On an otherwise uneventful afternoon in 2009, a group of men on bicycles gathered in what seemed to be an abandoned building along the Wisconsin River, just north of downtown Wausau. They weren't too worried about trespassing; the dilapidated building seemed to have been unused for some time.
There was a lot of junk in the old warehouse, but the floors were smooth, making it perfect for their purposes. The men set down their bikes and got to work, cleaning up the space and shining the floors to a polish it probably hadn't seen in years.
Soon, a pair of yellow and black uniformed Community Service Officers noticed the commotion in the building, a place that ordinarily shouldn’t have seen any activity, and pedaled over to check it out. What they saw wasn't exactly what they expected: a bunch of smiling, sweating hipsters on bikes, hitting a little rubber ball with mallets toward a crudely constructed goal. The officers couldn't help but stay and watch.
Their curiosity eventually subsided enough for them to do what they came to do: Clear the bikers out of a potentially dangerous abandoned building.
If this story sounds like it’s going to be an “us against The Man” story, a new group of athletes trying to garner respect, think again. Since that infamous first game, Wausau’s Bike Polo club has had precisely the opposite of that reaction.
Instead, the city has embraced the group, first offering the athletes a place to play at Marathon Park, and most recently giving the group a permanent home. Since May, the Wausau Bike Polo Club has been playing at what was once an underused parking lot at Riverside Park, using hockey boards from outdoor rinks to establish a designated arena for play. The group’s twice weekly games are quickly racking up members. Now, even lights are planned for the park.
That’s a big contrast to how bike polo has been received in other communities, says the group’s founder, Seth Carlson. In fact, Wausau’s reception of bike polo has been probably as ideal as one could hope for.
That highlights exactly how the city should work for its people, says Gary Gisselman, the city council member who made it his personal mission to get the bike polo club a more permanent location to play.
It’s a success story for the city’s parks department, and for Wausau’s newest sport, which is growing in popularity around the country. Yup, Wausau’s a pretty hip place when it comes to polo on two wheels.
What the heck is bike polo?
Carlson, and most of the other men and women who’ve been playing the sport, usually get one response when they mention the game: What is that? Images of jockey-clothed players on horses with riding crops likely springs to mind. That's about right, but replace the horses with bikes and you get the picture.
At first, many people seem skeptical. But seeing is often believing, says Carlson, who has a big, bushy beard and handlebar mustache, and is often accompanied at the rink by his 6-year-old daughter who herself is enthralled by the sport. Even those who initially think the concept sounds kind of trendy and maybe a little silly, quickly perk up after watching it played.
That’s what happened when Carlson last year approached Gisselman, his alderperson at the time, about wanting to find a more permanent place to play for the group. Gisselman, a cyclist as well as a city council member, didn’t entirely know what Carlson was talking about but he liked Carlson's dedication and wanted to help.
By that point, the group had reached out to the parks department, not wanting a repeat of the warehouse incident six years earlier that could have cost them a trespassing fine. The seldom-used tennis courts in Marathon Park seemed like a good option, so the parks department gave the group the nod to start there.
Parks employees quickly came to respect the bike polo group. Not only did they not cause trouble, but after matches they took the time to clean the courts and the area around it. When parks department employees would check out the court the next day, they would often find the area much cleaner than it was the day before.
Carlson and company took that goodwill with them when they started to ask about a permanent location to play. Laying blacktop might have been expensive, but moving some hockey boards somewhere might not be too hard, they figured.
The perfect useless parking lot
Gisselman didn’t exactly know what bike polo was when he took Carlson’s idea to the city’s bicycle and pedestrian committee meeting. What he did know was that a group of city users were looking for a place to play a sport not many were familiar with. Seeing it as an opportunity to help make the parks system adaptable to new users, Gisselman helped set up meetings between Carlson and Peter Knotek of the Parks Department about where the group might find a permanent home.
Eventually, Riverside Park emerged as the perfect solution. As it turned out, the area had a parking lot that was seldom used and becoming overgrown. Leading off the parking lot is empty grass, trees, and a fair amount of green space. It seemed to be out in the middle of nowhere, serving no purpose.
That lot is actually a nod to a different era, Gisselman says, harking back to when families would take a Sunday drive, find a nice empty spot in a park and have a picnic. That was one of the major uses for parks 50 or 60 years ago, Gisselman says.
Today, that parking lots sees games featuring single-speed bikes with wide, BMX-style handle bars.
The concept is simple: Hit the ball into the opposite goal. Teams of three players run the length of the court, swinging mallets that look like golf club handles with plastic cups on attached to the ends. When they're not swinging, they're balancing on their mallets, a move called tri-podding (you can’t put your foot down during the match or else you are penalized).
