the players practically live on their bikes. Even those who don’t play arrive to the court to watch on their bikes, usually toting bike messenger bags, bike parts, or even bike frames.
Poio is the man, and in his customary black BMX shin guards, black slim-cut jeans, black hoody, and black knit cycling cap, he fits the part, even if he sometimes looks more like Johnny Cash or a motochorro than bike polo player. When he wasn’t playing – or ‘chamuyando’ with the two American girls who had apparently lost their way that August night – he was jumping around from one part of the court to another to make sure the schedule was “more or less” running on track.
Without Poio, some speculate that there wouldn’t be a scene at all. Together with Pierre, a Frenchman he met a few years ago, Poio began playing, organizing, and recruiting players, which eventually culminated in the creation of “El Progreso Bike Polo,” the banner under which all the bike polo players associate themselves. When I asked them what they were “progressing,” they jokingly replied “¡las tapas de rueda!” (the bike wheels). The name, it should be noted, is a play on many of the “popular” political movements in Argentina. Even some of their wheels carry political messages. It’s common practice to place cardboard cutouts in the spokes to help block shots, and often times, these cutouts are discarded political advertisements. The “Progreso’s” use of political advertising on their bikes more closely resembles the Monty Python kind of tongue-in-cheek joke than any real deliberate attempt to politicize their involvement with bikes. Riders also have taken the liberty of “modifying” the cutouts, adding mustaches, blacked out teeth, eye-patches, and other flattering characteristics.
“El Progreso” also has the distinction of fielding the first all-women’s team, Las Cerdas. Clara, along with Andrea and Sonia, make up Cerdas, and Clara has an important organizational role in the group. They call her noña, and she’s “like Lisa Simpson…she’s a piba with onda. She’s got rock n roll.” She’s the one who makes things tick.
After only a few minutes, I realized that these girls were far from the stereotypical “porteña.” It seems the court attracts this kind of “rough-around-the-edges” element. Just before the bike polo players took the court, there was a group of girls playing – though that’s hardly the right word for it – roller derby. It actually made the bike polo look serene. Limbs were flying, bodies were jarring against each other and spilling over as they careened through the turns in what amounted to a fierce and tight circle of skaters locked in a desperate struggle to knock the other girl on her ass. Hard. The Cerdas, I could tell after just a few minutes of watching play, were in a similar category of woman, and after one of their games, I saw Andrea with what looked like tears coming down her face. I foolishly asked her if she had gotten hurt and if she was crying, and she replied, half-jokingly (I think), “I don’t cry; I make cry,” with a wry smile slyly stretching across her face.
One of these days, I’ll get out there. As long as Andrea doesn’t make me cry.
Saturday the 6th and Sunday the 7th you can check out the second South American Bike Polo Tournament. The games begin every morning at 10am, on Costa Rica and Figueroa Acuña, and will finish with a party on Sunday night at 11pm at G104 (Gascón 104).