Every weekend, 20 or so bicyclists gather under I-95 at José Martí Park in downtown Miami.
They line up on opposite sides of the basketball court, men and women in their 20s, 30s and 40s, who ride to the park from as far away as Hialeah and as close as Brickell. There’s a guy on a racing bike, a woman on a mountain bike, even a kid’s bike makes its way in.
Starting time is 7 p.m. Fridays, but like many things in Miami, it’s closer to 7:15 before everyone finds their place. They take their places on the edge of the court, leaning forward on their bikes, like they’re ready to lunge on wheels.
The call goes out: “Three! Two! One! Polo!”
And so begins Miami Bike Polo, a 3-month-old league that is catching on in the cycling community. Players pedal to the center of the court to try to steal a dirt-striped orange ball a little bigger than a tennis ball. The mission: Score a goal in the pee-wee soccer net on the opposite side, using a mallet made out of a ski pole welded to a six-inch PVC pipe.
“It’s like combination of hockey with soccer,” says Flavio Correa, a Guitar Center stock clerk. Except players may not touch the ground with their feet. If they do, the penalty is to pedal to the edge of the court and pat one of the columns that supports I-95. They then can rejoin the game.
The result is a contact sport on wheels that looks energetic even though it moves at less than five miles-per-hour. Correa says it’s the kind of game where greatness requires that “you have pretty much no fear.”
But anyone who thinks that bike polo is just a sport is wrong. It is also a community building tool that supports a social movement.
Virtually all the players are members of the Miami Bike Scene, an organization that plans group rides for local cyclists and advocates for their rights. Once a month, Miami Bike Scene holds Critical Mass, where hundreds of cyclists take over the road to advocate for a more sustainable mode of transportation.
Group rides are effective demonstrations of cyclist solidarity, but they do not build community; it is difficult to have a conversation while flying down Flagler Street. That is where bike polo comes in.
“It’s fun. It’s recreational. But it also builds bicycle culture,” says Dario Gonzalez, a policy researcher at Florida International University and member of Miami Bike Polo. “All these people are gathered around here to watch something very silly, and we love it.”
Irish cyclist Richard Mecredy invented bike polo in 1891. Today, it is played throughout the world; enthusiasts flock to Nepal every year to compete in the Pukka Chukkas MS Bicycle Polo Cup.
The sport migrated to Miami three months ago when Eric Madrid, 30, saw Vancouver bicycle couriers playing in the trailer for the documentary Murder of the Couriers. Madrid — who worked on a film crew and regularly spun in the air from wire and fish hooks as a performance artist — decided that Miami needed bike polo.
“I thought it was awesome,” said Madrid.
So he started the league with his friend, Andrew Feher.
Madrid hopes to see Miami Bike Polo transform from a series of pick-up games into a respectable program, similar to leagues in Fort Lauderdale and Athens, Ga., home to the University of Georgia. He hopes to hold the first official Miami Bike Polo tournament this year.
As a leader in Miami Bike Scene, he is banking on bike polo galvanizing the community. “It seems the Miami biking community likes having somewhere to hang out that’s not just a group ride or a race,” he says.
Every weekend, he encourages any and every cyclist to come out and play. A recent Friday night game brought together a stock clerk, a network engineer, a Miami city official and a college student.
Madrid handed them his homemade mallets. Then they spent two hours biking into each other, with players haphazardly subbing in.
Around 9 p.m., they pedaled over to Elwood’s Gastro Pub on Northeast Third Avenue to share a beer. Then they parted ways and bicycled home.