The teams tend not to have a permanent goalie, but once on defense, a player can park themselves in front of the goal, using the mallet to balance while bunny-hopping back and forth to block different parts of the goal.
The result is a sport that’s both fast-moving and strategic. While some might envision the game entails plenty of collisions, there’s actually a lot more space on the court than it seems, and bikes aren’t exactly bashing into each other.
There is, however, a definite learning curve, Carlson says, and it typically takes a player about a season to become acquainted with the all the rules and start to really understand the strategy. Still, most new players get the basic idea after a couple of matches.
New players are trying the sport all the time, Carlson says, and the group has saved up enough bikes and other equipment that newcomers can now try the sport with borrowed equipment. Later, if they become more interested, Carlson says, the group has a mechanic that can put together a bike specifically for the sport.
Most typical is a bike with a single gear (not much time or need for shifting when you’re worrying about smacking around a little ball), a single brake (opposite the hand needed to hold the mallet) and wide handlebars for stability. Although originally played with messenger-type bikes with a fixed gear (meaning, if you pedal backward, the bike goes backward too), single speed bikes with a brake have become more common. Even a mountain bike, sans shocks, would work, Carlson says.
Bike polo sounded kind of silly to Josh Reissmann the first time Carlson introduced it to him. During his first game, roughly six years ago, he fell a lot and felt a little out of place. But soon, he was solidly in the mix. “I was hooked," Reissmann says.
Joe Bartram started around the same time, soon after the group was formed. It started out as mostly a rough way to hang out with friends, both men say. Early games were a little scrappy, with players whacking each other’s mallets out of the way. “People are in good control of their bikes now,” Bartram says.
Traveling to tournaments and seeing how other polo athletes played gave the group some inspiration and knowledge on how to improve their skills. That led to a much smoother version of bike polo, the game anyone who wanders down to Riverside Park on a Thursday or Sunday will see now.
A game with history
If bike polo seems like a trendy thing to do, well, it kind of is, but it’s also a sport that’s more than 100 years old. The game was invented in Ireland by a retired cycling champion in 1891 and quickly spread to parts of Europe and the United States. The game was played on grass and international competition ensued, with the sport earning a demonstration at the 1908 Olympics. Its popularity soared until around the 1930s.
Bike polo, moving to hardcourts, made a comeback in the late 1990s, brought back by bike messengers looking to entertain themselves with between deliveries. Now, bike polo leagues have sprung up in most major cities and regional and national competitions exist. Carlson and others from the group have started forming teams to travel to tournaments, including in Milwaukee, Madison and Minneapolis.
Today there are 199 registered bike polo clubs, according to leagueofbikepolo.com. Five of those clubs are in Wisconsin, including Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay and Menomonie. And, of course, in Wausau.
While those and other cities have developed strong bike polo leagues, none have had the cooperation at the city level that they have, Carlson says.
“We got the best possible version of the story,” Carlson says. “For most clubs it takes a long time to gain a foothold, even in cities that are perennial hot spots of bike polo, like San Francisco or Seattle, some of these big cities just gave their bike polo leagues a dedicated court. Our parks system went above and beyond.”
Madison’s bike polo club is a good example. The club just found a permanent park in 2015 after trying to work with Madison’s parks department for a decade. Compared to that, everyone in Marathon County Parks, the bike ped committee, and at city hall was very helpful and moved quickly to accommodate the group, Carlson says.
The shift in venue has also affected the way the group plays, Bartram says. Players can now slide along the hockey boards, much more comfortable than sliding along a tennis court fence.
Gisselman says how the city handled the bike polo team is exactly how city government should work. The city identifies a new sport, a group of parks users who need a space to play that sport, and the city takes space no longer used for its original purpose and reconfigures it for a new generation.
“I thought, ‘Seth is here, he has an interest in bringing residents of the city into our parks, what can I do for these people who want to have some fun in our parks?’” Gisselman says.
On a warm June afternoon, Gisselman rode his bike to Riverside Park to watch the cyclists traverse the court. Music with attitude played in the background. Gisselman took some video and photos, and while he watched he couldn’t help feeling like he wanted to join in.
“I asked them if there was a senior bike polo league,” Gisselman jokes. “I guess there isn’t one.”
Scott Morgan sat outside the white hockey boards this past Sunday afternoon. He’d played a game similar to bike polo, but never the actual sport himself. Despite years of experience on all kinds of bikes, he was a little nervous preparing to try the sport for the first time.
“Most people are nervous when they play the first couple of times,” Joe Bartram explains. “But after a couple of games, they get way more comfortable.”
“These guys are already making me nervous,” Morgan says, laughing. “But I’ll be fine. I’ve been biking for 40 years, so I think it will come natural to me. But I’ll let these guys be the judge.”