Bicycle polo enthusiasts are rolling

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Tally ho! It's a foot-stompingly-cold Sunday afternoon and, yes, cries of "Tally ho!" are actually resounding across the athletic field behind Wellwood International Elementary School in Pikesville.

Not a horse nor hound is in sight, though. Instead of the sounds of a fox hunt in progress, what passers-by hear is the clarion call of bicycle polo being played Baltimore-style.

"This is an exciting game of ridiculous luck and action," says Dan Meisner, a 36-year-old salesman from Mount Washington, during a lull in a two-hour pickup match.

Meisner just might be responsible for this odd, local-rules wrinkle of shouting "Tally ho!" whenever a bike polo ball rolls out of bounds and gets put back in play.

There's no question, however, that he and his older brother Aaron, a stockbroker, are the driving force behind the Mount Washington Bicycle Polo Association, where the associating primarily consists of weekly Sunday scrimmages. They're open to anybody eager to experience the joy of swinging a polo mallet while being spared the hassles of bonding with a horse.

"This is a huge amount of fun. It's a great workout," says Aaron Meisner, 38, who jilted squash in favor of bicycle polo.

Bicycle golf. Bicycle baseball. Bicycle ski jumping. Nobody's ever been bold enough to promote those hybrid sports. But bicycle polo has deep roots. It was conceived in 1891 by Irishman Richard Mecredy as a lower-class alternative to equestrian polo. (No, he wasn't joking.)

Mecredy's idea proved to have surprising appeal. In 1897, the first bike polo club popped up in America. Bicycle polo was a trial sport at the 1908 London Olympics, where Ireland nipped Germany 3-1 in the finals. By the 1950s, nearly 200 clubs were active in England alone.

Tiny hotbeds of activity still remain in this country, but Dan Meisner discovered the sport by happenstance. About four years ago, a Washington friend stumbled upon some bicycle polo mallets at a yard sale.

Bike polo enthusiasts say the bicycle has it all over the horse in terms of fitness benefits and maintenance demands. As for the mallet, just shorten the shaft and slightly alter the position of the head, and you're good to go.

Well, except for the ball. A true polo ball is made of hardwood -- bad news for wheel rims and spokes. To minimize collateral damage, the softball-size bike polo ball is made of white leather: It looks like what they'd use in the Keebler Elves Soccer League.

Loose set of rules

The basic rules are closely related to "real" polo: Play is divided into 7.5-minute quarters or "chukkers." Goal posts are 10 feet wide, and the team that scores the most goals wins.

Players may hit the ball no more than three times in a row and, in the interest of preventing crackups, the cyclist in control of the ball must be given the right of way by defenders.

Sounds good, but bicycle polo has never quite gotten its act together in terms of codification.

"There's players all over the place. A lot of them seem happy to make up their own rules," says Bill Matheson, who coaches a youth bicycle polo team in Aiken, S.C., and who has taken it upon himself to form the Bicycle Polo Association of America.

"A lot of people play with no right-of-way rule at all," adds Matheson, "and they crash into each other. They think that's the fun part of the game."

Mount Washington's bicycle poloists observe the right-of-way rule, but they dispense with "chukkers" and even the business of keeping score. They set two goals about 75 yards apart on Wellwood's soccer field, divide themselves into three- or four-man makeshift teams, and simply start flailing away.

Pinball comes to mind. There's lots of back and forth action in bicycle polo, and as many whiffs as solid mallet hits. All of which makes for plenty of calorie-consuming opportunities to sprint after loose balls.

Players ride stripped-down junk bikes equipped with a single, rear-wheel brake. That leaves one hand free for wielding the waist-high mallet, which is small enough to lay across the handlebars when pedaling full speed.

Newcomers expect lots of collisions and lots of noses rearranged by unforgiving mallets. Not so, insists Aaron Meisner. "It's just one of those organic things. Somehow, it doesn't happen."

What newcomers don't expect is morning-after sore muscles. Bike polo generates a healthy, full-body sweat, says Meisner. Whenever he takes off a few weeks, he counts on losing stamina.

"I like playing the angles, the speed, the change of direction," says Steve Doll, one of the more polished bike handlers.

Peter Griffith prefers the trash-talking camaraderie of bicycle polo to his solitary workouts at the gym: "My philosophy of exercise is I don't push myself very hard to do anything unless there's competition."

Finding competition

Although bicycle polo reportedly has gained popularity in 15 countries, the biggest challenge for players isn't scoring goals, it's scaring up opponents.

The clubs closest to Baltimore are in suburban Philadelphia and Charlottesville, Va. In fact, the Mount Washington Bicycle Polo Association has only about 20 members, half of whom qualify as hard-core.

The Meisner brothers and a handful of muddy conspirators gather at Peter Griffith's house in Mount Washington for beers after a recent Sunday scrimmage. The talk turns to an intriguing rumor: Dan Meisner and Steve Doll met a woman at a downtown bar who swears she has seen bicycle polo played in Patterson Park.

The group reacts the way astronomers would if confronted with sketchy evidence of life on another planet: Maybe we're not alone!

Doug McCoach, a Homeland architect, immediately constructs his fantasy scenario: A bragging-rights bicycle polo match. Losers buy the beer.

"That would be so awesome," he exclaims.

It would take a stroke of ridiculous luck for a hitherto unknown bicycle polo club to surface in Baltimore. But if that Patterson Park rumor fizzles, so be it. McCoach will keep saddling up on Sundays. The sport of bicycle polo will continue wobbling along.

How can he be so sure?

"Boredom," explains McCoach between sips of beer, "has existed for hundreds of years."

Interested?

Bicycle polo, anyone?

You don't need to be rich to dabble in bicycle polo. Most players buy an old mountain bike at a garage sale, then make a few modifications by removing the front-wheel brake, adding a small U-shaped handlebar and plastic pedals, and sometimes downsizing to a single riding gear.

For more information about the sport, including the Mount Washington group, check these Web sites:

Mount Washington Bicycle Polo Association: 410-963-7718; http: / / 21209.com. The club welcomes newcomers and provides loaner bikes and mallets.

Bicycle Polo Association of America: www.bicycle polo. org. Founded in 1994 by South Carolina bicycle polo enthusiast Bill Matheson.

Boxwood Bicycle Polo Co.: www.boxwoodbicyclepolo.com. This is Matheson's online store, which sells bike polo balls, bikes, brakes, goal posts, mallets and even tapes from the 2003 World Bicycle Polo Championships.

There is a bicycle polo discussion board on the Internet at www.chukka.org / goal.

www.chez.com / polovelo. A bilingual Web site with information on bike polo history and news, and where you'll learn that the French know bike polo by the name polovelo.

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