'ON YER BIKE" – that's the exhortation to the people of Cork this Saturday when, as the peletonin the Tour de France tackles the forbidding, balding dome of Mont Ventoux, they are being urged to take a more leisurely trip up to University College Cork to witness a bicycle-polo match, writes BARRY ROCHE
Organised as part of Cork Cycling Arts Festival, which runs until Sunday, the exhibition match is being staged by members of the Bicycle Polo Association of Ireland (BPAI), which has more than 30 members in Dublin and is hoping to start a team in Munster.
Evan Connon of BPAI says there are currently four teams in Dublin and they compete in the European Championship, but the association would love to see a team established in Cork to increase the popularity of the sport. “A lot of countries claim credit for inventing bicycle polo, but it was actually an Irishman, Richard J McCready, who invented the sport in 1891,” claims Connon. “The first bicycle-polo match was played on October 4th, 1891, at the Scalp in Co Wicklow.”
The first international match was played in London between Ireland and England in 1901, with Ireland emerging victorious by 10-5. Seven years later an Irish selection participated in the London Olympics, when bicycle polo was included as a demonstration sport. The Irish team of LR Oswald-Sealy, HE Oswald, AS Oswald, all from Rathclaren Rovers, and Richard McCready jnr from the Ohne Hast club, beat German side, Deutscher Radfahrer Bund 3-1 at Shepherd’s Bush.
According to Evan Connon, the sport continued to grow in popularity from 1910, but an entire generation of bicycle-polo enthusiasts were wiped out in the first World War. Similarly, a new generation who were taking to the sport in the 1930s were lost in the second War.
The rules of the sport are clear, with teams of five players – four outfield cyclists and a goalkeeper – playing on a rectangular pitch between 80m and 100m long and between 40m and 70m wide, with goals four-metres wide and 2.75-metres high. “The goals are about half the size of soccer goals and the ball is bigger than a tennis ball – it’s about the size of a grapefruit – and the mallet is 30 inches [12cm] long, with a teak head,” explains Connon.
The bikes have fixed wheels and no gears, with the saddle over the rear wheel. Matches consist of four chukkas, or periods, of 15 minutes, with a break of five minutes between chukkas.
Players must carry the mallet in their right hand and hold the handlebar with their left hand, and they cannot touch the ground with any part of their body when playing the ball, but they can swing as high as they wish with the mallet when hitting the ball.
“It’s a great game and it’s open to everyone irrespective of age or gender – we have one guy playing, Peter Matthews, who’s 71,” he says. “We have a couple of women playing as well – we play on Thursday evenings and Sunday mornings at the Phoenix Park in Dublin.”
Connon’s own interest in the sport stemmed from his father, John Connon, a champion track cyclist who took up the sport when he retired from track events. “The sport fell through in Ireland in 1993, but a couple of years ago, myself and my brother, John, got into a bit of a slagging match in a pub after a few drinks about who was the better player. So we went out on Saturday in September in 2004 to play again and it just took off from there.
“It’s a fast sport – you’re travelling at 14-15m/ph [22.5-24km/ph] – but we have a few guys from Tipperary who used to play hurling and they have a great eye for the ball. Then we have guys who can do tricks with the ball, and bend it like Beckham or Ronaldo.
“Our hope is to get more teams competing in the European Championship and hopefully have a team ready if it gets back into the Olympics, so we can win gold for Ireland.”
Saturday’s exhibition game at the Lower Grounds at UCC (near the Perrott’s Inch car park at Gaol Cross) starts at 5pm and all equipment, including bikes, helmets and mallets, will be provided by the BPAI for anyone who wants to try their hand at bicycle polo.
For further info, visit www.bicyclepoloireland.com