Matt “Messmann” Messenger is riding down the hill in front of me, and we are headed towards the patch of snow high on the mountain ahead of us. He gets a little air over each of the bumps in the fire trail, flaring out his back wheel and landing with a joyful whoop that is sure to scare the Alaskan bears away. I don’t know how to jump and I’m worried about how quickly I can stop on the loose gravel, so I ride on the opposite side of the road, just in case he falls. As soon as this thought has flitted its way through my head, Messmann hits the ground hard. His bike lies in a heap to the left and he is lying on his side to the right. He’s not moving. When I roll past him I look at his face and I can see that he is not OK. I dump my bike and run towards him. His glasses are wildly askew and if I didn’t know who he was, I wouldn’t recognise his bloody face. His body is stiff and he is holding his head awkwardly off the ground. He isn’t conscious. I look at his bike and see that the carbon fork has snapped completely at the steerer tube. Polony, who was just behind us, ditches his bike and runs to put his hands underneath Messmann’s head, supporting his neck. We listen as his strained breath pants from the back of his throat.
Messmann comes back to consciousness sometime within the next 30 seconds, he is confused and sore but he is awake. Within three minutes he is cracking jokes again.
“Do you know where you are?” We ask him for the third time.
“New Hampshire,” he replies, attempting a smile, his swollen lip and gravel rash making the mirth slightly grotesque. But we laugh and some of the tension in the atmosphere is dissolved. The fear that the father of bike polo is dying in front of me starts to fade. We load him into one of the trucks and send him off to the hospital. The 24 people remaining in the group hit the trail again. Messmann wouldn’t like it if we quit because he banged himself up a little.
None of the other bike polo players who have travelled to Alaska for this tournament know it, but I am thinking about how the curse has struck again. It’s common knowledge within the Australian scene that bad bike injuries happen to polo players when they are on mountains – it is only on the court that we are truly in our element.
“We started playing in a warehouse,” says Dave ‘Polony’ Wells from Seattle. “It was the summer of ’98. But it wasn’t really polo then, we were still trying to decide if it was called bike hockey.”
Messmann and Polony are part of a small but noteworthy group within the bike polo community. They have not only played the game longer than almost everyone else, they’ve stuck with it for the long haul.
“It was all Messmann,” Polony says of the drive behind the game’s inception. “He had so much enthusiasm and love for the camaraderie. It was hilarious, I was like ‘What’s going on here?’ I could hardly ride a bike.”
Eighteen years have passed since that fateful summer but Polony’s words still ring true. The endless fun and loving camaraderie are the elements of the game that draw new players in, and keep the old ones active. Many players describe their fellow competitors as their ‘bike polo family’, and they spend much of their disposable income on travelling to tournaments in order to catch up with them.
It is a successful formula, because bike polo is now played in every continent and there have been eight world championships. The most recent one was the southern hemisphere’s first chance to host the event; with the small town of Timaru on New Zealand’s south island throwing what was described as “the best World’s ever”. Which isn’t bad for a country that has been playing the sport for less than a decade.
Australasia first saw hardcourt bike polo, which is the varietal of cycle polo Messman pioneered, in spring of 2007. The Bike Fun cycling group, a spinoff from the Critical Mass rides, began practicing the sport in front of the Exhibition Centre building in Melbourne’s Carlton Gardens. They didn’t have access to the correct type of balls so Melbourne local Damon Rao, who was playing in the Canadian city of Vancouver at the time, posted a bag of street hockey balls back home for them.
Interestingly, cycle polo played on grass has been around Victoria much longer, with a Ballarat Star news story from 1899 reporting that Carlton defeated the local Ballarat team by a whopping 86–11. The huge goal margin can be explained by the fact that both goals and behinds were counted, suggesting they were playing on an AFL pitch.
There are now polo clubs all around Australia and New Zealand, but the community is small and relies on the hard work and passion of its members to keep the sport growing.
“In 2001, I was afraid polo was going to die,” Polony says of the game’s earlier days in Seattle. “We had to keep inviting new people constantly, giving them bikes, giving them mallets.”
This is exactly the ethos that has been adopted worldwide, with almost all the Australian clubs hosting a regular ‘newbie night’ in order to attract new players. At these nights mallets and bikes are provided, and when a new player scores their first goal they are bound to be handed a beer from an old-timer who wants to make their experience just that little bit sweeter.
“I am not into sports,” Davey laughs, looking down at his green camo t-shirt with ‘Sports’ written in white cursive font on the front. “I just wear this to be ironic.”
The joke is an old one, and it references the fact that there are no truly professional polo players. Even world champions pay for their own plane tickets to tournaments.
The mountains of Chugach have been conquered by a horde of mountain biking polo players and we are back in the quaint dark cabin we’ve all been calling home. We’re sitting at a big wooden workbench in the open-plan kitchen and compact living space. Messmann is resting on the futon, having been given the all-clear by the doctors. Will and Kendra, the house’s permanent inhabitants, are making a caribou and wild morel mushroom stew on the stove, smiling and laughing along with the messy mass of humanity that has overtaken their life.
I look around at the mass of people in the room. I have known most of them for less than a week and yet here I sit in this strange place – the furthest I have ever been from my home in Australia – and I am warm and happy. I can feel the camaraderie that Polony describes flooding every fibre of my body. How did I get so lucky as this? Because of a guy resting on a couch who falls off his bike sometimes … as all people who love bikes must do occasionally.