Dubbed "The Game of Kings" in sixth-century Persia, polo still conjures visions of manicured lawns, tight white breeches, and rows of gleaming horses.
Not so at a grubby little roller-hockey rink at Front Street and Washington Avenue.
"3-2-1-GO!" a voice bellows from the sidelines, and six polo players fly toward center court, racing to gain possession of the ball. Two players reach the center at the same time, scrabbling for control. A third player joins the fray, steals the ball, is catapulted through the air, and lands on the ground, mallet still in hand.
But in this game, nobody goes to catch the horse. The fallen player dusts himself off, collects his "steed" - a retrofitted, beat-up Schwinn - and pedals back into the game. This is hardcourt bike polo, and there's no time for licking wounds.
Or for extraneous rules. Although the game is a combination of equestrian polo and grass polo - a dignified, centuries-old bicycle game that even had a cameo appearance in the 1908 London Olympics - hardcourt functions on the less-is-more philosophy. The game's official origins can be traced back to about 1999 in Seattle, but details still are being ironed out.
"The game mutates with every new city it hits," said Peter Dalkner, 32, a mechanic at Trophy Bikes on Walnut Street. "Everyone brings a slightly different set of rules about game length, court surfaces, and regulations to the game, and they all meet somewhere in the middle. Usually."
Consequently, tournaments can be difficult to organize.
The game reached a milestone over Labor Day weekend, when Philadelphia hosted the Hardcourt Bike Polo World Championship at two recreation centers in Fishtown, a tournament that attracted nearly 50 teams from the United States, Canada and Europe. The tournament was the first bike polo world competition independent of the popular international Cycle Messenger World Championships, held around the world once a year. Back when the two events were merged, messengers would come to race, then stay for the polo.
"We didn't really take ourselves seriously - the goalposts were two beer cans, and it was basically just a lot of bike couriers messing around having fun," said polo player Montana Norvell, 30, who organized the Philadelphia tournament. Norvell is a former bike messenger who was part of the first wave of players to bring the game from Seattle in 2000.
The game itself is simple: three vs. three, score between the two cones, first team to score a predetermined number of goals wins. If you put a foot down, called "dabbing," you have to exit play and ride to center court, where you're required to ring a cowbell before re-entering.
The equipment is fairly simple as well, with a low-budget, do-it-yourself mindset. Mallets are made from heavy-duty PVC or polyethylene pipe screwed to a sawed-off ski pole. As very few players seem to know or care about the precise length of the mallet, they vary. Widely.
Bikes also are a hodgepodge, although most sport a rainbow of colors and brands that reflect the retrofitting necessary to create a competitive polo bike. That almost certainly means having a set of wheel covers - to prevent a ball, stick, or body part from wedging between the spokes.
While the funky - and accessible - fixer-upper culture of bike polo has aided the sport's growth, it's also caused a cultural rift between those who are serious players and those who just want to look cool doing it.
Until 2005, Taney Park on 25th between Pine and Locust Streets was a prime location, as anyone could show up with a handmade stick and a bike to play. Pickup games attracted many players and just as many curious spectators.
But then, Norvell said, the "courier kids" showed up, a group more concerned with emulating the urban-cool lifestyle and fashion of bike messengers than with playing serious polo. "And on any given night, upwards of 60 kids would show up to heckle new players or just cause trouble."
The serious players moved to the court under I-95 just south of Rizzo Ice Rink at Front and Washington. Games got faster, the court was smoother and completely enclosed, and the dedicated players had a higher-level game. But this location - considered the best surface for bike polo in the city - also means less access for new players.
"It's great that the level of play has improved," Norvell said, "but that makes it like swimming with sharks for new players who want to give it a try. So we're stuck in a tough spot for recruiting new players."
As a result, Philadelphia has earned a dicey reputation as a hardcourt city. East Coast players are more likely to gravitate toward the Lower East Side in New York, where a famous court called the Pit attracts traveling players to Chinatown. Ringed with bricks and recessed into the pavement, the Pit is renowned for its gladiatorial atmosphere, as spectators peer down at the games below.
Supplemented by out-of-towners, at least 20 to 30 locals play polo there each Sunday from noon until dark, said Doug Dalrymple, who is 44, according to his MySpace page, although he declined to confirm an actual number.
Dalrymple says players are conscious of cleaning up trash, and often help mulch the grounds in the spring. He describes the atmosphere as welcoming. Several women have joined the playing ranks, as well as one man in his mid-60s who works as a violin repairman on Long Island.
In the larger bike polo community, players still are debating whether or how to standardize rules and tournament play.
At the moment, qualifying games for tournaments are nonexistent - consequently, last week's world championships were played as an open-entry game. Rules also are in constant flux, as teams play on whatever surface is available - from basketball courts to tennis courts to hockey rinks to open lots with makeshift boards to stop the ball from rolling out of bounds.
Without a rule book, hosting tournaments is challenging, and it's difficult to attract sponsors (how do they know who the best player is?), which some players see as a viable - and necessary - option for the sport.
Although tournament entry fees generally range between $100 and $200, bikes require constant maintenance, and players who travel around the country spend approximately $1,000 a weekend for plane tickets, hotel rooms, and bike transport.
In the meantime, the laissez-faire attitude of the sport is a prime attraction.
"Everyone who plays has a good time, and you don't need any rules or regulations to figure that out," Dalrymple said. "You get out there on your bike, hit the ball around, get to be young, wild, and free because you don't have any referees blowing the whistle - it's just good old-fashioned fun and anyone is welcome to play."
One thing is consistent: Regardless of rules and regulations, the pavement still stings.