ROUGH AND GNARLY: BIKE POLO AT LES INVALIDES
On Saturdays, opposite the Air France building, metro station Invalides, a hard and fast-paced session of bike polo is usually underway. People stop and stare, not just because the sport is so young that the general public will have never seen it being played before but also because the players are a rag-tag combo of people from all walks of life. It’s also a full contact, full impact sport so things fly, stuff crashes.
Mountain bikes are customized, gear is borrowed from other sports and polo sticks from, well, polo. Central to the scene is graphic designer and art director, Yorgo Tloupas who founded the cars-meet-fashion-meets-design magazine, Intersection. When we’re in Paris we try to go down to the concrete area that’s been claimed as the polo pitch, hang with Yorgo and try not to get smashed by a flying bike or player. We asked him some questions about the gnarly, evil cousin of horse-ridden polo
Hey hey Yorgo, where are you, what can you see? – I’m in the Parisian offices of Vanity Fair and I can see the Eiffel tower, which would be a postcard view if not for the the grey drizzle.
Bike polo, it’s clear that it’s one of your passions so fill us in, when did you start playing and what was the scene like then? –
In 2006 I was in NYC with my bike (back then a fixed gear), and the guys from Trackstar, a shop on the lower east side, invited me to try out bike polo on a Sunday at The Pit, which is their court on Chrystie and Broome. I stayed in goal mostly, got hurt of course, and got hooked straight away.
When/where/which city do you habitually play? – I train in Paris, up to three times a week, but from March to October I tend to travel to tournaments all over the world, probably twice a month…
You’ve been involved in French and international championships, how big would you say the international community is? – Hard to say, I kind of wish we’re in the tens of thousands worldwide, but the growth is difficult to track. Some regions may be growing without us really noticing (south east Asia, Aouth America), some regions are stagnating (Scandinavia is surprisingly quiet). In France we’re less than a thousand.
What do you personally love about playing it? – It’s a team sport without the usual hassles of team sports (no coaches, no federation, no jock culture), it also requires a unique mix of balance, coordination, strategy, and fearlessness. Being part of an emerging sport is also hugely enjoyable. The history of bike polo is taking shape through our involvement, and those of us who have been playing for more than 4 years feel privileged to have witnessed so much evolution. Also – scoring a goal feels amazing.
What kind of people do you meet from the teams that you play with? – That’s another interesting element, the demographics and the cultural differences of the sport are pretty unique. A lot of the players have a creative background, from architects to designers, artists etc… But we also have quantum physicists, social workers, bike mechanics, etc… The fact that a lot of the active scenes are in far-away provincial towns means the mix is really varied. I would have probably never met Chefs from Milwaukee, Child Psychologists from Munich, and drunk students from Seattle if it wasn’t for international Bike Polo tournaments.
Let’s talk equipment, what does a novice need to get going? – The best is to show up at "pick-up games" i.e. training sessions, and nicely ask to try a bike and mallet on the side. That way you can get a feel of the balance required, and see if you want to get involved more seriously. Then players can advise you on what kind of bike to get. Usually the bikes are compact, solid, with a single gear, a freewheel, and straight handlebars. A second-hand mountain bike with slick tires can do the job for the first few months, but when players start to practice more seriously, they tend to buy polo-specific frames. Mine is fully built to my specs, with sourced components from various brands worldwide, and probably costs about $2000 in total.
We have to talk about the Vuitton polo bike, give us the deets! How did this collab come about? – About 4 years ago we shot a fashion story for my magazine, Intersection, showing a game between 3 bike polo players and 3 horse polo players. Then in the spring of 2011 the advanced design team at Louis Vuitton invited us to visit their office in Paris, and on their walls were cut-outs of that fashion story, amongst others. They had the courtesy of showing us the fact that they had used our story as inspiration. But to build the bike they contacted other polo players – who I knew of course – and put together a nicely crafted bike and mallet, not highly functional however. They asked us to shoot the first images of it, so I gathered a polo player / photographer and a polo player / model / stuntman, and we shot a few nice pictures
What’s the injury risk in bike polo? – Bike polo is a contact sport, with mallet to mallet, bike to bike, and body to body checks all tolerated. So we use hockey helmets with face cages, lacrosse gloves with finger protection, and some of us use knee and elbow pads. Everyone still gets bruises though, and blood isn’t rare on the court.
What are the basics, how long does each match last, how many do you play, how many to each team? – A game is usually 10 minutes long, with longer games as you reach the highest phases of tournaments, up to 25 mins. It’s 3 vs 3, and the first to 5 wins (or whoever has the highest score at the end of the time).
What’s on the agenda for 2013? – The French championships, the qualifiers for the European champs, then hopefully if my team (Cocorico) gets through, the European champs (location not determined yet). Then if we do well there, the world champs are in Fort Lauderdale in October… looking forward to that floridian jaunt.
When does the next Intersection come out and what can we look forward to? – There are 13 editions worldwide now, so there is always an issue coming out, whether it’s the UK/US issue coming out now, the French edition in march, the Russian one soon, etc…
What are you working on right now? – I’m working on the launch of the French edition of Vanity Fair, as the art director. Pretty intense. I also have my design agency, Yorgo&Co, and we work for luxury brands, art museums, the music industry, and of course the ski brand I’m involved in, Black Crows. Oh and I try to discipline my two cats, hard work I must say.
Photos By Timothy O’Malley