3, 2, 1, Polo! The story of Istanbul Bike Polo

Article guest-written by James McKay. Photos by Colin Craig.

Urban hardcourt bike polo is a sport that began with a group of bike messengers in Seattle in 1999. There are now clubs in more than 50 countries worldwide, but Istanbul Bike Polo, established in 2012, is the only club between Europe and West Asia. Ten-minute games are played in a three-on-three format. There is no fixed goalkeeper, and players attempt to score by hitting the ball with a mallet. The rules include a penalty for putting your foot down, and allow for limited bike-on-bike, mallet-on-mallet, and body-on-body contact. The idea is to win the ball away from your opponents with mallet and bike-handling skills, rather than brute force. For the first ten years the equipment was DIY built, but now there is every kind of polo gear available, and tournament-level teams gain sponsorships.

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How did bike polo get started in Istanbul? Sonay Eruz had picked up a love of the sport while studying in Halle-Saale, Germany, and brought back a mallet he made from a trekking pole. He and I founded the Istanbul club with support from some regulars on the Critical Mass rides and Fixed Gear Istanbul.

Initially we played on Sunday evenings at a trash-ridden basketball court on the coast at Bostancı. I went about setting up a Facebook group and sharing photos and material on polo basics and gear. Soon enough, we had a dozen players coming out. Polo is a co-ed sport, and a number of female riders were willing to give it a try. Polo players from Austria, Romania, Finland, Belgium, and the United States have contacted us through the League of Bike Polo or mutual friends to come play pick up with us while on holiday or bike touring through Istanbul. They taught us a few tricks and extended a welcome to any of us who might pass through their polo communities.

By March 2014, we had a small but strong club going, and we were admitted into the European Hardcourt Bike Polo Association as the 21st member country. Two months later, we sent a team, Patlak Terlik (Can, Murat, and myself), and free agent (Elif) to the SESPI Bike Polo Open, the Romanian qualifier for the European Hardcourt 2014 Championship, in Santu Gheorghe. We fought nobly on a court three times as big as our pick up spot, had a blast, and gained invaluable experience. In the Fall of that year, Can was able to play on a wildcard team with polo buddies he made in Romania at the World Championships, where he notched a few wins and a few goals to affirm Istanbul Bike Polo’s place in the Poloverse.  I asked him a few questions about the exciting young sport in Istanbul.

What is it that got you hooked on the game?
I think I like to ride in circles, and to develop hand-eye coordination, getting better every week. It’s not easy to score, so it’s a good feeling. You also improve your ability to ride in traffic, your handling and awareness. Another great thing is the excellent friendships you can have with people around the world.

Who do you think should try to play polo?
Age and gender don’t matter. What matters is feeling confident when you ride. It doesn’t take a polo-specific bike to try, but if you want to play more, you will want to build a polo bike later on.

You were the first player to represent Turkey at the World Hardcourt Bike Polo Championships in Montpellier, France in 2014. What did you gain from that experience?
I got to make connections with a lot of people who play polo, I learned from watching the best, and I saw how serious it is around the world. Therefore, we have to work a lot in Istanbul!

Where do you see Istanbul Bike Polo going in the next few years?
Hopefully within one year will be ready to go to the European Championships, preparing with tournaments in Romania and maybe other countries like Italy and the Ukraine. Only a handful of top players go to tournaments, but it is equally important that we build a strong community of casual players who want to come out and enjoy on the weekends.

If you are interested in playing, you can ask to join via Istanbul Bike Polo. Regular events are posted there for group members. Usually we play in the late afternoons until 23:00 in Çamlık Parkı in Selamiçeşme. Istanbul Bike Polo is improving and growing, so if you consider yourself a strong cyclist, come out and give it a try! Spectators are also welcome. Feel free to contact us with any questions at: istanbulbikepolo@zoho.com

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