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Polo for the People 

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Josephine Johnson

At 6:30 on a warm Wednesday evening, the Humboldt Hard Court Bike Polo crew adjusts helmets, tightens shin guards and makes sure mallets and bikes are tuned for friendly competition atop faded tennis courts in Eureka's Highland Park. Laughter peppers the crew's pregame safety check, and the setting sun lights up late-summer clouds punch orange and ruby red. The court quiets. Three players on each side wait behind their goal posts. After a quick countdown, both teams charge toward the center in a joust for control of the ball. Game on! Players score by shooting the ball into goals at either end of the court, and the first team to make five goals wins the match. Then the players rotate, and a new game begins.

"The game should end at five points, but if the ball is moving and we're in the flow, we'll keep playing," says Francis Rain, who has been instrumental in getting the word out about Humboldt's hard court bike polo action. Rain insists bike polo is more about working together and having fun than having an ultimate team winner at the end of the night. "We're out here to have a safe and good time," he says.

Bike polo took form in 1891 on grass fields with wooden mallets. Today's game, which traces its origins to Seattle circa 1999, is grittier and more urban — it's played on old tennis courts or asphalt, and the mallets are DIY inventions like re-purposed ski poles and PVC pipe.

The idea for a bike polo club here in Humboldt came about three years ago when Rain and Stella Clark were working at Henderson Center Bicycles. Clark had worked in bike shops in Portland and Oakland, and she was familiar with the polo scene in those cities. She knew it was a good time and that the sport needed to be played in Humboldt. Rain, a bike enthusiast and gear head, quickly became enamored of the sport. A self-proclaimed "bike polo nerd," he not only bought armloads of second-hand ski poles for working out mallet design ideas, but began tinkering with polo bike customization. Together, Rain and Clark set upon making solidly constructed polo bikes. "Steering and gearing," says Rain, "that's what you're thinking when you're building a bike for this sport." A low-geared or single-geared bike and shorter handlebars are ideal for maneuverability — smooth turning, accelerating and stopping on the court.

So, maybe you like the idea of balancing on two wheels, steering with one hand and swinging a mallet in the other. And maybe you like the idea of doing this, or learning how, with friendly locals. But you don't have a bike. What to do?

Don't despair! When she isn't working on bicycles at Sport and Cycle, you can find Stella Clark at the Community Bike Kitchen in Eureka's Jefferson Community Center. And yeah, she's building bikes there. For $50 to $80, Clark and her team at the Kitchen can help you customize your very own polo bike. The Community Bike Kitchen, by the way, has been open since June and has outfitted the community with just over 60 bikes, some of them polo bikes. Is $50 too much? You can also volunteer at the Bike Kitchen to work off some of the cost of building the bike you want.

"If someone is interested in playing polo," says Clark, "we don't want to turn them away." Clark and crew have loaner polo bikes available for people wanting to try out the sport. It's important, she says, because getting involved in the sport helps more people learn about bikes both for transportation and recreation.

The club is active. It meets every Wednesday, usually in Eureka, and plays as many games as possible before dark. Sometimes members play on Saturday afternoons or host a good ol' community bike ride that leaves from the Old Town Gazebo. Most exciting upcoming events? The club is talking with Old Town C Street businesses about hosting a bike polo exhibition during February Arts Alive! in Eureka. The crew is also working out details with Redwood Roller Derby for a half-time exhibition during a bout next season.

Sound good? Bike on.

Get in touch with club member Daryl at 541-531-6671, email [email protected], or look the club up on Facebook to find out where it's playing next Wednesday. You can see some action footage, too, on YouTube. Check it.

If you would like to write a Get Out! Column, please email Journal editor Carrie Peyton Dahlberg at [email protected]

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Josephine Johnson

Josephine Johnson

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