Horse Trading

In Ann Arbor, bikes take the place of ponies in an inventive take on polo

Polo is one of the oldest team sports in the world, dating back to central Asia, where nomadic warriors played the game more than 2,000 years ago.

During Britain’s colonization of India, soldiers and tea-mongers learned the game — dubbed “hockey on horseback” — from the locals. Although it was exported to the United States shortly afterward, traditional polo never quite caught on as America’s great pastime, due mostly to the wealth and aristocratic status associated with the “game of kings.”

But that could change, thanks to a few adjustments made by an enterprising group of Ann Arbor-area bicyclists. In their version of the game, high-priced and high-maintenance ponies are replaced by mostly fixed-gear bikes — those that can pedal forward and backward — or, as Thomas Kula, one of the group’s organizers, puts it: “Something you pedal that you don’t care about crashing.

“We’ve had everything, including mountain bikes, road bikes, a tricycle, and a unicycle.”

In the Ann Arbor Bike Polo version of the classic sport, two teams of three saddle up on bikes, take to a hard surface (think parking lot), and, wielding mallets made of plastic pipe and old ski poles, try to thwack a street-hockey ball through a pair of orange construction cones. Players are not allowed to touch their feet to the ground or throw their mallets, although any “like” contact is allowed (body to body or bike to bike, for example). Goaltending is permitted, as is roughing the goalie. Trash-talk is encouraged.

And yes, injuries do happen. “I still have two fingers that don’t fully close from an injury last July,” Kula says.

Anyone can drop in for a pickup game. All that’s needed is a bike with minimal attached sentimental value and a bit of courage. Extra mallets are available on-site.

“And I highly recommend a helmet,” Kula adds. “Highly.”

The group plays every Sunday at 4 p.m. at Ann Arbor’s Palmer Park. All changes in time or location are posted at