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'Worth the Challenge' The Rise of Bike Polo in Lexington

White letters spell out “Lexington Bike Polo” across the polo courts’ faded red walls. 

Three players line up against each rear court wall, sitting on their bikes, waiting for the joust. 

One side yells “Marco” and the other “Polo,” a player from each side of the court races to the middle, where a reddish-orange ball — a little larger than a softball — sits waiting for them. 

And the game begins.

Each player gets a double-sided mallet, one end flat and the other a hollow circle designed to help the player scoop the ball in their desired direction. They must balance on their bikes while attempting to hit the ball with the mallet and into a goal.

Bike polo is a sport that’s been around for over a century but known in Lexington for about 14 years. 

Coolavin Park houses three dedicated courts with lights, specifically made for the close-knit community of driven yet carefree poloists that can be found there.

Some Saturday evenings and Sunday mornings, these individuals meet on the courts to destress through a few rough games of bike polo. 

“Lexington is one of the places that breeds better players,” longtime Lexington Bike Polo club member Matthew Downey said. 

Downey, a Lexington native, is 35 and has been playing polo for about a decade now. He mentioned the importance of maintaining the club they’ve built over the years because Lexington is one of the better locations to play on the east side of the country.

Downey said the club is inclusive to longtime athletes and beginners. The club’s slogan, which is plastered on their Instagram, polo court and merch, clearly states, “Anyone, Anytime.”

“Any night that we play, we welcome people to come and try and learn,” Downey said. “Every night’s beginner night for Lexington Bike Polo.” 

Downey said their club is just for fun, a relaxed environment for newcomers to enjoy and learn in. But, for those interested in the more competitive aspects of the sport, many of the players on the Lexington team regularly participate in tournaments throughout the country. 

Two women from the club recently traveled to Philadelphia to play in a women-only tournament. Many members also went to Cincinnati in August 2023, and Downey said he will be competing in Texas and St. Louis very soon as well. 

“Wherever there's a big city, there's most likely a club, and the clubs will host tournaments,” Downey said. 

This past July, the club held a tournament in Lexington, where they included Nerf guns and a capture the flag element, creating a three-part series to the competition. In the recent trip to Cincinnati, some club members competed in a similar three-tier tournament, incorporating foosball and flip-cup. 

Downey said this sport has brought him lifelong friendships.

“Some of the best people in the world are bike polo players,” he said. 

Many other players agree with Downey: that the overall community and friendships that come from the sport make it worth it. 

Most players said they heard about the sport through word of mouth and started showing up to play.

Player Mary Nell Sparks, 29, said she moved 10 years ago from a small town in Tennessee to Lexington for school, but after she graduated she said she loved Kentucky too much to leave.

She said one day she was hanging out at West Sixth — a brewery across the street from the polo courts — when she saw people playing. Sparks said she went over to watch, and people came up and asked her if she wanted to hop on a bike. 

“When you played, it seems super intimidating, but everyone slowed down to my level,” Sparks said. 

She said the sport has allowed her to really get involved in Lexington, because before she didn’t feel like she had a community in the city. 

“I really stuck around because everybody here was so cool,” Sparks said.

She said everyone was kind and created a very open and judgment-free community that she has now been a part of for four years.

Bruce Carver, 34, has been a bike polo player since 2009. He is from Indiana and said he drives down to Lexington to play polo as the community is amazing.

“I can go anywhere in the entire world and have a place to sleep, and people to show me around, just because of this sport,” he said. 

He said bike polo is the most fun thing anyone could do, and that he has tried several other “normal” sports over the years, and this is what he decides to put his money and time into.

Polo is not an expensive sport, especially for beginners. The necessary equipment includes a helmet, bike and mallet. The club also tries to provide new players with the equipment they need until they are sure they are interested and can spend more money on upgrading gear and travel for the sport once they get more involved. 

“I've done a lot of things in my life, a lot of things, but there's nothing in the world that feels like playing polo,” Carver said. 

He described the game as a full-body exercise and something that combines incredible skill, danger, fun and silliness. 

Carver said he would tell anyone interested in playing to go for it. 

“It’s worth the challenge, cause it is going to be a challenge,” he said. 

He said it takes lots of skill and control to even play, let alone be good at it, but “once you score a goal, you’ll be hooked.”

“It's so much more than a sport, and it's so hard to describe,” Carver said. “The only way to describe it is to just get on a bike and try to score a goal, and then the rest is history.”


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