Hammer Time | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Hammer Time

Hammer Time
Lindsay Welsh, center, and Jonathan Lomax, right. rush the goal during a recent bike polo match under the Bloomfield Bridge.

Lindsay Welsh, poised atop her mount, deftly reaches around her back and swings her mallet hard behind her, rocketing the fist-sized red polo ball away from her team's goal and toward the other.

Welsh, in a T-shirt that says "I [bike] PGH," a tiny-brimmed cap and jeans, isn't at a country club, and she's not riding a pony, either. She's swinging her mallet from astride a bike in an old street-hockey rink below the Bloomfield Bridge, in a loosely organized, twice-weekly session of bike polo.

"We've been playing since last summer," says Brad Quartuccio, who is the editor of Urban Velo, a city-cycling magazine, and a regular at polo nights. "It's kind of been picking up everywhere nationwide as part of the greater urban bike culture."

The U.S. Bicycle Polo Association's Web site says bike polo has been around for at least a hundred years, when British soldiers in India honed their skills on bikes. The more modern hard-court bike polo, like the Bloomfield kids are playing, became popular in Seattle in the early 2000s. Since many people play in really informal groups, hard numbers aren't available, but Quartuccio says there's another group that plays on the South Side.

Quartuccio, Welsh and a half-dozen other skinny, tattooed folks in their 20s and 30s -- almost all commuters and city riders, including a few working bike couriers like Welsh -- gather under the Bloomfield Bridge on a warm Tuesday night.

The game is pretty straightforward: a 10-minute, three-on-three contest, played with homemade mallets, on bikes. The ball is a street-hockey ball. Keep it out of your goal, and get it into theirs -- fairly similar to regular polo.

For a goal to count, it must be hit off the narrow side of the mallet, and it must go through the front of the "net"-- really just two orange cones painted with "PGH POLO" in a bubbly, graffiti-style font. The net is a few feet wide, and games score in the single digits, generally.

After her skillful block, Welsh, with a few quick jerks backward on her bike, stumbles a little and her feet hit the pavement -- a "dab." She shoves off, and whacks her mallet on a sign hanging by the rink's center line, and then it's back into the scrum. A player's feet can't touch the ground, explains Quartuccio, and if they do, they're out of play until they go hit the sign.

But, as with most of the rules in bike polo, no one's going to blow a whistle or stop play if it's not followed. For the most part, players act on the honor system

"Everybody kinda plays by the rules," Quartuccio says. "There's no referee."

The rules are loosely the same everywhere, though with plenty of minor variations. The sign is a convenient marker in this rink, but at another location, getting back in play might mean doing a lap.

"Getting around changes your game play -- rules are very regional," says Quartuccio. This crew should know: Like a lot of players, they travel for tournaments. Several of them visited Dayton, Ohio, over the long Memorial Day weekend. Last month, they traveled to Cleveland for a tournament. Pittsburgh has hosted two tourneys of its own, with another upcoming on July 4.

In Cleveland, the players picked up some new tricks in the course of getting their asses handed to them, Quartuccio says.

For example, Matt Watson is hovering by his team's goalposts as strikes blaze toward him. Watson's not the goalie: No one is -- everyone on each three-person squad can do anything. In Cleveland, though, the Pittsburghers learned from other teams that it can be good strategy to have a specific person defend the goal.

They play 10-minute games from around 7 p.m. until the sun goes down. New teams are chosen for each bout, with players slinging their mallets into the rink and someone assigning teams by randomly tossing the mallets into two piles of three.

"You end up building bicycle skills," says player Greg Russo. "It has a universal appeal: Everyone's out there making plays."

Like almost all the players, Russo is on a fixie -- a road bike popular for commuting with a single, fixed gear and often no brakes. Rob Wolfe is the lone exception tonight: He plays on a mountain bike.

"I have a fixed-gear, too," Wolfe says, but "I like to save it for commuting." Polo can put a few dings or bends into a bike, Watson notes. "I'd say most people that play a lot have special bikes for this."

The groups are loosely organized, meeting up and picking times to play through word of mouth, the Bike Pittsburgh message board, MySpace and text-messaging, and www.pghbikepolo.com. "There's probably a pool of 15 or so people that I would say are regular players, that bring their own mallets," Quartuccio says.

There are spare mallets, for beginners who might not have melded a short length of plastic pipe to a ski pole. Players arriving at the hockey rink cut an imposing figure biking down Liberty with mallets sticking out of messenger bags. "They make for some funny looks when we walk into the bar with them," says Quartuccio.

"It's not as hard as it looks," he says of the crazy animal in the rink, all wheels and high-flying mallets and good-natured trash talk. "For a year-and-a-half of us playing twice a week, there's been like two injuries. It's really safe. We all play to each other's level.

"Honestly, cars are much more likely to kill you than playing polo."