The region’s growing bike polo scene isn’t just a good ol’ boys club
Why Sacramento and Davis squads are attracting fiercely competitive women
On her black, fixed-gear bike, Autumn Hardy races toward the fence head-on. She stops just before impact—narrowly avoiding a crash with the opponent on her tail—and bounces backwards slightly, guarding her space with her covered wheel. She lunges over her handlebars, her mallet searching for the loose ball below.
“Nice,” says Christine Carrisosa, cheering from the sidelines. “She’s scrappy.”
It’s 8:30 p.m. on a Tuesday at Southside Park. The Capitol Bike Polo club just took over the tennis courts for the night, and the group will stay there until the lights shut off at 10 p.m. If the lights weren’t regulated, play could continue as late as 3 a.m.
Bike polo draws a passionate bunch. Though the concept of playing polo on bicycles started more than a century ago in Ireland, the hard-court version we see today dates back to the ’90s. Bike messengers in Seattle invented some rules and played in their spare time. It spread nationally, then internationally, in the early 2000s—a grassroots movement.
While people once played with just mountain bikes and ski poles, now there are companies dedicated to producing bike polo-specific gear. In San Francisco’s Dolores Park, there’s a brand new multipurpose court built with bike polo in mind. There are huge tournaments that draw players from all over the world.
Carrisosa remembers discovering the Sacramento bike polo scene several years ago in an old parking garage that’s since been torn down.
“It was mostly a drinking club, a boys club,” she says. “It wasn’t what it is now.”
She joined and invited a bunch of her friends. The dynamic changed. In 2012, the group officially became Capitol Bike Polo and adopted more structure. Players actually engaged in games—three vs. three—instead of just hitting the ball and chasing after it.
“The game has changed so much,” Hardy says. “It got competitive. Strategy came into play.”
Hardy’s bike polo career started eight years ago. For the first four years, she was the only female player in town.
“They basically treated me like a little sister,” she says. “It was like tough love, but a good tough love.”
By definition, bike polo is co-ed. Though only four of Capitol Bike Polo’s 15 regulars are women, Carrisosa argues that bike polo is one of the most inclusive sports out there.
“The reason why is people don’t look for bike polo,” she says. “You find out about it because your friends tell you about it, people in your community. To me, it feels like if I’m being invited, it’s already inclusive.”
Capitol Bike Polo’s uneven male-to-female ratio is pretty common. More rare is the makeup of the Davis Bike Polo team, where seven of its 15 regulars are women. That’s a recent development, though.
Just two years ago, Jennifer Kutzleb was the only woman playing bike polo in Davis. As a sociology Ph.D. student at UC Davis, she quickly set off to identify the barriers women face in bike polo. After talking to many female bike polo players, she determined that the challenges women face in bike polo are generally the same as any other sport.
“There are more men in most sports, men’s sports receive more coverage than women’s sports, male athletes are better paid,” Kutzleb says. “Sports are perceived as a more masculine activity. I think women are dealing with being perceived as being unfeminine, too muscular or overly aggressive.”
And, of course, lots of female bike polo players can readily tell you about that time a guy told them something along the lines of, “You play so well for a girl!”
Unlike a lot of sports, however, players say men don’t automatically have a clear advantage in bike polo. The emphasis isn’t on size or strength; rather, speed, teamwork and long-practiced skills.
Why the discrepancy in numbers, then? Kutzleb thinks it most has to do with bike polo’s roots and the usual way people learn to play.
“You put a mallet in their hand and give them a helmet and let them figure it out,” she says. “You can imagine that for a self-conscious woman, that doesn’t work well.”
Because of the way bike polo developed as a sport, there aren’t really any resources—or even language—on how to teach bike polo. Kutzleb wants to develop those resources, perhaps even create a curriculum other clubs could use. She started Davis Bike Polo rookie nights, which emphasize coaching, drills and explanation of technique. April marked the first of monthly Women and Genderqueer nights this year.
“It’s a space where they don’t have to be so self-conscious about their bodies or whatever other issues they’re dealing with, and just get their feet wet,” Kutzleb says.
Carrisosa wishes she could host similar events with Capitol Bike Polo, but the club doesn’t have a solid home base. To Carrisosa, that’s the biggest thing keeping bike polo from growing locally. Right now, Capitol Bike Polo meets twice a week at the Southside Park tennis courts. But if anyone is playing tennis, they have to wait. Sometimes, hours. That means it’s tough to recruit new players.
“I know the routine: I’ll wait it out, they’ll get off the court, we’ll move on,” she says. “But a lot of people don’t have the emotional attachment, the energy or the time to stick with it.”
Still, bike polo needs more players if it’s going to keep its momentum. Capitol Bike Polo sets up a miniature court outside the Sacramento Bicycle Kitchen on Second Saturdays in an effort to spread the word. Carrisosa hopes to partner with the Sacramento Public Library to speak to kids—particularly young girls—about playing sports outside the mainstream, like bike polo.
“We’re all getting older. We’re five years older than we started playing,” she says, laughing. “The longer it takes to attract new players, the bigger the gap in skill level.”
When the weather is nice, Southside Park tennis courts tend to be in-use until 7 or 8 at night. And Carrisosa can’t exactly start a youth practice at that hour. She spoke at Sacramento City Council meetings. She met with a Parks and Recreation representatives. She sent countless emails to countless people with no responses.
“Where the city council focus has been, at least as far as sports goes, is the Kings,” she says. “We’re not asking for a million-dollar renovation. We’re asking for something that’s not being used currently to maybe be reconfigured or redesignated.”
Regardless, the local bike polo community won’t fade away any time soon. They’re having way too much fun.
“I think the reason why we don’t grow as much is the same as why the inclusivity is strong,” Carrisosa says. “It’s word-of-mouth. It’s friends.”