I wake up slowly, groggily as always. I am lying on a couch, half covered by my sleeping bag, with gentle light shining on my face from the unshuttered window. I wonder briefly where I am before I remember that I am in Geneva, Switzerland. This question has occurred to me almost daily in the three months I have been away from Melbourne, travelling Europe to play bicycle polo and visit friends. The feeling of disorientation I experience every morning upon waking up on a floor, couch, or in a strange bed still hasn’t disappeared. Today, I am staying at Manu’s house, a famous old-school polo player whom I have not actually met yet, even though I am sleeping on his couch and have used his shower. Another fellow polo player, Connie, is crashing here too, but I heard her leave earlier, she went down to the court to play with Katzenauge, her team in the morning bracket of Hell’s Belles Volume IV, the first all-female bike polo tournament I have ever attended or played in, and the reason I am in Geneva.
The tournament pre-party had been held in a bar down the road last night, in a building I am told is actually a squat. One of the local polo players had been living there rent-free for the past year, earning his keep by working at the technically illegal bar. Geneva has some of the most expensive rental prices and lowest vacancy rates in Europe, a situation that the locals tell me led to a massive culture of squatting in disused buildings during the ‘70’s, ‘80’s and ‘90’s. The dirty, rowdy bar filled with smoking patrons and covered in colourful graffiti is one of the last remnants of this culture – as the years go by the authorities have become increasingly less tolerant of their presence. The flat I have awoken in, however, is definitely not a squat – it is warm and spacious with beautiful parquetry floors, and Manu has left us coffee, muesli, yoghurt and fruit for breakfast. This kind of hospitality from someone whom I have never met is no longer surprising, I’ve had too many similar experiences from other polo hosts over the past few months, but I am nevertheless filled overwhelming warmth at his thoughtfulness and generosity.
I put the stove-top espresso maker on to boil while I check the live video feed of the tournament on YouTube, the first three games of the morning bracket have been played – it’s time to get myself down to the court to spectate and prepare for my games that afternoon. There are only two days every year when the coolest women in Europe compete in a tournament like this, and I want to take in as much as possible. Hell’s Belles was first held in London in 2011 and was conceived to encourage the growth of women in bike polo – originally two out of the three players in a team had to identify as female. That first year there were 20 teams, most of them with a male player. Now in its fourth year all 16 teams are exclusively female, and the level of competition is both high and fierce.
The thump of lorry wheels and suspension systems booms down from the concrete highway above the court while car and motorbike engines growl at us from either side. Sometimes the noise makes it hard to have a conversation on the sidelines, let alone shout at your teammates when playing. Furthermore, the crowd is getting progressively more rowdy and hip-hop blares from the speakers at the bar. Before their games nervous players block out the din with headphones while they jump up and down on the spot to keep warm in the chilly autumn breeze. To quell my own nerves I sip one of the beers from the slab I bought on the way to the court, while other players gently tease that only an Australian would start drinking beer before midday at a tournament, I don’t believe that can possibly be true, but I am secretly proud to be upholding the reputation of my nation nevertheless.
Less than a year and a half ago bike polo wasn’t really on my radar, it was a kooky sport that my old housemate from Sydney played. Sure, I was happy to have him stay at my place when he came to Melbourne for a tournament, because it meant I could drink the cheap and delicious home brew they always sold at the courts. As for the game itself, it looked far too difficult for me to ever try, how was I meant to control a bike with one hand while I tried to hit a tiny ball with a mallet and avoid collisions with the other five players on the court? I figured that it was a sport best left to those who already had bike skills. It was the cheap jugs of Coopers Pale Ale at the Golden Barley in Newtown that finally changed my mind.
“Hey Claire, you should totally play in the tournament tomorrow, I’m going to sign you up,” Ben told me.
“Sure, why not,” I replied, thinking that there was no way he would hold me to the promise. I was wrong, he insisted that I play, I didn’t touch the ball once, but I was immediately hooked. The next day I bought myself a cheap mountain bike and haven’t purposefully missed a day of polo since.
Now I am travelling Europe with my bike, playing in as many cities and tournaments as I can along the way. Playing at Hell’s Belles is something I have been looking forward to for months. In Melbourne, despite having at least half a dozen female players, it is still pretty normal for me to be the only woman at polo. Looking around at Hell’s Belles it is difficult for me to wrap my head around the fact that there are at least 47 other women here who also play regularly. Some of them have been playing for four times as long as me, some of them for a quarter of the time. We are a diverse bunch, we speak different languages and come from different corners of the globe, but here we all are, underneath a highway in Geneva, riding bikes and trying to hit a little plastic ball into a goal while hundreds of people around the world watch us on the live video feed. It is one of the most magical moments of my life so far and I wonder about the stories the other women would tell about how they came to be one of the special people gathered in this place.
My team, Chicks With Sticks, makes it into the top eight and is graciously knocked out of the single elimination round by Lil’ Hit. We celebrate our performance with some shots from a bottle of Jamieson and settle down to watch the final games. A few grueling hours later and Sisters face Fluffy Riot in the final, winning decisively 3-1. At the award ceremony it is a surprise to find that Geneva Bike Polo has a prize for everybody who competed, generously donated by a swathe of sponsors. After a few complimentary beers from the on-site bar we head off to get kebabs and then to dance the night away at a club that plays classic songs with the lyrics sung in French. As I go to sleep on Manu’s couch I wonder at the fact that I am on the other side of the world and have just had one of the greatest weekends of my life, despite the fact that all the people here were strangers to me three months ago. This is why I love bike polo.